Penguins battle through gritty Game 4 to pull level with Capitals

Jake Guentzel scored two goals and the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals in Game 4 to even their best-of-seven series.

PITTSBURGH — Evgeni Malkin smiles and calls it “garbage.” He says it “was not a pretty goal.” He shakes his head, just thinking about that game winner, sitting here in his stall with a Penguins ball cap covering his sweaty, dark hair.

And, well, you can’t blame the two-time Art Ross Trophy champ if his standards are a tad high.

Malkin also has a point, because his fourth goal of these playoffs—the one that led to the win that knotted the Penguins’ second-round series against Washington at two games apiece on Thursday night, in front of a boisterous crowd dressed in yellow ‘Let’s go Pens!’ t-shirts—was absolutely huge, but it wasn’t your usual Malkin finish.

The 31-year-old wired his initial shot off the post, then threw himself into the net and used seemingly all his body parts to get that puck across the line. Somehow, at some point, it did go in, though Malkin doesn’t know how or when.

Garbage, sure, “but it’s good,” Malkin admits, smiling. “It’s 2-2 and we’re going to Washington.”

Yes, with a 3-1 win on Thursday at PPG Paints Arena, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions have tied this thing up and earned themselves a best-of-three against the Capitals to decide this Eastern Conference semi-final. It’s a whole new ball game.

It was a gritty win, too. Jake Guentzel nearly ate a goal post after potting his first of two on the night, Matt Murray was exceptional between the pipes, and Kris Letang traded punches with T.J. Oshie—who laid a big hit on him earlier—at the end of the game.

Alex Ovechkin? He didn’t manage a single shot, a day after his usual linemate Tom Wilson got a three-game suspension for a high hit the league deemed directed at a head. Crosby didn’t get a shot either, though the captain did register a pair of assists.

And who got the Penguins on the board? Well, who else: The leading scorer in the playoffs. Guentzel, the 23-year-old from Omaha, Neb., with the wispy blonde playoff whisker beard, who also potted the empty-netter.

It brings his playoffs scoring streak to eight games, and his points total to 21, including 10 goals.

After this game, Guentzel, wearing a Penguins grey hooded sweatshirt, sits at a podium for interviews—the kid warrants that much attention, after all, that a scrum in the dressing room would’ve been out of hand. He shakes his head when asked whether he’s been on a streak like this one, ever.

“I don’t think so,” Guentzel says. “I mean, just kind of feel like the bounces are going in right now, you’re just getting lucky on some plays in front of the net. Puck’s finding me. You just got to try and be around it and hopefully they keep coming.”

They really do keep coming. Guentzel is the first player to register 20 points or more in 10 playoff games since Mark Messier (in nine) in 1988, per Sportsnet’s stats department.

And Guentzel’s first of the evening, mid-way through the second after a scoreless first, is right in line with how the playoffs are going for him: Dominik Simon’s shot hit a Capitals shin pad and the puck landed right on Guentzel’s stick, right on the doorstep. He put it through Braden Holtby’s legs and then had a delayed celebration on account of having to pick himself up from the side of the net following a healthy cross check delivered by defenceman Dmitry Orlov.

Guentzel didn’t seem too bothered. He stood up and raised his arms, said “Good goal,” and grinned while his teammates hugged him

A little over three minutes later, the Capitals tied things up when Oshie wired a one-timer from the slot, glove side—the only shot to beat Murray, who was exceptional following a game he called “shaky” two nights earlier.

But Malkin got that lead back near the end of the second, striking on the power play with a goal that was celebrated about three times—first on the initial reaction from his shot that rung off the post (it looked like it went in), then on the review deeming it was good, and on a second review from Washington (a question of interference from Patric Hornqvist) that came back with the same result.

The play began when Phil Kessel fired one through traffic, before Hornqvist kicked out the rebound to Malkin in front.

“It’s not me,” Malkin says, who caused that game winner. “It’s [Hornqvist]. He’s unbelievable. He stayed in front. He takes the rebound and gives it to me right away. It’s unbelievable. I see right away the right side and try to shoot quick like how I can, and get the puck to go in.”

When it didn’t on that first shot, Malkin made it on his second or third or fourth, amidst a pile of players.

“When I’m standing on the ice, I think it’s no goal,” Malkin says. “I not see puck across the line. I was so mad, because it was a good chance to score.”

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Crosby assured him it was in, but only when the play was reviewed and the referee pointed to centre ice, at which point this crowd exploded, waving yellow towels furiously, did Malkin believe it.

After that final review, Capitals goalie Holtby shook his head, while the crowd chimed in with their ‘Holt-by!’ chants.

“Hornqvist was whacking my pad, not even close to the puck,” Holtby says. “Not really sure why that’s allowed, then drives himself right into my hip, so I can’t push up and defend the far side of the net. It’s frustrating because you don’t really know what the call is. You don’t know what’s allowed or not, but you just fight through it. It’s a play where if we want to be successful, we need to fight through that and make up for it with good things. We just came up a little short tonight.”

Holtby had left his net when Guentzel potted his second goal of the night, sending this crowd into another ‘Let’s go Pens!’ tizzy. Guentzel’s 21 points tie his total from the playoffs last year, now just 10 games in.

The kid has played in 35 playoff games, and in five of them, he’s scored two or more goals.

“Yeah,” Guentzel says, shortly before he exits the podium. “It’s definitely a good feeling.”

No kidding, Jake.

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