Go­ing about their busi­ness

Pen­guins re­ly­ing on grit, de­fence to take con­trol ver­sus Cap­i­tals

Cape Breton Post - - Sports - BY WILL GRAVES

The Pitts­burgh Pen­guins were a puck-hog­ging, icetilt­ing blur last spring, over­whelm­ing op­po­nents with an avalanche of shots and sus­tained of­fen­sive pres­sure that ended with the fran­chise’s fourth Stan­ley Cup.

A year later, the faces in the lineup — save for two very no­table ex­cep­tions — are largely the same. But the Pen­guins are go­ing about their busi­ness in a much dif­fer­ent way.

The group that earned a grimy 3-2 vic­tory on Wed­nes­day against in­creas­ingly baf­fled Washington in the Eastern Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals spent most of the night com­fort­ably buried in its own end. Pitts­burgh blocked 24 shots while steer­ing net-front traf­fic away from goal­tender Marc-An­dre Fleury to take a 3-1 se­ries lead as star Sid­ney Crosby watched in a suit while re­cov­er­ing from a con­cus­sion.

“We win games dif­fer­ent ways,” coach Mike Sul­li­van said. “Some games we win block­ing shots and killing penal­ties. Other games we win off our coun­ter­at­tack or power play.”

In Game 4, it was a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing. Washington went 0 for 4 with the man ad­van­tage. Pitts­burgh’s first goal came on a Pa­tric Horn­qvist break­away set up by a beau­ti­ful stretch pass from Olli Maatta.

The sec­ond was cour­tesy of a take­away that ended with Jake Guentzel’s cross­ing pass smack­ing off Washington de­fence­man Dmitry Orlov’s skate and into the net.

The third was a laser by Justin Schultz on the power play just past the mid­way point that gave the Pen­guins the lead for good.

Throw in an­other spec­tac­u­lar per­for­mance by Fleury and a lock down third pe­riod in which the Cap­i­tals only man­aged to get eight shots all the way to the net and Pitts­burgh is on the verge of elim­i­nat­ing the Pres­i­dents’ Tro­phy win­ners for the sec­ond straight sea­son and the ninth time in 10 play­off meet­ings.

And the Pen­guins did it with­out Crosby, who is out in­def­i­nitely after tak­ing a cross-check to the head from Washington’s Matt Niska­nen early in Game 3. Crosby skated with a hand­ful of team­mates dur­ing a sched­uled off day on Thurs­day, but Sul­li­van of­fered no timetable on his cap­tain’s re­turn. Game 5 is Satur­day.

“He’s in the process of re­hab­bing and we’ll just leave it at that,” Sul­li­van said. “It’s a dayto-day process.”

So is the chameleon-like evo­lu­tion of his team, seem­ingly game to game. Sul­li­van has preached speed since the mo­ment he ar­rived in De­cem­ber 2015. Pitts­burgh re­cov­ered from an early sea­son malaise to sprint through the 2016 play­offs, where it av­er­aged 34.8 shots a game while al­low­ing just 28.

Hav­ing a skilled group that in­cludes Crosby, Ev­geni Malkin, Phil Kes­sel and Kris Le­tang cer­tainly helped. So did an in­flux of young legs. The Pen­guins in­ces­santly skated and chased, poke-checked and darted. It al­lowed them to lead the NHL in goals this year while post­ing the sec­ond-best record in the league even with Le­tang lost for the sea­son in Fe­bru­ary, part of a rash of in­juries along the blue line that forced Sul­li­van to mix and match.

Yet the team that is 7-2 so far in the play­offs is play­ing a far more con­ser­va­tive brand of hockey, a byprod­uct of miss­ing the puck-wield­ing, minute-hog­ging Le­tang.

Pitts­burgh is av­er­ag­ing 29.2 shots per game so far while giv­ing up 37.3. Throw in the 22.6 shots the Pen­guins are block­ing be­fore they get to Fleury and that’s ba­si­cally a shot a minute. And still Pitts­burgh has been firmly in con­trol through­out the first three weeks of the play­offs.

Fleury’s re­mark­able play cer­tainly helps. So does the work of the men in front of him. And he knows it.

“It was a hard game to play,” Fleury said after mak­ing 36 saves in Game 4. “They come hard and they have good skill. I thought our guys stuck with it all game long.”

AP PHOTO

Pitts­burgh Pen­guins’ Bryan Rust (17) can’t get a wrap around shot past Washington Cap­i­tals goalie Braden Holtby with Alex Ovechkin de­fend­ing dur­ing Game 4 in an NHL Stan­ley Cup Eastern Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nal hockey game in Pitts­burgh on Wed­nes­day.

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