(The Sports Xchange) - The Pittsburgh Penguins do not have a goal yet in the series from Sidney Crosby. Or a power-play goal. What they do have is a 2-1 lead over the Washington Capitals.
And a player who barely played in the first five months of the season is the reason.
Rookie goalie Matt Murray made 47 saves while standing up to Capitals’ avalanche of shots, and the Penguins turned two goals a minute apart in the first period into a 3-2 victory on Monday in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
“It’s about winning right now, and he is definitely playing well,” Crosby said of Murray, who has won 12 of his last 13 starts.
Coach Mike Sullivan agreed, saying, “I thought he (Murray) was terrific. They had the puck all night -- and we didn‘t. They outplayed us in a lot of aspects of the game.”
Game 4 will be on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Patric Hornqvist and Tom Kuhnhackl scored before the midpoint of the first period, and Carl Hagelin added a goal in the second to make it 3-0 and the Penguins, the NHL’s best team over the last two months, held on to top the Capitals, easily the league’s best team all season.
Alex Ovechkin scored his first goal of the season against the Penguins in the third period, and linemate Justin Williams scored in the final minute as the Capitals tried frantically to rally.
However, it was not enough as the 21-year-old Murray, the youngest Pittsburgh goaltender to ever win in the postseason, improved to 5-1 in the playoffs.
“You come here for a split, you’re hoping for a split, they got one and now it’s our turn. Excuses are for losers, and we’re not losers and we’re going to try to improve in Game 4,” Williams said.
Murray’s saves were the most by a Pittsburgh goaltender in a regulation-length playoff win.
“That’s the way things are going to go sometimes,” Murray said of the Capitals’ huge shot advantage. “We can’t worry about it. We’ve got to keep going forward and keep getting better as we go along.”
Murray, who began the season in the minors and played only four NHL games until March, made the difference as the Penguins were outshot 49-23 yet still controlled the scoreboard even as the Capitals controlled the stats sheet.
The Penguins, on the fringe of the playoff race much of the season, have won 20 of 24 games since March 8 -- with Murray in net for 11 of the wins -- and are 6-2 in the postseason.
Capitals goalie Braden Holtby made 20 saves.
At least statistically, the Capitals were dominant from the start except in the number most important: goals.
They doubled up the Penguins in shots for most of the first two periods -- it was 28-14 after two -- yet Murray turned away scoring chance after scoring chance.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang appeared to be in the center of everything, and a pair of stretch passes by him led to two goals in exactly a minute.
Letang, who played a remarkable 35:22 in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 win in Game 2 on Saturday, threw the puck up ice to rookie Conor Sheary to start a 3-on-2 break. Defenseman Trevor Daley’s slap shot from the high slot deflected off Hornqvist’s stick and into the net at 6:37 -- Hornqvist’s fourth goal in eight games.
The Penguins kept the pressure on, and this time a Letang pass from deep in his zone began a 2-on-1 break, with 39-year-old center Matt Cullen’s pass from the left circle deflecting off rookie Kuhnhackl and past Holtby.
Later in the period, Letang leveled Capitals left winger Marcus Johansson with an apparent shoulder hit to the head, putting Johansson out of the game briefly.
“It’s the playoffs, it’s a lot more physical than the regular season,” Letang said.
The hit angered the Capitals, who are without suspended defenseman Brooks Orpik through Game 5 for his Game 2 hit to the head of Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta, who sat out on Monday.
“I didn’t see him coming, (and) he hit me from the blind side,” Johansson said. “I just looked at it (on video), and he left his feet and hit me in the head. That’s the kind of plays you want out of the league. It doesn’t look good.”
Asked if Letang should also receive a suspension, Johansson said, “Yeah, I’d say so.”
Several Capitals players later went out of their way to hit Letang, who was upset himself after Nicklas Backstrom clipped him with a knee to the head following Letang’s hit on Ovechkin late in the second.
“Certainly it does (make you mad), when you see one of your own players on the ground, it’s going to upset you,” Backstrom said. “We want to try to hit him (Letang) all the time ... he played 35 minutes the last game.”
However, while the Capitals were getting their shots, it was Pittsburgh that took advantage of its best scoring chances. Hagelin made it 3-0 at 15:03 of the second, knocking Nick Bonino’s backhand pass to the crease across the goal line.
“We got the lead early and kind of sat back,” Letang said.
Or exactly what the Capitals know they cannot do Wednesday -- sit around and expect goals to come from a lineup filled with scorers.
“We’ve got to score more goals, and I’ve got a feeling we’ll do it Wednesday,” Backstrom said.
Editing by Peter Rutherford