By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH – Matt Murray has proven through six games that the big stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t too large for the rookie goaltender.
Murray came up big again with a career-high 47 saves as the Pittsburgh Penguins built a three-goal lead and held on for a 3-2 victory, withstanding a furious comeback from the Washington Capitals during Monday’s Game 3 of the Second Round playoff series at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“We sat back a lot more than we wanted to,” Murray said. “We can’t afford to do that against a team like that. They definitely had us on our heels most of the period.
“I think the clock was the only thing that helped us out at the end.”
Patric Hornqvist scored his fourth of the playoffs and Tom Kuhnhackl his second, both in the first period, while Carl Hagelin added his third as Pittsburgh held a 3-0 lead through two periods.
It was just enough thanks to Murray’s brilliance between the pipes.
Capitals’ captain Alex Ovechkin netted his fourth and Justin Williams scored his first of the playoffs in the final minute, as Washington carried a commanding 49-23 advantage in shots. But the Penguins escaped with the one-goal win and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series after a wild white-knuckle third-period ride that nearly saw Washington tie the game.
Game 4 is 8 p.m. Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
“He was the best player on the ice,” Hornqvist said of his goaltender. “Without him, there’s no way we win this game.”
Murray, making his sixth consecutive start, wasn’t rattled by a barrage from the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals or the presence of regular starter Marc-Andre Fleury, who served as the backup for the first time since suffering a concussion March 31 against Nashville.
“He was awesome all night,” said Fleury, who was cleared to return Monday morning.
“He made some big ones. Since he’s been with us, he’s had a great time with us.”
Murray coolly turned aside 47 shots, many quality opportunities in the first two periods as the opportunistic Penguins cashed in early. He stopped 19 more shots in the third with the Capitals’ desperately pressing for a comeback.
Murray wouldn’t let it happen, earning his fifth straight win and 12th victory in 13 starts. His only loss since March 6 came Thursday, an overtime defeat in Game 1 against the Capitals.
“At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is that we won,” Murray said. “I think that’s all you can look for.
“We need to put this one behind us pretty quick because we definitely weren’t good enough tonight.”
Both teams were without top defensemen on Monday as Brooks Orpik was suspended three games for his high, hard Game 2 hit on Olli Maatta that forced the Penguins’ blueliner out of the lineup with a concussion.
Penguins’ defenseman Kris Letang delivered a similar crunching shoulder in the first period of Game 3 against Capitals’ forward Marcus Johansson that could also result in suspension. The hit drew an interference call – like Orpik’s in Game 2 – and the Capitals let Letang know they weren’t happy by targeting the Penguins’ defenseman the rest of the night, including a slash after he left the penalty box.
“It’s playoff hockey right now,” Letang said. “In front of the net you’ll take a punch and take slashes all over the ice, but that stuff happens. Emotions are pretty high right now.”
Johansson, after sitting out the final five minutes of the first period, returned for the start of the second and tangled with Letang several times along the end boards.
Letang said he didn’t intend to injure Johansson – just step up and deliver a hit – and was glad to see him return. Johansson would like to see a suspension like his teammate Orpik. Pittsburgh is 2-8-1 this season without Letang.
“I didn’t see him coming,” Johansson said. “He came from the blind side. He obviously leaves his feet and hits me in the head. Those are the plays you want out of the league.”
Later in the second, Letang collided with Ovechkin sending both skaters to the ice. A nearby Nicklas Backstrom, while trying to avoid the fallen bodies, jumped and caught Letang with a knee to the back of the head, drawing the ire of the Penguins’ defenseman.
“They were saying I was staying down for no reason,” Letang said. “That stuff happens. It’s chirping in the game.”
Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan is tired of the back and forth.
“I really don’t have any interest in getting involved with ‘what do I think about this hit, or that hit,” Sullivan said. “It’s a real physical series, both sides and we can talk about these things after every game.
“Our team is just going to play hockey and that’s what we’re telling our players to do.”
T.J. Oshie registered a hat trick during the Penguins’ 4-3 overtime loss Thursday, but Pittsburgh recovered on Saturday for a one-goal win to even the series.
Pittsburgh lost Maatta in the first five minutes of Game 2, but still stifled the Capitals, limiting Washington to just 10 shots before holding on during a 14-shot third-period charge, allowing Eric Fehr to net the game-winner against his former team.
The Penguins scored two goals on their first three shots in Game 3 on Monday.
Hornqvist deflected a Trevor Daley slap shot that bounced behind Capitals’ goaltender Braden Holtby and Kuhnhackl gave the Penguins a two-goal lead a minute later. Matt Cullen’s two-on-one pass hit former Penguin Matt Niskanen before deflecting off Kuhnhackl and into the goal.
Hagelin gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead late in the second.
Phil Kessel intercepted a Capitals’ clearing attempt and sent the puck to Nick Bonino, who deked around Holtby at the top of the crease.
Hagelin beat out Capitals’ D Nate Schmidt and got a stick on Bonino’s centering pass in the slot for the goal. The line has four of the Penguins eight goals in the series.
Washington carried the play from there, holding a two-to-one advantage in shots, but Murray kept the Penguins in front for good.
“We got the win and that’s all you can really look for,” Murray said. “Obviously, we need to put this one behind us pretty quick because we definitely weren’t good enough tonight.”
NOTES: Penguins F Bryan Rust left in the first minute of Game 3 after blocking a shot. … Derrick Pouliot took Maatta’s spot in the lineup, playing for the first time since the regular-season finale at Philadelphia. … Pittsburgh won 19 of its last 24 games at home. … Bonino is riding a five-game point streak and Hagelin is at four. … Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin played in their 108th career playoff game, surpassing Mario Lemieux. Only Jaromir Jagr played more in team history.