PITTSBURGH — The situation looked dire.
On the road.
Down a game.
Starting a goalie that hadn’t been on the ice for an opening faceoff in nearly six weeks.
Yet the Pittsburgh Penguins responded the way they’ve always responded since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach nearly 18 months ago: like champions.
Their 3-2 victory over Ottawa in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Friday night provided yet another reminder of both Sullivan’s expert button-pushing and his team’s ability to brush off listless performances and react by playing with the kind of efficient brilliance that is difficult to match let alone beat.
Instead of flying home on the brink of elimination, the Penguins appear to have their Stanley Cup-winning mojo back heading into Sunday’s Game 5.
Same as it ever was under Sullivan, who is 12-2 following a playoff loss with the Penguins.
“These guys have been here before,” Sullivan said Saturday morning. “They understand it. They understand what’s at stake.”
It certainly looked like it on Friday night during three periods that looked like a carbon copy of how Pittsburgh sprinted to the franchise’s fourth championship last spring.
Sidney Crosby getting to the front of the net for an important goal . Goaltender Matt Murray turning aside 24 shots in his first start since April 6. The Penguins scoring three crowd-draining goals then holding on late.
“A good chunk of us have played together for a while, been through different situations,” Crosby said. “I think everyone relies on each other. There’s a certain level of confidence that in different situations the group will respond.”
It’s an advantage that is difficult to quantify but easy to spot. Pittsburgh pumped out 35 shots, its highest total in a regulation playoff game this spring.
The jump that the Penguins lacked while getting drilled in a 5-1 Game 3 loss — one that saw Murray take over for an ineffective Marc-Andre Fleury — returned, particularly during the opening two periods as they pinned the Senators in their end for long stretches and — just as importantly — finally found a way to get more than one puck by Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson.
The key to Pittsburgh’s chance at returning to the Cup Final for a second straight year will rely heavily on its ability to summon that kind of energy without being hit first by Ottawa.
The Senators captured Game 1 in overtime and overwhelmed the Penguins early in Game 3 of a series that hasn’t exactly been the walkover it looked like after Pittsburgh dispatched Columbus and Washington in the opening two rounds.
“We need to find a way to maintain that sense of urgency, that desperation,” Crosby said. “We’re deeper into the series now, so that’s got to be there. I think seeing the way we played, hopefully that’s something we can build off of.”
The Senators hardly seem rattled after missing an opportunity to move within one victory of the franchise’s first appearance in the Cup Final in a decade.
While coach Guy Boucher lamented his team’s “puck fumbling” that prevented any sort of rhythm on an ineffective power play, he also knows what he’s up against.
“I mean, it’s the Stanley Cup champions, the best team in the league,” he said. “They’re going to make some pushes. They’re going to look good.”
Beauty is more in the eye of the beholder when it comes to the Senators. Their neutral zone trap is designed to turn the game into a slog, one Pittsburgh has proven pretty adept at avoiding. Ottawa has compensated by ramping up physical play.
The chippiness is starting to show, particularly after the Penguins lost defenceman Chad Ruhwedel to a concussion in the first period of Game 4 after getting crunched in the corner by Senators forward Bobby Ryan. Pittsburgh defenceman Ian Cole immediately crashed in and took down Ryan, earning a penalty.
“I feel that the animosity level is getting a little bit higher, the competition,” Ottawa defenceman Dion Phaneuf said. “It just comes down to competing. You’re playing the same guys over and over. Every series, you’re going to ask guys, they’re probably going to give you a similar answer. It just comes down to playing the same competition over and over.”
At least two more games remain with three being a serious possibility. This has become well-trod territory for the Penguins, who beat Tampa Bay in seven games in the Eastern Conference final last year and shut out Washington on the road in Game 7 less than two weeks ago.
The team that once succumbed to the pressure while losing series to lower-seeded teams every year from 2010-14 now appears to thrive off it. It figures to go up another level on Sunday.
“This series especially, every game has told a different story,” Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin said. “That’s why it’s 2-2 right now. But we’re looking forward to going home and playing Pittsburgh in front of our fans. It’s time for us to take two games in a row here.”
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey
Will Graves, The Associated Press