The Pittsburgh Penguins made it clear every point counts.
That was especially true against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena, where the Penguins were going for two points. Not only did they want the two points to pull within four points of the first-place Caps in the Metropolitan Division but that’s how many Evgeni Malkin needed to reach a major milestone.
They got both.
1. Nice to see you: The game marked the return to PPG Paints Arean for Carl Hagelin, a two-time Stanley Cup champion winger with the Penguins who was traded to the L.A. Kings in November and then dealt to the Capitals in February.
Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist made light of Hagelin going from teammate to rival in such a short span.
“Obviously, we’re very good friends,” Hornqvist said, “but when the puck drops, he’s like any other guys on that team — obviously, we don’t like each other. … He will be a good friend for the rest of my life but at 7 o’clock, we’re not friends.”
Capitals coach Todd Reirden, a former Penguins assistant, enjoyed having Hagelin on his team when it came to pre-game preparation.
“When you’re breaking down special teams, and it certainly was nice for us when we were doing our power play stuff today to not have to talk about Carl Hagelin on the opposition,” Reirden said. “I know he’ll be a factor up ice, disrupting and now allow easy entries and pressuring pucks in zone when he gets against them. They know the danger he can be in short-handed situations.”
After a John Carlson shot at an open net was deflected by defenseman Justin Schultz, the Penguins played a tribute video to Hagelin that drew cheers from the crowd and stick taps from Penguins players.
2. No cheap shots: The Penguins’ big trade-deadline deal for Erik Gudbranson was made to fortify a defense short on depth, but his physicality and toughness also were considerations.
That’s especially necessary when the Penguins play the Capitals, as Tom Wilson has proven to be, at best, opportunistic and, at worst, a player who punishes the Penguins with head shots.
Wilson took out Zach Aston-Reese and Brian Dumoulin in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last year and gave Jamie Oleksiak a concussion with a one-punch knockout earlier this season.
So Gudbranson endeared himself to Penguins fans when landed a forceful shoulder to the chest of Wilson only 2 minutes, 10 seconds into the first period. Four minutes later, Gudbranson fired a shot from the right circle that led to several chances on rebounds.
Wilson delivered a big blow when on a clean hit that knocked defenseman Jack Johnson off his skates. But when Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin tangled late in the period, Gudbranson exchanged words with Wilson as they skated off the ice.
The presence alone of Gudbranson kept Wilson honest — until the third period. When Wilson knocked defenseman Marcus Pettersson to the ice, Gudbranson tackled Wilson, but officials stepped between the heavyweights to prevent them from fighting.
3. Double trouble: Jakub Vrana scored three points, including the winning goal, to give the Capitals a 3-2 series lead over the Penguins in the playoffs last year.
The 23-year-old winger scored two goals to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead Tuesday, although neither was a thing of beauty.
Vrana got a good shot on a rolling puck and fired a shot over Matt Murray’s glove hand and under the crossbar at 19:27 of the first period for a 1-0 lead.
The second goal was even more perplexing, especially to Murray. Vrana shot a wrister from the far side of the right circle that Murray blocked with his chest. The puck, however, bounced over Murray and behind his back. He tried to swipe behind him with his glove but missed.
Suddenly, it was 2-0 at 10:24 of the second period.
4. Triple threat: The turning point occurred on an innocuous play that led to a momentum-changing goal.
Jared McCann stripped Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov from behind in the offensive zone, disrupting a potential rush and creating a two-on-one opportunity for the Penguins.
McCann fed a pass to Jake Guentzel, who scored his 35th goal of the season to cut the deficit to 2-1 at 12:37 of the second period.
It’s the kind of play that pains Penguins fans when skilled forwards like Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel make similar mistakes but goes largely unnoticed when they take advantage of an opponent.
And it was the kind of play that makes McCann the perfect complement to play on the top line with Crosby and Guentzel, scorers with the flourish to finish an odd-man rush.
As predicted, the goal-scoring competition between Guentzel and Crosby could make for an exciting race in the final month. Their focus is on winning games, but they know the best way to do that is by scoring goals.
The Penguins got three in a span of 1:48.
Only 47 seconds after Guentzel got his, Crosby got one. And it came on a lob from defenseman Justin Schultz — almost a carbon copy of Crosby’s to Guentzel for the overtime winner against Florida a week earlier — for a five-hole shot on Braden Holtby.
Crosby scored again — his 33rd of the season — on the power play, as Malkin passed from the high slot to Kessel at the goal line left of the net, who fed Crosby in the right circle to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead at 14:25 of the second period.
5. Geno gets 1,000: Malkin entered the game two points shy of a major milestone and reached the mark midway through the third.
Malkin scored his 1,000th point on a secondary assist at 11:56 of the third, passing from the right circle to Schultz for a slap shot from center point that Kessel poked in on the rebound.
Malkin is the fourth player to record 1,000 points in a Penguins uniform, joining Mario Lemieux (1,723), Crosby (1,203) and Jaromir Jagr (1,079). Malkin is the fifth active NHL player to reach the total, joining Crosby, San Jose’s Joe Thornton (1,467), Ovechkin (1,199) and Toronto’s Patrick Marleau (1,163).
Malkin is the fifth highest-scoring Russian-born player in NHL history, behind Ovechkin, Sergei Fedorov (1,179), Alexander Mogilny (1,032) and Alexei Kovalev (1,029).
And I’m not sure which was more poetic, that Malkin assisted on a Kessel goal or that he did it against the Capitals.