Penguins rout Capitals, collect 6th consecutive victory

Bill West
| Sunday, March 20, 2016, 9:06 p.m.

True to the style of hockey he learned in Germany, Penguins winger Tom Kuhnhackl gave little thought to who to punch or shove when play between his team and Washington turned hostile in Sunday's game at Consol Energy Center.

“There's no fighting at all,” Kuhnhackl said of the sport in his homeland. “It's a big difference.”

Pirouettes in pivotal moments came more naturally to the 24-year-old winger, who turned in the best offensive performance of his still-young NHL career during the Penguins' 6-2 win over the Eastern Conference-leading Capitals.

In just his 32nd NHL game, he twice spun his way into decisive scoring sequences. One swirl set up the Penguins' first goal of the night. The other came just seconds before he buried what ultimately served as the winner.

“To be honest, I don't know where that (spin move) came from,” Kuhnhackl said. “I think I changed my game the last couple years to be more defensively reliable, and I think I've done a pretty good job of that lately. I'm glad the offensive part came back tonight.”

Kuhnhackl's three-point effort — just four games after his first multi-point performance in the league — underscored the importance of the team's many newcomers, who refused to let rivalry-driven hostilities distract them from the all-important pursuit of two points in the standings.

The Penguins, winners of six straight, tied the New York Rangers for second place in the Metropolitan Division with 88 points.

“Our pushback is through our play,” Sullivan said. “And what's most important is between the whistles. I think all of our guys, to a man, did a real good job in that regard.”

The Penguins roared ahead on the strength of its trusted checking line — Kuhnhackl, center Matt Cullen and winger Bryan Rust — and its star-driven top line of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist.

Rust, Kuhnhackl and defenseman Ian Cole raced out of the Penguins' defensive end on a three-on-two midway through the first period, and tic-tac-toe passing followed. Cole dished the puck just inside Washington's zone, where Kuhnhackl collected it. He quickly spun toward the boards before turning back to face the center lane, where he found Rust en route to the net. Rust deked to his backhand to beat Capitals goalie Braden Holtby to the far post.

Trevor Daley extended the Penguins' lead to 2-0. He buried a pretty tight-angle backhand less than two minutes later off a pass from Crosby, who had two assists.

A combination effort from Cullen and Kuhnhackl served as the Penguins' best answer to Washington's second-period antics, which included two goals to tie the game.

After a pair of borderline fights broke out behind Washington's goal — Hornqvist and the Capitals' Karl Azner and T.J. Oshie ended up in the penalty box for roughing — Kuhnhackl stick-pressured defenseman Nate Schmidt into a turnover.

Kuhnhackl poked the puck to Cullen just before he spun out of a potentially crushing open-ice hit from Capitals winger Justin Williams. He regained his bearings, one-timed a pass from Cullen and beat Holtby for the go-ahead goal with four minutes remaining in the second period and less than a minute after Andre Burakovsky's game-tying goal.

“That's a huge goal,” Crosby said. “Who knows what would happen if we don't get a quick one like that and grab the momentum back right away. I think that just all night, we continued to keep playing the same way, regardless of what happened.”

Unlike in the last meeting between the teams March 1, when Washington used physicality to rally from a two-goal deficit to win, no Capitals comeback ensued. Instead, an avalanche of goals buried Holtby in the third, and the Capitals pulled the league's wins leader about seven minutes into the final frame.

“They quietly go about their business,” Sullivan said of the Cullen-led checking line. “Tonight, they chipped in on the offensive side of the puck. They're three really good hockey players that can play at both ends of the rink, and I think they play the game the right way.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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