OTTAWA — Sidney Crosby put his first stamp on the Eastern Conference final.
The 29-year-old came alive in Game 4 with a goal, an assist and five shots as the Pittsburgh Penguins topped the Ottawa Senators 3-2 on Friday night. Crosby had been quiet with just a single goal and six shots total in the first three games of a series that’s now even at two with Game 5 ahead in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said his ever-injured group has demonstrated a knack for responding which starts with the captain.
"I think he leads by example and I thought he had one of his best games tonight," Sullivan said. "But it doesn’t just stop with Sid, it goes down the bench."
And into the crease, too.
Matt Murray, Sullivan’s surprise choice to start Game 4, was terrific when called upon in his first start in more than six weeks. The 22-year-old justified Sullivan’s decision to turn back to him in the crease over Marc-Andre Fleury, who had performed brilliantly before a shaky four-goal outing in Game 3 on Wednesday night.
Murray helped the Pens survive an early storm at Canadian Tire Centre.
He made a strong stop on Mike Hoffman less than two minutes into the game and then denied Viktor Stalberg on a pair of follow-up opportunities. The Thunder Bay, Ont. native came up with maybe his finest save of the first on a Derick Brassard backhand, kicking the shot away with his right pad.
"It’s not an easy thing to do," Murray said of starting for the first time since April 6 following a lower-body injury which sidelined him for most of the post-season. "(But) all I can really do is kind of jump in and try not to think about it. Just try and play with the flow of the game and kind of let yourself get lost in the game a little bit."
Pittsburgh jumped in front in the 19th minute on an innocent-looking Olli Maatta shot set up by Crosby, who had an urgency to his game that was lacking in Games 1-3. After drawing a roughing penalty on Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Crosby made his presence felt yet again midway through the second on the ensuing power play.
He stationed himself right on the doorstep to Craig Anderson’s left with his right leg hugging the post. Crosby said he was trying to be as big a target as possible and make sure that Jake Guentzel’s seam pass didn’t slip through.
He didn’t score on the initial shot, but banged in the follow-up for the 2-0 lead. Brian Dumoulin would later increase the Penguins lead to three.
"Any time your leader steps up like that it really trickles down and lets everybody know that we’ve got to make another level push to win a game," veteran Pens winger Chris Kunitz said.
The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Crosby jumped up to third in playoff scoring this spring with the two-point outing (17 points in 15 games) and drew even with Bernie Federko for 10th all-time with 1.11 points per-game in the post-season (154 points in 139 games).
Senators head coach Guy Boucher sensed increased desperation from the Penguins, which he said, was to be expected. Boucher thought his group, which had held the highest scoring team in the regular season to three goals in the first three games, was lacking that same pep and sharpness.
Pucks were bobbled and the energy just weren’t there to the degree of earlier efforts. Pittsburgh managed to find speed that was lacking previously and generate quality opportunities in tight around Anderson.
Ottawa’s late push, which saw Tom Pyatt make it 3-2 with five minutes left, ultimately fell short.
"They were the better team tonight for two periods and they deserved the game," Boucher said.
Notably ineffective in the loss was the power play, which went 0-4. The unit hasn’t scored even one in the last nine games, going 0-25. Often, the Sens struggled just to get the puck in-zone and when they did they managed little that Murray couldn’t handle.
"It’s just a little frustrating right now," Sens captain Erik Karlsson said. "They’re doing a good job in controlling our breakouts and when we get it we don’t really get the opportunities that we want."
Ottawa’s power play ranked 23rd overall during the regular season.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has another injury to deal with on the back-end after Chad Ruhwedel suffered a concussion. The 27-year-old was crunched into the boards on a dangerous hit from Bobby Ryan, one that drew a penalty only on Ian Cole, who throttled Ryan in retaliation.
The Pens are already without No. 1 defender Kris Letang for the season and have played the last two games without Justin Schultz, who led the defence with 51 points during the regular season.