WASHINGTON â€” When Sidney Crosby wasn’t beating the Washington Capitals putting the puck through his legs, he was doing it belly down on the ice.
No matter the unconventional plays or style of game, Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins are rolling after beating the Capitals 6-2 in Game 2 Saturday night to take a 2-0 lead in the second-round series between the NHL’s top two teams. Crosby set up two goals and Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel each scored two as Pittsburgh chased reigning Vezina Trophy winner and finalist Braden Holtby to go home in total command.
“I think we’ve got a gritty group out there, scrappy,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s not perfect by any stretch out there. We’re aware of that, we know that. But what I love about this group of players is that they respond the right way and they’ve shown and ability to do that time and time again and I think this group finds ways to have success.”
Success came in the form of another brilliant outing from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 34 of the 36 shots he faced, including 16 in the first period. Sullivan called Fleury the Penguins’ best player, and even with Crosby’s four points through two games he’s not wrong.
Holtby has not been on his game for the Capitals and was pulled after allowing three goals on 14 shots. Barry Trotz could go back to Holtby in a crucial Game 3 Monday night in Pittsburgh after backup Philipp Grubauer allowed two goals on the first four shots he faced in relief.
That’s as big a game as Washington will face as just 18 of the previous 87 teams to lose the first two in a best-of-seven series have come back to win, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“I thought some of the goals he wasn’t as sharp as he can be for us,” Trotz said of Holtby. “He’s a game-changer for us. When he didn’t change the game, I just looked to change the mojo a little bit there, that’s all.”
Fleury hasn’t been the Penguins’ backbone, serving as the backup to Matt Murray during their Stanley Cup run last year and splitting the duties with the young goalie this season. But the 2009 Cup winner is one of the biggest reasons they’re up 2-0 as he has stopped 67 of 71 shots through two games.
“I’m really enjoying this time right now,” a smiling Fleury said. “I don’t try to overthink stuff, just try and enjoy the game. It’s fun to win.”
Winning despite being outshot is becoming commonplace for the Penguins, who got opportunistic offence in the form of a short-handed goal from Matt Cullen to open the scoring and then a tip from Evgeni Malkin in the third period that ended any thought of a Capitals comeback. Washington outshot Pittsburgh 36-21 but has nothing to show for it.
The Penguins on the other hand are getting comfortable playing like this after beating the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games in the first round.
“I think that’s the biggest thing for us,” said Guentzel, who scored on a 2-on-1 and with an empty net and leads the playoffs with seven goals. “When we get those chances, we bear down and those are key goals for us.”
Crosby was a one-man goal generator in Game 2. He put the puck between his legs and drew Alex Ovechkin and two defencemen to him before feeding Kessel for his first goal, then got down to block Justin Williams’ shot and advanced the puck for a 2-on-1 rush from the ice on Guentzel’s goal.
While Crosby brushed that off as a “broken play,” Fleury called it a great butterfly move by a guy he knows likes to play pretend goaltender. And Kessel wasn’t even surprised to see Crosby make a highlight-reel play.
“You watch it all year, he does that all the time,” Kessel said. “You see him out there I think he’s the strongest guy in the league on his skates and he knocks the guys off. You always got to be ready.”
NOTES: Grubauer finished with two goals on nine shots as Trotz said it was too early to name a Game 3 starter. … Sullivan didn’t have an update on RW Patric Hornqvist, who left the game in the first period after blocking a shot from John Carlson. … LW Carl Hagelin returned to the Penguins’ lineup after being out since March 10 with a lower-body injury. He replaced Scott Wilson. … RW Paul Carey replaced Brett Connolly in the Capitals’ lineup. … Washington D Karl Alzner remained out with an upper-body injury, though coach Barry Trotz said Alzner was close.
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press