PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The Pittsburgh Penguins keep finding ways to win games at home. The Washington Capitals keep finding ways to lose them in general.
No wonder the Metropolitan Division race is practically over before the Olympic break.
Olli Maatta’s shot from the top of the left circle beat Michal Neuvirth with less than 2 minutes remaining and the Penguins rallied by the Capitals 4-3 Wednesday night. Maatta’s fourth goal of the season gave Pittsburgh its only lead as the Penguins won their 13th straight home game, a club record.
“We kept going,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “We stuck with it there. It’s tough to scratch out and come from behind, but this group is continuing to show we can win different ways.”
Even on a night when Sidney Crosby was limited to a single assist, Pittsburgh expanded its lead over Washington and Philadelphia to a whopping 18 points in the newly created Metropolitan.
Jussi Jokinen, Taylor Pyatt and Kris Letang also scored for the Penguins. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 25 shots to pick up his NHL-leading 27th victory.
Alexander Ovechkin’s 34th goal of the season gave Washington a 3-2 lead midway through the third period, but the Capitals collapsed over the final 10 minutes. Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera also scored for Washington, which lost for the seventh time in nine games. Neuvirth made 33 stops, but didn’t see Maatta’s blast from the point with 1:54 left.
“I think we played today great,” Ovechkin said. “We made a couple mistakes, but every period we got the lead. Unfortunately, we lost the game, we lost the point. I don’t think we deserved to lose tonight.”
Maybe, but it tends to happen to opponents who step onto the ice at Consol Energy Center.
Pittsburgh’s current 13-game run is one better than the 12-game run the franchise put together from Feb. 22-March 30, 2013. The Penguins are 31-3 in their last 34 regular-season games on home ice.
“It’s a tough place to play, our building, and even though it didn’t go our way at times … we fought back and it’s a great way to get the 13th win,” Bylsma said.
Three times the Capitals took a one-goal lead. Three times the Penguins answered.
Ovechkin put Washington up 3-2 with 8:35 left with a remarkable goal. The Russian star had his stick smacked out of his hands during a Washington rush then scrambled to pick it up just in time to receive a pass from teammate Marcus Johansson. Fleury was no match for Ovechkin’s wrist shot as the weary Capitals appeared ready to end a busy stretch with a needed win.
The momentum didn’t last.
Brandon Sutter threaded a beautiful backhand pass through the crease to Jokinen for the Finnish Olympian’s 13th goal of the year 11:35 into the third before Maatta, a 19-year-old rookie who also will play for Finland in Sochi, provided the most electric moment of his breakout season.
Evgeni Malkin fed Maatta at the point and instead of blasting a one-timer Maatta faked a shot then skated to the top of the left circle, where his shot went through a screen before finding the back of the net.
“I’ve been working on (the shot fake),” Maatta said. “It makes me more unpredictable.”
So was a game between longtime rivals who could see plenty of each other in the spring under the NHL’s new division and playoff format.
Over much of the first two periods it was difficult to tell which team was coming off a shootout loss in a different building the night before and which one was playing for the first time this week.
Washington has one of the game’s top power plays, but Laich provided a short-handed tally when he took advantage of a turnover by Letang to ignite a two-on-two break that ended with Laich all alone in front of Fleury. A flick of Laich’s wrist later the Penguins were trailing, a rarity during their run of home dominance.
Letang atoned 9:53 into the second period, ending a Pittsburgh rush by taking a deft drop pass from Crosby and throwing a puck at the net that deflected off two Capitals before sneaking by Neuvirth to tie it. Crosby’s assist extended his home points streak to 17 games, the second-longest of his career.
Chimera put Washington back in front less than five minutes later, easily tapping in a centring pass from Marcus Johansson. Pittsburgh pulled even with 3:52 left in the second as Pyatt scored for the first time since April 23, 2013, when he was a fourth-line forward for the New York Rangers.
Maatta did the hard work, faking a shot from the point then skating around a fallen defender before setting Pyatt up in the left circle.
NOTES: The Penguins have won seven of the last eight meetings between the teams. … Pittsburgh F Craig Adams played in his 254th straight game, tied for the fourth-longest streak in club history. … Ovechkin has 23 goals in 33 regular-season games against Pittsburgh. … Crosby leads the NHL with 68 points.