PITTSBURGH — During a brief break in the ongoing siege, the Penguins’ hatches battened yet hardly secure, Ian Cole went thwacking through their personal garden on a mission of thanks. As he cruised across the Pittsburgh crease, Cole passed Marc-Andre Fleury, the goalie who carries the appropriately sunny nickname “Flower,” who similarly spent the bulk of Wednesday night lugging his teammates on his skinny shoulders. “Keep going,” Cole told him, thumping Fleury’s pads with his stick. The din at PPG Paints Arena drowned out the words in real time, so Cole later relayed the gesture’s gist: “Enough can’t be said for how much he’s stepped up.”
Then again these are the defending Stanley Cup champions, infinite in their capacity to cycle between different heroes. How surprised can we really be? Absent their workhorse defenseman (Kris Letang), their third-leading goal-scorer (Conor Sheary), and their starting netminder during last spring’s run (Matt Murray)–not to mention, of course, the world’s best player in concussed captain Sidney Crosby—the Penguins still managed to scratch a 3-2 win from the Capitals and assume a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Thirty-six saves from Fleury undoubtedly helped. So too did a playoff-leading eighth goal from Jake Guentzel, with an assist to the unfortunately angled skate of Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov. And a penalty kill that snuffed four disadvantages, and the game-winning sizzler from Justin Schultz in the second period, and some serious team-wide survival hockey during the third.
And on and on and…
“That’s what I think jumps out at me with our group right now—their willingness and their commitment just to compete and defend and do what it takes,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I’ve said this all along, what I’ve really admired about this group of players we have is their compete level allows them the opportunity to find ways to win games...I think that says something about the character of our group, and the leadership within our dressing room.”
Down the hallway, the Capitals trudged toward their team bus to combat the prospect of another too-early summer, three-straight wins their only path toward reversing such consistently torturous fortune. Game 5 is Friday night at Verizon Center. Nothing else is guaranteed. “Our backs are against the wall,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Next game is the most important game of the year. If we don’t have the urgency that we need in that game, then we won’t earn the right to keep playing. Plain and simple. We have to wrap our arms around the reality of that.”
The reality: Yes, the Capitals roared back from Orlov’s error by striking twice within 72 seconds to tie the game at 2-2 and hush the cacophony. Yes, they outshot Pittsburgh by 20 total, pelting as many pucks on-goal as their hosts attempted altogether (38). But they also took six offensive-zone penalties in Game 4, the last coming with less than two minutes left when T.J. Oshie was whistled for a (quite likely phantom) high-stick on Nick Bonino along the end boards. They endured self-diagnosed struggles from captain Alex Ovechkin and, according to Trotz, the rest of “our top guys…[who] weren’t as good as we needed them to be.”
They are an hour of hockey away from the end of the road.
The Penguins can hardly claim crisp execution, either. Aside from a nifty wraparound chance from forward Bryan Rust, who shook aside Ovechkin below Washington’s goal line before bolting to the far post, Pittsburgh spent the final 10 minutes chipping pucks from its zone, surviving icings, playing hot potato with a hand grenade. “We’d definitely like to have the puck a little more than we did, especially from when we got the lead until the end,” defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “We defended hard, defended well. Wasn’t like we were giving up breakways out there or odd-man rushes, but definitely on our half of the red line more than we want to be.”
"I still think we could play a cleaner hockey game," Cole said. "That being said, the competitiveness of this team, the desperation that guys in this locker room showed out there, and obviously having a fantastic goaltender helps."
Outside of that 1:12 in the second period, when center Evgeny Kuznetsov slung a wrister past Fleury and defenseman Nate Schmidt pumped a one-timer from the left faceoff circle, the goalie called Flower was fully bloomed. Midway through the third, he stuffed Lars Eller twice with his left pad at close range before snow-angeling atop the puck to freeze it. He shrugged aside two deep drives from Matt Niskanen, the ex-Pittsburgh defenseman-turned-public enemy for his Game 3 cross-check on Crosby.
“Could talk for a while,” Hainsey said of Fleury, “he’s made so many key saves at key times.”
Across the dressing room carpet, Fleury looked all talked out. As the English-language scrum dissipated, shooed away by a Pittsburgh public relations official, Fleury leaned back in his stall and heaved a deep sigh. Nearby, a French-Canadian reporter waited to chat in Fleury’s native tongue. It was up to the official to break the news. “You’re not done yet,” she gently told Fleury.
So he smiled and kept going.