Stanley Cup playoffs three stars: Penguins prove mettle, giving Capitals no choice but to do the same

Absent Sidney Crosby, Conor Sheary, Kris Letang and Matt Murray, Pittsburgh once again has its biggest rival on the brink of elimination.

No Sidney Crosby, no problem.

The seriously short-handed Penguins, supposedly dead in the water without their concussed captain, have the rival Capitals on the brink of elimination thanks to a gutty 3-2 victory Wednesday in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series.

Crosby wasn't the only one absent from the lineup. No Conor Sheary, his linemate. No Kris Letang, the Penguins' top defenseman. No Matt Murray, their starting goalie.

And now the fully healthy Capitals, winners of back-to-back Presidents' trophies, but little else, have run out of excuses. Alex Ovechkin hasn't scored a goal since Game 1 and mustered but two shots on goal this time. Braden Holtby, who next month might become a consecutive Vezina Trophy winner, faced only 18 shots but allowed three goals.

"I didn’t play my game at all," Ovechkin said Wednesday. "I think, me personally, I have to play much better."

Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who was short on answers, added: "We need to get an extra goal. We need to get an extra save."

Pending unrestricted free agents T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk could play their final games in a Capitals sweater in Saturday's Game 5 without impacting the series save for Shattenkirk's Game 4 overtime winner.

Oshie hasn't scored a goal since April 21 and was responsible for the Caps' sixth offensive-zone penalty of the game with less than two minutes remaining. Upon further armchair review, his stick never touched the face of Nick Bonino, who fooled officials with a world-class sell job that would be near impossible to discern in real time.

Nevertheless, the high-sticking call canceled plans to pull Holtby for a 6-on-5 last-gasp effort and a chance to avoid what almost inevitably will come next.

Should the Capitals lose this weekend, it would be Pittsburgh's ninth series win against Washington in 10 chances all time, including the third time in the Crosby-Ovechkin era. It's the same predicament they were in this time last year when the Penguins opened a 3-1 series lead and won in six games.

In fairness, the NHL's best regular-season team has run into the best playoff story in Marc-Andre Fleury.

The veteran netminder was sensational in turning aside 36 of 38 shots. To date, he's Pittsburgh's unquestioned MVP and he will be on another team's roster in a few months.

Pittsburgh's win, most importantly, allows Crosby time to fully recover from concussion symptoms that can be so tricky, so temperamental. There's no sense of urgency to have him in the lineup for Game 5 or even Game 6 if it comes down to that. The Penguins proved their mettle; now the Capitals are forced to do the same.

"We'll see what we are made of," Oshie said after Wednesday's loss. "That's a good question for us. It's been the question everyone has been asking for a couple years."

Three stars

3. Jake Guentzel, Penguins — Guentzel scored the Pens' second goal and assisted on their third as he continues to score at an an almost unprecedented rate for a rookie in his first postseason. The 22-year-old has 12 points in nine games. His eight goals lead all playoff scorers, making him the first rookie to score that many in his first nine playoff games since Maurice "Rocket" Richard in 1944.

2. Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks — Getzlaf has been a force to be reckoned with all playoffs but that was especially true in Anaheim's 4-3 Game 4 victory. He scored twice — the first two-goal game out of 112 in his playoff career — and added two assists, including the helper on Jakob Silfverberg's overtime winner. The captain also passed Teemu Selanne to become the Ducks' all-time postseason goals leader with 36.

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins — Fleury stood on his head and that's the main reason Pittsburgh won. Plain and simple. He's faced 142 shots in the second round and has stopped all but eight.

Gotta see it

Drake Caggiula's goal with 1:42 remaining in regulation forced overtime, but a red-hot Jakob Silfverberg wasted little time tying the series with his seventh goal of the playoffs just 44 seconds into the extra frame. Silfverberg has five goals in the series with at least one in all four games against the Oilers.

MORE: Stanley Cup playoffs three stars: Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers won't go down without a fight | NHL playoffs 2017: Jay Beagle, Phil Kessel to settle feud in Mario Kart battle

Thursday's game to watch

Game 4: Rangers at Senators, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Senators lead series 2-1) — The Rangers finally looked like the Rangers that had 103 regular-season points in Game 3, scoring at will and getting top-notch goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist. Question is, will it carry over? Ottawa once again has a chance to put a stranglehold on the series.

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