Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, right, hits Penguins center Evgeni Malkin as Malkin brings the puck up the ice during the first period in Washington.
By Jenn Menendez / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON — If this was a preview of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, what a series it would be.
The Penguins lost, 3-2, Tuesday night to the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center, finally making up their blizzard-delayed contest in a game with a very distinct playoff feel.
The Penguins (32-22-8) used their speed and puck possession to build a 2-0 lead before the Capitals (46-12-4) worked their way back into the game playing hard and physical to tie it, 2-2, after two periods.
Former Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen converted the winner, a power-play goal from the point at 13:38 with Evgeni Malkin in the penalty box for high-sticking.
“That would be a great series. Obviously we need to get in, though,” said forward Patric Hornqvist, who scored the Penguins’ first goal. “They’re heavy. They’re a good team. We can’t give them momentum like we did. That’s the bottom line.”
Yes, there is that whole getting into the playoffs thing.
The Penguins still occupy the second and final wild-card spot in the Eastern Division with the loss, but will chase more secure footing with 15 games left in March, and 11 more against division opponents.
The Penguins put together one of their most impressive periods of the season in the first, and were rewarded with a goal by Malkin at 6:14.
Malkin kept the puck on a 2-on-1 rush with Phil Kessel and faked a backhand shot before beating Capitals goalie Braden Holtby on the short side with a wrist shot.
Carl Hagelin had won the puck off a turnover in the neutral zone and sprung the odd-man rush.
“I thought we were real good in the first. We controlled territory. We had momentum. We got a lead. We did everything we wanted to do,” coach Mike Sullivan said.
After Malkin’s goal, Hornqvist made it 2-0 at 3:45 of the second, with his fourth goal in two days, but the Capitals were back in front within 39 seconds.
Mike Richards cut the Penguins lead to 2-1, when he turned and fired a shot through traffic that may have bounced off a body before beating rookie goalie Matt Murray.
Then Evgeny Kuznetsov tied it, burying a rebound off a wraparound attempt by Justin Williams at 16:03.
“We knew they were going to push back. They’re a good team. I thought there were momentum swings on both sides throughout the course of the game,” said Sullivan. “If we lose momentum, we’ve got to grab a hold of it. It starts with one shift, simplifying the process, getting pucks deep.”
The game marked Murray’s fifth start in goal this season, and first since he was recalled for the second time this year to serve as one of three goaltenders on the roster.
He finished with 34 saves.
“I was a bit nervous coming in, just obviously the caliber of their team,” said Murray. “But I thought I settled in nicely. A couple mistakes ended up in the back of the net. A couple times I was real close but just couldn’t make the save.”
Murray didn’t even see his first shot of the night until the 8:53 mark of the first period, but said that was of little issue to him.
The Penguins’ fourth line of Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Cullen and Bryan Rust had a standout first period in the offensive zone, generating 6 of 13 first-period shots while using their speed.
“That’s a playoff-like game so there’s going to be some momentum swings,” said Rust. “We needed to weather the storm, maybe not give up two, and maybe we come out on the other side of this one.”
Malkin was penalized for high-sticking at 12:45 of the third, which put the Capitals on the winning power play.
“You’ve got to try and stay out of the penalty box. I think their power play wins a lot of games for them,” said Sullivan.
Jenn Menendez: email@example.com and Twitter @JennMenendez.
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