PITTSBURGH — Both teams had scored touchdowns — and extra points — so sudden death overtime had to settle it. The next goal would really be the winner.
And after a goal-scoring clinic, a bounce decided it. A shot by Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary was initially stopped but then slowly dribbled past the goal line after going off the skate of Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen just 34 seconds into overtime, lifting the Penguins to an 8-7 win and snapping the Capitals’ season-best nine-game winning streak.
Was that one of the crazier games Justin Williams has been a part of in his 16-year career?
“Yep. Mm-hmmm,” the Capitals forward said.
“Yeah, that’s safe to say,” Capitals center Lars Eller agreed.
The Capitals had been up by three, then were suddenly down by two, twice, before storming back to tie it, twice. Goal scoring in the NHL has steadily declined, but someone forgot to tell Washington and Pittsburgh on Monday night.
“It was like a 1988 Smythe Division game out there, I think,” Williams said. “Not something we want to do.”
Said Niskanen: “Score seven goals, that’s probably a pretty dang good night. I don’t know. A lot of stuff going on in that game. There was emotion — it got a little chippy for a while, physical, some moments in the game where we couldn’t even get out of our zone and a few points where we absolutely dominated, too. I don’t know. A lot of stuff, all in one.”
Sidney Crosby’s third-period goal gave the Penguins their second two-goal cushion. But in a game where a trip to the restroom might have caused you to miss two goals, there was no chance a 7-5 lead with 14:05 left in the third period would last. T.J. Oshie promptly punched in a rebound on a power play, and then the madness was extended with an Eller wrister on a marathon shift with 5:22 left in regulation.
Following the second-period action could have caused whiplash. When Evgeni Malkin completed a hat trick with three goals in that period alone, Pittsburgh fans were delayed in tossing hats onto the ice in celebration of the feat, probably because it had been difficult to keep track of the flurry of scoring and who had provided it.
Washington entered the game with the NHL’s top defense, shutting out four of its previous six opponents and not allowing an even-strength goal in nearly 299 minutes of even-strength ice time. That run ended in a blaze of red goal lights, as the Capitals suddenly allowed five unanswered goals in 8:09 in the second period.
“When it went bad, it went really bad,” Eller said. “A little sloppy on a couple of plays. You give them just a little space, they’re going to take advantage, and they did.”
Washington Coach Barry Trotz said he thought his top-six forwards were outplayed by the Penguins’ top two lines, something he attributed to building fatigue after the team played on Sunday afternoon and has had a game every other day this month.
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby entered the game undefeated in his previous five starts with a .978 save percentage and a 0.60 goals against average, having allowed just three goals since Jan. 3. By the time the second period was over, he was on the bench in a baseball cap, yanked in favor of goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who had a shutout against Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon.
Washington was up 3-0 before the Penguins tied the game with three goals in 2:27. Malkin’s one-timer got the Penguins’ scoring started followed by a Sheary tip-in of a Crosby pass. A Justin Schultz shot bounced off Nick Bonino’s chest in front, landing at his feet for him to shoot past Holtby from point-blank range to tie the game.
More bounces went against the Capitals, and Pittsburgh took a lead when Bryan Rust’s backhand pass from behind the net went off Alex Ovechkin’s skate and then past Holtby. Malkin then scored his second goal 50 seconds later, triggering the benching of Holtby.
“The first goal, I feel I should have all the time,” Holtby said. “The second goal is a great play by them, then three weird goals after that while I was in there. I’ve been saying that the past little run we’ve been on, we’ve had luck go our way for the most part. Tonight, it kind of all came at once. We just couldn’t stop it after that.
“We battled back and got a point, which is great, but it shouldn’t have gotten to that and Grubi shouldn’t have had to go in. It was my fault.”
Suddenly down two goals, the Capitals responded. Brett Connolly tipped in a Taylor Chorney slap pass 15:07 into the second period, and then Eller scored a shorthanded goal, a fittingly quirky way to tie the game.
But then with 2:41 left in the second period, Malkin scored his third goal, on the power play, to restore a Pittsburgh lead and cap a wild nine-goal second period. The game was still far from over.
“Just stay in it because you know the next shot might go in,” Williams said.