WASHINGTON -- Hockey players like to talk about having to weather a storm to win a game, especially on the road.
And, if the one the Penguins survived in the first half of the second period in their 3-2 victory Monday night against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center was a Category 5, it's only because there isn't a Category 6. Or a Category 15.
The Penguins had flown here from California a day earlier, but the travel didn't show in their play over the opening 20 minutes, when they built a 2-1 lead.
They didn't look like a team that had flown across the country in the first 10 minutes or so of the second period, either. They looked like one that had been forced to hitchhike. While walking backward.
Of the first 16 shots in that period, 15 were launched at Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff. And the play over the first 10 minutes or so might have been even more lopsided than those numbers suggest.
"They're a desperate team right now, and that was their push," defenseman Deryk Engelland said. "We didn't do a great job getting pucks deep. ... They're out of the playoffs right now, and they have to come out hard."
The Capitals did and managed to get a power-play goal from Nicklas Backstrom at 8:57 to make it 2-2.
But less than four minutes later, Penguins left winger Chris Kunitz swatted a Lee Stempniak rebound past Capitals goalie Jaroslav Halak for what proved to be the winner.
The Penguins got all of their goals from members of the Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Stempniak line. Kunitz scored two, Crosby one. Crosby also contributed a pair of assists, as did Stempniak, and was a force all over the ice.
"It was a very good game [for Crosby], in all aspects," coach Dan Bylsma said.
The victory raised the Penguins' record to 43-17-4 and moved them one point ahead of Boston in the battle for first in the Eastern Conference.
Although the Kunitz goal at 12:40 of the second period provided the margin of victory, the two points weren't secure until the Penguins killed off a too-many-men minor assessed at 17:43 of the third. While there's never a good time to take that kind of a penalty, doing so with less than three minutes remaining in a one-goal game against a team that owns the second-ranked power play in the league is particularly troubling.
"We can't get a penalty like that late in a game," Crosby said. "It just can't happen."
But it did, and it is unforced errors of that nature that frequently lead to man-advantage goals.
But the Penguins, who had given up a power-play goal to Backstrom, produced their third successful kill of the game, not allowing the Capitals to tie the score even after Halak had been replaced with an extra attacker.
"It's a dangerous power play," penalty-killer Craig Adams said. "It was interesting, but we were able to get the kill we needed."
The penalty-killers' willingness to sacrifice themselves to keep pucks away from the net had a lot to do with it. The Penguins blocked 20 shots, many while Washington had an extra man.
And, while their strategy of limiting the number of shots Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin and defenseman John Carlson got during power plays worked pretty well, there were times when that simply couldn't be avoided. At such times, extreme measures are in order.
Measures like absorbing a slap shot from Ovechkin, which Adams did during one short-handed situation in the second period. And which caused him considerable, obvious pain.
"You don't have time to think about it," Adams said. "You know that off the faceoff, if they win the draw, that's where the puck's going [to Ovechkin].
"Usually, honestly, it gets you in a good spot, and it's not too bad. But, every once in a while, it hurts more than other times."
Adams was able to shake it off. Whether the Capitals, in danger of sitting out the playoffs, will be able to do that with this defeat remains to be seen.
The first indication will come tonight in a rematch at Consol Energy Center.
"Everybody needs points, especially at this time of year," Crosby said. "You could tell they were playing desperate. We're going to expect much the same [tonight]."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published March 10, 2014 9:41 PM