Patric Hornqvist (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Penguins shut down the Washington Capitals’ stars, goaltender Matt Murray continued to stay hot and Patric Hornqvist scored the overtime-winner as Pittsburgh took home an overtime victory to grab a 3-1 series lead.
Thanks to Patric Hornqvist, the Pittsburgh Penguins are one win away from downing the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and advancing to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.
The teams traded goals through two frames with Jay Beagle and John Carlson finding the net for Washington and Trevor Daley and Matt Cullen responding for Pittsburgh, and played a back-and-forth scoreless third period that set up overtime for the second time in the series. And in overtime, it was Hornqvist who was gifted an incredible opportunity when Capitals defenseman Mike Weber, who was in the lineup in place of a healthy-scratched Nate Schmidt, made a nearly unthinkable error and poked a puck right into the Penguins winger’s wheelhouse.
Hornqvist made no mistake, firing the puck past Capitals netminder Braden Holtby for the win. Just like that, the Penguins skated away with a 3-2 victory in Game 4 and a 3-1 lead in the second-round series.
Even though it was Hornqvist who scored the game-winner, the play of Matt Murray should again be lauded. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan went with Murray, the 21-year-old who is riding an incredible hot streak, in Game 4 even with a healthy Marc-Andre Fleury sitting on the bench. And Murray delivered, even after it looked like a shaky goal to open the game could rock the netminder’s confidence.
After allowing the weak goal to Beagle early in the first period, though, Murray settled in. He proceeded to stop 33 of the next 34 shots he faced, getting beat only by a point-blank chance by Carlson late in the second frame. In overtime, he turned aside a 2-on-1 shot by Mike Richards, and not even one minute later, Hornqvist scored to end the contest. But Murray will almost assuredly speak to the play of the team in front of him as part of the reason he has played so well through four games. It's true, too. Pittsburgh’s ability to shutdown Washington’s top players shouldn’t go unnoticed.
The Capitals only have five points from the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov — their three leading scorers in the regular season — through four games. Ovechkin’s goal and two assists account for more than half of that output, and neither Backstrom or Kuznetsov have been able to find the back of the net. The Capitals don’t have only three weapons to choose from, but Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kuznetsov are no doubt Washington’s biggest threats. That the Penguins have managed to keep the trio's chances to a minimum bodes well going forward, and could make for an earlier-than-expected exit for the Capitals.
Game 5 won’t be any easier for the Capitals, either, as Pittsburgh’s star defenseman Kris Letang will be back in the lineup after serving his one-game suspension. Letang’s absence from the lineup in Game 4 gave Washington a clear area to attack, but the Capitals were unable to take full advantage of Letang’s suspension from Wednesday’s game. That could be the difference-maker in a series that has seen every game decided by a single goal.
The swing of the Game 4 win changes the outlook of the entire series now. For the Capitals, one bad bounce could cost them their season, while the Penguins can realistically wait for Washington to make a mistake, capitalize on their chances and ride Murray’s hot streak to one more win. The pressure is never off during the post-season, but a 3-1 series lead gives Pittsburgh a significant cushion as they continue to roll towards what could be another Stanley Cup-winning season in a campaign that saw a mid-season coaching change.