Surging Penguins sink Caps
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t the team they were most of the season, or even just a few weeks ago. They’ve got a surging Sid, an impressive streak — and a lot more speed.
Penguins rookie Tom Kuhnhackl had a goal and two assists, and Pittsburgh surged back with four consecutive goals to manhandle the NHL-leading Washington Capitals 6-2 Sunday night and move up the standings.
The Penguins, clinging to the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot less than two weeks ago, won their season-high-tying sixth in a row to climb past the New York Rangers and into the Metropolitan Division’s second playoff slot via tiebreaker. They won seven of eight during a nine-game run against division opponents and 10 of 13 overall.
“We felt like we’re playing real good hockey,” said Penguins center Matt Cullen, Kuhnhackl’s linemate, who added a goal and an assist. “All these games ... you have to look as them as potential playoff matchups. And that’s brought out the best in us.”
Defenseman Trevor Daley added a goal and two assists and Sidney Crosby had two more assists, extending his scoring streak to 12 games. The Penguins also held NHL goal-scoring leader Alex Ovechkin without a point for the fourth consecutive game this season and stopped a three-game home-ice losing streak to the Capitals.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan credited his third line — Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Bryan Rust — with not only with scoring three goals, but shutting down the Ovechkin line.
“We played them hard, made it tough of them and got a couple of goals on the forecheck,” said Kuhnhackl, who had his first career three-point game.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz said, “We had some guys who weren’t strong, and you can’t do that against a team that’s trending well. They’re the hottest team right now. They were in a playoff mode and we weren’t.”
The Penguins, relying on an across-the-board upgrade in team speed that occurred when they added players such as Daley, defenseman Justin Schultz and winger Carl Hagelin and called up multiple players from the minors, constantly beat the Capitals up ice to start odd-man breaks that led to goals.
“They got everything off turnovers, odd-man stuff — that’s obviously their strength, and we’ve got to be stronger in that area,” Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said.
To Sullivan, that wasn’t by coincidence.
“We think our core guys want to play a fast game,” Sullivan said. “(Speed) has to be our competitive advantage. That has to be the foundation of our identity.”
Kuhnhackl, playing in only his 32nd career NHL game, gave Pittsburgh the lead at 3-2 in the second period with his third goal, then made a stretch pass that led to Cullen’s 12th of the season early in the third. Cullen’s shot deflected off Holtby’s back and rolled into the net.
Crosby, now on his fourth career 12-game scoring streak, later hit Kunitz to create another break that led to the winger’s 16th of the season and a 5-2 lead that caused Trotz to pull Holtby, who made 21 saves. Schultz, an offensive defenseman, scored his first with the Penguins to finish off the team’s three-goal third period.
Marc-Andre Fleury made 16 saves, overcoming his own giveaway that led to a Capitals goal. He needed to make only 32 saves to beat the Flyers and Capitals on successive days.
Washington backup goalie Philipp Grubauer stopped four of the five shots he faced in relief.
The Capitals, owners of the NHL’s best record and already assured of making the playoffs, overcame a 2-0 deficit by scoring twice in the second period — starting with a goal that bounced off Jason Chimera’s helmet and into the net as Fleury was trying to clear the puck from in front of the crease.
Later, after a pair of scrums less than two minutes apart, the Capitals tied it seconds after they had three men in the penalty box. Andre Burakovsky got loose on a short breakaway created by Jay Beagle’s up-ice pass and beat Fleury cleanly for his 16th goal.
Kuhnhackl, who had only one previous multi-point game in 32 games this season, restored the Penguins’ lead only 42 seconds later at 15:54 — going to his left knee to beat Holtby from the right circle off Cullen’s pass.
The Penguins took a 2-0 lead in the first period against Holtby, who allowed only four goals in his four most recent starts against them.
Rust grabbed Kuhnhackl’s backhand pass, skated across the crease, then turned and beat Holtby inside the far post at 8:23 for his fourth of the season.
Just 1:26 later, Daley matched Crosby’s excellent cross-ice pass with a just-as-good shot — kicking the puck to his stick and deftly beating Holtby over the shoulder and under the crossbar for his sixth goal.
NOTES: Penguins G Marc-Andre Fleury started back-to-back games for just the eighth time in four seasons. He made 16 saves Saturday as the Penguins won 4-1 in Philadelphia. ... Capitals coach Barry Trotz is tinkering with line changes down the stretch, such as RW T.J. Oshie switching to the second line, because he wants skaters on different lines to be familiar with each other in case they need to play together during the playoffs. ... Capitals D John Carlson (lower body injury) missed a 12th consecutive game Sunday but could return Friday at New Jersey. ... The Capitals scratched D Taylor Chorney, C Michael Latta and RW Stanislav Galiev. ... Pittsburgh did not dress D Ben Lovejoy, D Derrick Pouliot, G Jeff Zatkoff and two injured players, C Evgeni Malkin and C Scott Wilson. ... Pittsburgh also won six in a row from Oct. 24-Nov. 6 under former coach Mike Johnston.