PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins scored a big Game 3 victory that may also come with a heavy cost.
Rookie goaltender Matt Murray shined in a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night, which gave the Penguins a 2-1 series lead, but it was the potential loss of defenceman Kris Letang that almost overshadowed the end result.
Letang delivered an elbow to the head of Capitals winger Marcus Johansson in the first period, a play that will surely catch the eye of the league's disciplinary office.
Patric Hornqvist, Tom Kuhnhackl and Carl Hagelin all beat Washington goaltender Braden Holtby in the Penguins win, the 26-year-old Vezina trophy candidate enduring his worst night of the post-season. He surrendered three goals on only 23 shots.
Murray made 47 saves to improve to 6-1 in the post-season. Alex Ovechkin and Justin Williams both scored in a furious Capitals comeback that fell short.
Hornqvist's fourth goal of the playoffs opened the scoring in a raucous atmosphere at Consol Energy Centre.
The play started when a Sidney Crosby scoring chance was blocked in the slot, the puck floating high in the air before it was retrieved by rookie winger Conor Sheary. Sheary dished to Trevor Daley at the point, the veteran defender winding up for a blast that Hornqvist got a stick on.
It was the first goal and point of the series for the Penguins winger, who had five points in the first round against New York.
Pittsburgh scored again exactly one minute later, another rookie making a contribution on the goal.
Kuhnhackl, a 24-year-old first-year player from Germany, drove down the middle of the ice to the front of the net where Matt Cullen's passing attempt pinged off Washington defender Matt Niskanen and then off him and in behind Holtby.
The animosity between the clubs heightened late in the first period when Letang drilled Johansson. The 29 year old, averaging almost 30 minutes a game in the playoffs, caught the Swedish winger with an elbow to the head area just after Johansson released a pass as he entered the offensive zone.
The Swede, who has seven points in the playoffs, lay face-down on the ice with little movement before the play was eventually whistled down. He was helped off the ice by a team trainer, returning for the start of the second period. Letang was called for interference on the play.
It wasn't done there for the Capitals though.
Washington winger Daniel Winnik pursued Letang with a hit and slash a few moments later, while the edgy Tom Wilson delivered a few choice words of his own. Among the leading scorers on defence in the NHL this season, Letang could face supplementary discipline for the check, a result that could further damage the Penguins defence.
Pittsburgh played Game 3 without 21-year-old Olli Maatta, who was decked with a crushing hit in Game 2 by Capitals defenceman Brooks Orpik. Maatta sat out with an upper-body injury while Orpik served the first game of a three-game suspension, replaced by Dmitry Orlov.
Letang played 28 minutes in Monday's victory.
Earlier in the day Capitals coach Barry Trotz suggested that Orpik's suspension was unnecessarily harsh.
"I'm disappointed, but I'm not surprised based on who we're playing and all that," Trotz said, content to let others draw their own conclusions from his remarks.
Murray held the Capitals at bay as the Penguins mostly stood still on their lead. The 21-year-old, who continues to fill in for injured No. 1 Marc-Andre Fleury, shut down a Johansson chance early in the second period, blocking every possible angle a bit later on a blocker stop of Capitals centre Mike Richards.
Pittsburgh increased its lead to three with five minutes to go in the second on the fourth point of the series from Hagelin. The Swedish winger capitalized on pair of pretty passes. Phil Kessel picked off the outlet attempt of Capitals defenceman Nate Schmidt to start the play, his dish to Nick Bonino priming a set-up to Hagelin charging the crease.
It was the third goal to beat Holtby, who entered the evening with a playoff-leading .957 save percentage, also the NHL's wins leader (48) during the regular season.
Ovechkin was the first to beat Murray, scoring about eight minutes into the period. He was joined by Williams with 54 seconds left in regulation, the playoff veteran depositing a rebound off an Ovechkin shot that hit the post.
The series continues with Game 4 on Wednesday night.
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press