PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins spent the first three months of the regular season looking tired, lethargic, blah.
Then the calendar flipped to January and the urgency the Penguins lacked for long stretches as they slogged through their opening 40 games returned. So did the goals. Now they’re coming bunches and so are the wins. And suddenly a legitimate shot at a three-peat doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched after all.
Phil Kessel scored twice and picked up an assist, Evgeni Malkin had two goals and two assists, and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions pulled away late for a 7-4 victory over the Washington Capitals on Friday night.
"Now we feel so much better, we enjoy playing," Malkin said. "We know we can score so many goals."
Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist also scored as the Penguins won their fourth straight to draw within four points of first-place Washington in the crowded Metropolitan Division. Sidney Crosby had two assists to push his scoring streak to 11 games, the longest active streak in the NHL.
Matt Murray stopped 29 shots for Pittsburgh, which won its seventh consecutive home game by jumping on the Capitals before using a four-goal outburst in the third period to fend off a Washington comeback thanks in part the NHL’s top-ranked power play. The Penguins scored three times with the man advantage, including twice in the third on goals by Rust and Malkin.
"In all my years around this league, I haven’t been around a group as dynamic as this," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.
Alex Ovechkin scored twice to push his season total to an NHL-best 32 and Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetzov also scored for the Capitals, but Washington couldn’t keep pace.
Braden Holtby finished with 27 saves but gave up three goals in the opening 8 minutes of the third period before being pulled in favour of Phillpp Grubauer as Pittsburgh broke open a tight game.
"We can play better," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "We were a little loose with the puck at times, so it’ll be a good lesson for us."
The Penguins improved to 10-3 since New Year’s Day, a stretch in which they’ve climbed from 10th in the Eastern Conference to within striking distance of Washington with still two months to go before the post-season.
The prospect of another potential playoff showdown looms, even if the outcome tends to be one-sided when the longtime rivals meet in the spring. Their seemingly annual post-season series usually ends with the Penguins skating on to the next round while Washington wonders how it let it get away once again.
While it’s far too early to panic or even project, the Capitals understand they can’t give up three power-play goals and go 0 for 3 with the man advantage and expect to keep pace.
"When we play 5-on-5, we have a better chance," Ovechkin said. "I think our power play has to get better, for sure. You can’t get that many chances and not know how to score, not know how to play at this stage."
Pittsburgh never trailed and never wavered after the Capitals erased 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 deficits. Kuznetzov tied it at 3 when he flipped a bouncing puck in the slot by Murray 11:57 into the second to give Washington a shot at picking up its seventh victory this season in a game in which it trailed by at least two goals.
Not this time. Malkin put in his own rebound 1:01 into the third to put the Penguins back in front. Ovechkin evened it just 49 seconds later after a slick cross-ice feed from Kuznetzov, but Pittsburgh simply kept on coming.
Rust picked up his third goal in his last two games to put the Penguins ahead to stay, Kessel followed with his second of the night and 23rd of the season to chase Holtby. Malkin finished the outburst with his team-leading 28th of the season, 14 of which have come since Jan. 1.
NOTES: Hornqvist left in the third period with a lower-body injury after being hit by Washington D Brooks Orpik and did not return. Hornqvist will be re-evaluated on Saturday and will not travel with the team when it faces New Jersey on Saturday night. … Pittsburgh F Carter Rowney played 9:05 in his return after missing a month with an upper-body injury. … The Penguins scratched D Chad Ruhwedel, D Matt Hunwick and injured F Conor Sheary (lower-body). … Washington scratched D Taylor Chorney and F Jakub Vrana.
Capitals: Host Las Vegas on Sunday.
Penguins: Face the Devils for the first time this season on Saturday.