OTTAWA — Sidney Crosby is just fine.
The Pittsburgh Penguins captain quickly put to rest any questions about his play with a resurgent Game 4 performance. Crosby had a goal, an assist and five shots as the Pens downed the Ottawa Senators 3-2 on Friday night, evening the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final at two games apiece with Game 5 ahead in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon.
Matt Murray was sharp with 22 saves in his first start of the playoffs. Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta also found the back of the net for the defending champs, who came alive after a stunted start to the series.
Crosby had only one point as the Pens dropped two of the first three against Ottawa, leading to inevitable questions about his health — following a jarring concussion in the second round — as well as the Sens efforts in slowing him down.
Clarke MacArthur and Tom Pyatt scored for Ottawa and Craig Anderson surrendered three goals on 35 shots.
Starting for the first time in more than six weeks, Murray looked dialled in right away. He made a strong stop on Mike Hoffman less than two minutes into the game and then denied Viktor Stalberg on a pair of follow-up opportunities.
The 22-year-old was head coach Mike Sullivan’s somewhat surprising choice to start Game 4.
Marc-Andre Fleury started the first 15 games for Pittsburgh with Murray mostly sidelined by injury and had been stellar right up until Wednesday’s Game 3 when he allowed four goals on nine shots in a 5-1 loss.
Sullivan declined to elaborate on his decision shortly after announcing it hours before game-time, but Murray kept justifying it with his play in the first half of an opening period that saw the Sens — wearing small Canadian flags on their helmets — mostly in control.
He made maybe his best stop on a Derick Brassard backhand, kicking the shot away with his right pad.
Surviving the early storm, the Pens pulled in front with the game’s first goal in the 19th minute on a seemingly harmless shot by Maatta, who strode down the left side and fired short-side on Anderson. Setting up the play was Crosby, who had an urgency to his game which had been lacking early this series (one goal, no assists).
“He cares so much about this Penguins team and trying to help this team win,” said Sullivan on Thursday afternoon. ”I just think that’s part of who he is, and that’s what we love about him is that he’s such a great team guy and he understands the importance of his game to helping this team win.”
Pittsburgh’s already battered defence took another blow late in the first when Bobby Ryan delivered a nasty hit to Chad Ruhwedel. Ian Cole immediately throttled Ryan as Ruhwedel lay down on the ice before wobbling his way to the dressing room.
Ryan somehow escaped a charging penalty on the play with Cole drawing the only call for roughing.
The Pens are already without Kris Letang, who’s done for the playoffs, and Justin Schultz, who’s missed the last two games with an upper body injury.
Crosby’s brilliance showed up again midway through the second with the Sens shorthanded after Jean-Gabriel Pageau ripped the helmet off No. 87 in a scrum around the net.
Crosby stationed himself right on the doorstep to Anderson’s left, his right leg hugging the post for support. That didn’t allow him to score on the initial set-up from Jake Guentzel (two assists), but helped him to bang in the follow-up for the 2-0 lead.
The two-point performance vaulted Crosby into third in the playoff scoring race with 17 points in 15 games.
Dumoulin added the third Penguins goal less than four minutes later with his shot from the left point caroming off the skate of Dion Phaneuf and into the net.
Ottawa had mostly neutralized the high-powered Pens in the first three games of the series, holding them to just three goals — a mark they equalled in less than 32 minutes of Game 4. Pittsburgh seemed to find more speed, got more shots in tight and capitalized on opportunities around the net.
Following that initial flurry in the first, the Sens had little going right until the last two minutes of the middle period. It was then that Ryan found MacArthur with a crafty backdoor pass for the first Ottawa goal.
Ryan has a goal and four assists so far this series and 14 points overall in the playoffs.
Shots were a telling 28-16 for Pittsburgh after 40 minutes with Crosby firing five attempts. He had six total in Games 1-3.
The Sens pulled within one with five minutes left when Pyatt got a skate on an already deflected Erik Karlsson point shot, but their late rally ultimately fell short.