By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Penguins’ forward Nick Bonino went from one of the worst moments of his hockey career to the greatest.
Bonino’s delay of game penalty was part of a wild third-period sequence that allowed the Washington Capitals to rally from a three-goal hole and force overtime.
But Bonino rebounded in a big way with the goal that eliminated the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals and advanced the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Bonino scored the game-winner at 6:32 of the first overtime as the Pittsburgh Penguins finished off the Washington Capitals with a 4-3 victory during Game 6 of their Eastern Conference playoff series Tuesday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“It’s the best feeling in the game,” Bonino said. “To win a series and have your teammates around you in the corner… it felt great.”
It was the fifth one-goal game of the series between the Penguins and Capitals and 13th in the last 16 playoff meetings between the two teams.
Bonino’s third career playoff overtime goal sent the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in nine seasons and first since 2013 when Pittsburgh was eliminated by Boston. Pittsburgh will play the Tampa Bay Lightning, which finished the New York Islanders in five games.
Jay Beagle initially kept the Capitals’ season alive early in the overtime when he dove across the crease and blocked a Patric Hornqvist shot in front of a partially empty net. Bonino came through soon after helping the Penguins eliminate the Capitals for the eighth time in nine playoff meetings.
Bonino admittedly still had chills coming off the ice after he scored the game-winner.
“You really can’t put it into words right now,” Bonino said.
Phil Kessel, from the corner, centered to linemate Carl Hagelin, whose shot was stopped by Capitals’ goaltender Braden Holtby. Bonino was at the top of the crease to slip the rebound behind Holtby for the series win.
“(Kessel) and (Hagelin) went to work down low and I just went to the front of the net and let them cycle,” Bonino said. “The puck always ends up (in front of the net) and I was able to get a stick on it. It wasn’t pretty, but they’re usually not pretty.”
Kessel scored his fourth and fifth of the playoffs, while Hagelin added his fourth for the Penguins, who appeared to put the game away in the second period when they scored two power-play goals in 33 seconds, converting both ends of a Brooks Orpik double minor for high sticking.
But the Capitals, down 3-0 in an elimination game, weren’t finished.
T.J. Oshie scored a late power-play goal in the second period and Justin Williams tallied early in the third to pull the Capitals within one.
Pittsburgh desperately tried to cling to the 3-2 lead, but three straight delay of game penalties – including one from Bonino – proved too much. The Penguins killed one five-on-three disadvantage but John Carlson tied the game with a slap shot from the point after Ian Cole was called for delay of game, the team’s third in two minutes.
“That was the worst feeling I think I ever had in hockey,” Bonino said. “That’s something you’ll never see.”
Orpik, who returned Tuesday after serving a three-game suspension for an illegal hit on Olli Maatta in Game 2, was sent to the box for high sticking Hornqvist in the second period.
The Penguins, 1-for-16 with the man advantage through five games, didn’t let the opportunity slip away.
Chris Kunitz held the puck in the zone along the blueline and got it to Kris Letang, who sent the puck low to Kessel. Kessel darted to the net and stickhandled around Holtby’s outstretched left pad, tucking the puck into the net for a 2-0 lead.
But the Penguins weren’t done.
Maatta, out for three games with a concussion because of Orpik’s hit, swept a wrist shot to the net and Hagelin came away with the deflection in front making it a three-goal game.
Penguins’ 21-year-old rookie goaltender Matt Murray allowed two goals in the third period, but rebounded to make 36 saves for his seventh win in nine games. Murray won his seventh straight home game as Pittsburgh hasn’t lost at Consol Energy Center with the rookie goaltender since a December shootout loss against Toronto.
Pittsburgh jumped out to a 3-1 series lead and needed two tries – and then some – to finish off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals. The Penguins clinched their second straight series at home, improving to 11-3 all-time in series when they hold a 3-1 lead.
Capitals’ captain Alex Ovechkin set the tone early in Game 5 with a goal and an assist for the second time in three games as Washington fought off elimination with a two-goal win at home.
The Capitals continued to press in Game 6, even when they were down by three goals but Bonino finished the job for the Penguins.
“You always have to stick with it,” Kessel said. “They’re a good hockey club. You know they’re going to push, but we got it done in the end.”
Pittsburgh also got it done largely without captain Sidney Crosby and star center Evgeni Malkin contributing on the scoresheet. Crosby registered just two assists and 14 shots during the six-game series, while Malkin had a goal and an assist. Malkin went the final five games without a point and hasn’t scored since the first game of the series.
Thanks to Bonino, and a deep roster of supporting cast members, the two superstars will have a chance for more in the Eastern Conference finals.
“It shows the depth of our team,” Bonino said. “We’ve had it all year. We had it even scoring with (Crosby) and (Malkin), but lines are chipping in at the right time to get the job done.”
NOTES: Pittsburgh hasn’t lost back-to-back home games since December and the Penguins haven’t dropped consecutive games overall since a pair of January overtime defeats. … The Penguins are 45-0-0 when leading after two periods. … Pittsburgh won 21 of its last 26 games at home. …The Penguins are 2-0 at home this season when they can eliminate an opponent and 4-1 all-time at home in Game 6 when they have a chance to clinch a series.