PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins have stayed afloat by showing a remarkable ability to rally late. Forced to protect a rare third-period lead, they didn't let the opportunity go to waste.
Tristan Jarry made a series of big stops late and a pair of empty-net goals by Zach Aston-Reese and Sidney Crosby helped the Penguins pull away for a 6-3 victory over the somewhat rusty Washington Capitals on Sunday.
Pittsburgh entered the game having been either tied or trailing going into the third period in each of their first 12 contests. Nursing a one-goal advantage this time around, the Penguins held their ground to stay unbeaten at PPG Paints Arena (5-0), with three of those wins coming against the rival Capitals.
"There was a lot to like," Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan said. "We competed hard."
Bryan Rust scored twice — including a second-period power-play goal that ended an 0-for-20 stretch with the man advantage — and added an assist. Brandon Tanev and Jake Guentzel also scored for Pittsburgh, which has won two straight. Jarry made 28 saves and assisted on Aston-Reese's empty-netter with 1:03 to go that finally put Washington away.
It's been a bumpy start for Jarry, an All-Star a season ago who has found himself sitting for long stretches thanks to the steady play of backup Casey DeSmith. DeSmith, however, was unavailable due to a non-COVID-19 related illness. Jarry made sure emergency call-up Maxime Legace wasn't necessary.
"Hopefully Tristan should gain some confidence off of this," Sullivan said. "He certainly should. It was a solid performance by him."
Nicklas Backstrom collected his 250th career goal for Washington and Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov also scored, but the Capitals looked a little off while playing for the first time in a week thanks a series of COVID-19-related postponements.
Vitek Vanecek finished with 32 stops but Washington — finally at full strength after three-plus weeks of COVID-19 roster disruptions — remained winless this month (0-4).
"I think overall, we're trying to play hard and trying to do the right things, but seems like we're doing the same mistakes over and over again," Backstrom said. "These easy goals against us. It's just an area we have to get better on."
Kuznetsov showcased the firepower of the NHL's top-ranked power play when he knuckled one by Jarry just 5:18 into the first, but the Penguins — who have grown comfortable playing from behind — recovered when Rust and Tanev beat Vanecek 32 seconds apart later in the first period to give Pittsburgh the lead.
Rust later ended Pittsburgh's seven-game power-play goal drought when he took a pretty feed from Kris Letang and stuffed it short side past Vanecek 6:44 into the second period to put Pittsburgh up 3-2. Guentzel then flicked a rebound by Vanecek just past the game's midway point to give the Penguins their first two-goal lead in a regular-season game since March 10, 2020.
The somewhat comfortable margin didn't last long.
Backstrom drew Washington within one with 2:11 left in the second period when he lifted the stick of Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin and snuck a shot by a surprised Jarry. Backstrom became the 39th active player to reach 250 career goals and his heady play highlighted another shaky afternoon by Malkin, whose play has been uneven at best.
Pittsburgh, however, appeared to wear down the Capitals in the third after Jarry withstood a flurry midway through the period. The Penguins controlled the closing minutes, with Aston-Reese and then Crosby flipping the puck into the empty net 15 seconds apart to give Pittsburgh its first win by multiple goals this season.
TOP OF THE CHARTS
Pittsburgh's top line of Crosby, Rust and Guentzel combined for eight points and have been the team's one constant during the opening month.
"I know from playing against them, that it's terrible when you're on the ice against them," said Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson, in his first year with the team after spending five seasons in Florida. "They're just so good down low and they attract so much attention and so good at supporting each other and making little passes to each other and getting open for each other."
The Capitals insist they're fine despite the skid, though their defense could use some work. Washington has allowed 22 goals during its current losing streak.
"We're losing," defenseman John Carlson said. "No one's accepting that, but I think our game is getting better. It feels like we're going longer stretches of playing the right way, of denying them the right way."
LONG NIGHT FOR OVI
Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin recorded an assist and three shots but did not score a goal in 25:46 of ice time. A number the 35-year-old logged thanks in part to extended shifts on Washington's four power plays.
The teams meet for the last time at PPG Paints Arena in the regular season on Tuesday night.
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