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Penguins take 3-1 series lead without Crosby

Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 36 shots, Justin Schultz scored the game-winner and the defending Stanley Cup champions held off the Washington Capitals 3-2 on Wednesday night in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Revenge is a puck best served blocked.

That is exactly how Marc Andre-Fleury saw Wednesday night’s game four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Washington.

“The best way we make them pay is by winning,” Flower so aptly put it.

The Penguins did just that, using another stellar performance from its netminder, and corralling just enough goals to take down the Capitals 3-2 at PPG Paints Arena.

Pittsburgh now carries a 3-1 eliminator advantage. 

The game avenged the vicious crosscheck to the head Sidney Crosby took by Matt Niskanen, which forced the captain to miss Wednesday’s game due to a concussion.

“It’s nice it, gives us more confidence,” said Justin Schultz, who scored the game-winner on a man-advantage with 11:24 left in the second period.  “We knew we had the guys in this room to get the job done,” said Schultz.  “Obviously Sid is a big part of this team, and we miss him out there, but like I said we have the guys in here that can get the job done and we showed it tonight.”

The Pens, who came into the game a +120 underdog due to Crosby’s absense, scored first when Patric Hornqvist split two defenders at the blue line after a gorgeous center ice pass from Olli Maata, finishing over top Barden Holtby, making for one of the loudest goals ever to be scored in the building, with a raucous crowd continuing to pepper the goaltender with chants of his last name.

Maata put together his best performance of the postseason, as the defenseman finished +2 with 18:16 ice time, contributing mightily to the Penguins staving off all four of Washington’s power play chances.

“I’m just getting more confident and that’s a big thing,” said Maata.  “I just want to play solid defense and just play my own game.  Don’t worry too much about it, don’t think too much out there, because when you get too hesitant and you miss even .01 seconds that’s a big thing on the ice.”

Jake Guentzel added his own fortuitous finish early in the second period, scoring on a deflection off of Dmitry Orlov, marking the rookie’s league-leading 8th goal of the postseason.

While scoring offense made an early statement, net control was the name of the game, and Fleury served as the catalyst to the finely-tuned consistent defense, stuffing 35 Caps’ chances, including eight in the 3rd period.

“I think Marc has played extremely well and he has elevated his game at an important time,” said Mike Sullivan.  “He’s a competitive guy and a Stanley Cup winning goaltender, and he’s showing it.”

In a span of 1:12, the Capitals managed to tie things at two—prior to Schultz’s goal—thanks to a Nate Schmidt one-timer that followed an Evgeny Kuznetsov twine-tapper. 

The Penguins and Fleury managed to stop the next 23 shots put on net, including an incredible game-saving stop at 10:50 in the third period, with Fleury getting his right leg the length of the net to stop a centering Lars Eller three times from knocking it in at the crease.

“I think it’s more right now we have to find an extra way to get an extra goal, and get an extra save,” said Washington Coach Barry Trotz.  “I didn’t think our top guys really stepped up today.”

Alex Ovechkin put together the most brutal campaign for the Caps, reaching the penalty box twice, and adding just two shots on goal, but had six hits in 19:37 of ice time.  Niskanen finished -1 with four shots and one hit in a Caps’ high of ice time at 24:53.

“I thought it was a gutsy, gritty, scrappy game for our group, and I think our guys personified that,” said Sullivan.  “I loved our compete level and our stick-to-it-ness when we get on our heels, and our willingness to defend the right way.  What this coaching staff admires about this team is their ability to find different ways to win games.”

“I thought everybody was together and we showed a lot of character throughout the game,” Flower said.  “We played big defensively and got our goals, had good offense, and it was a great team win.”

Game Five goes back to Washington on Saturday.  Puck drops 7:15 at Verizon Center.

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