Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals tasted defeat for a fourth consecutive game as the Pittsburgh Penguins saw a 6-3 victory improve their home record to 5-0-0. The teams went head-to-head for the first of two meetings this week at PPG Paints Arena, and the first Caps game in a week after their past three games had been postponed due to covid protocol.
Tristan Jarry got the nod in goal, and got another win under his belt after what has been a challenging season for the netminder. The 25-year-old made 28 saves on 31 shots and had a save percentage of .903. The Surrey-native also added an assist on a Zach Aston-Reese empty-net goal. Despite allowing three goals, none of them were high-quality scoring opportunities, but rather defensive errors due to sloppy play in their own end. Overall, an encouraging performance from the goaltender.
The game began with the Caps lethal powerplay striking early against the Pens struggling penalty-kill. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s second goal of the season put the Caps in front at 5:18 of the first period. A pass from the left circle took a deflection off the stick of Mike Matheson and trickled past Jarry. However, it did not take long for the Pens to flip the switch after back-to-back quick goals from Bryan Rust and Brandon Tanev put the team in front 2-1. Mike Matheson made a beautiful pass cross-crease to find the red-hot Rust backdoor for a tap in to tie things up at 10:29. Under a minute later, Brandon Tanev found space in front of the net to bang in a poorly controlled rebound kicked out by Vitek Vanecek and put the Pens in front.
The second period was action-packed, but a rather sloppy period for the black and gold, as just three minutes into the frame, Jakub Vrana scored a gift from Jarry who poke-checked the puck directly into his path after saving a TJ Oshie wrap-around. However, once again, Bryan Rust came up clutch and had the answer scoring a very rare powerplay goal for the Pens, his second of the game and fifth of the year after Kris Letang made a great pass to find him open down by the goal line. Four minutes later, Jake Guentzel continued his fine form and got on the scoresheet, with an assist from none other than the aforementioned, Bryan Rust. Late in the period, Caps centerman Nicklas Backstrom took advantage of an Evgeni Malkin giveaway in front of his own net, and backhanded it past Jarry to cut the lead to one.
The Pens slammed the door shut in the third, and added two empty-net goals courtesy of Zach Aston-Reese, his second goal in as many games, and Sidney Crosby, who scored from his knees after being hooked down by Tom Wilson to seal the deal with a 6-3 victory.
Coach Mike Sullivan assessed the win: “I thought it was a solid effort. I thought we competed hard. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch. The second wasn’t our best and we took a lot of penalties. But there was a lot to like, too. The powerplay took a big step.” The coach also praised the Guentzel-Crosby-Rust line saying that they have been “dominant” this year.
Rust has continued to lead the charge upfront as he added another two goals and an assist to cap off another successful night. The 28-year-olds powerplay goal in the second period improved the Pens struggling powerplay to 23rd in the league (15.4%), going 1-2 on the night.
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“We didn’t have a great second. I thought in the third, we pushed back a little bit more. We defended hard. Kept pucks in the Ozone. Had a few good chances. Good hard period overall.” said Rust postgame.
On the defensive side of the game, Kris Letang seemed to have finally re-found his groove after several poor performances early in the season. Mike Matheson, acquired from the Florida Panthers in the offseason also played his best game as a member of the team last night, tallying one assist and finishing the night plus-3 after playing 21:55 of ice-time, third-highest among Pens d-men behind Letang and Marino. Despite heavy criticism throughout last season and early this year, Cody Ceci had an encouraging game for the team, finishing the night with two assists, a plus-3 rating, and three blocked shots in just over 17 minutes of ice-time. If the Penguins’ back-end can continue to build off of these steady performances and consistently play well, they will surely move up in the standings and compete in the fight for the top spot in this competitive division.
Ceci on the Pens victory: “I think one of the difference makers was special teams. We did a better job on the PK and got one on the PP. Other than that, I thought we played pretty well 5-on-5. They’re a big, strong team and we tried to match that. We got it done in all aspects of the game.”
The two teams will be back in action at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday night at 7PM EST. The Pens (7-5-1) look to extend their impressive home record as they sit in fifth place in the division, while the Caps (6-4-3) sit in fourth, and look to break out of this four-game losing skid.
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