Penguins continue mastery of Capitals, advance to Eastern Conference final

WASHINGTON — One was a Detroit Red Wings fan at the time, not long before that becoming a licensed driver. The other was on the ice, already well-established as a franchise cornerstone, thwarting an Alex Ovechkin at 3:01 of the first period to portend doom for the Capitals.

Despite coming at this delightfully hilarious rivalry from vastly different angles, Bryan Rust and Marc-Andre Fleury combined to torture the Capitals once again.

Rust scored the game-winning goal in the second period, Fleury stopped all 29 shots he faced, and the Penguins left Verizon Center on Wednesday with a 2-0 win in Game 7 and a trip to the Eastern Conference final ahead.

Not to mention a serious complex left in their tracks, one so pronounced that the Washington Capitals might as well become the Washington Generals whenever these two meet in the postseason.

Now, the Penguins will host the Ottawa Senators in the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the series likely to start Saturday at PPG Paints Arena.

In Washington, the pain of playoff failures has never hurt more. The Penguins and Capitals have now met 10 times in the postseason. The Penguins have won nine times.

The Capitals, who haven’t been past this point since 1998, have lost seven of 10 Game 7s during the Ovechkin Era.

The Penguins, meanwhile, improved to 6-0 in Game 7s on the road and 4-0 all-time in Game 7s against Washington.

Having Rust and Fleury play the two biggest parts provides another interesting twist to this story.

Rust has been a proven playoff performer, now with eight goals in 12 career elimination games. The problem was that he hadn’t recorded a point in this series until Wednesday.

Fleury has had his share of playoff meltdowns and entered these playoffs as the Penguins’ backup goaltender.

On a night where the guy who was supposed to start, Matt Murray, finally was healthy enough to dress, Fleury had his best game of the playoffs, with Murray watching as his backup.

Instead of his stop of Ovechkin on a breakaway back in 2009, Fleury’s marquee save in this one came on a one-time attempt from Ovechkin in the slot at 16:08 of the second period.

The moment after might be the lasting memory of this game and series, too: Fleury massaging the shaft of his stick, an ear-to-ear smile easily visible through his mask.

With the Penguins trying to add to their lead, Patric Hornqvist made it 2-0 at 4:14 of the third period.

Justin Schultz started the sequence by stepping up on Ovechkin and stopping him from getting the puck out. Hornqvist backhanded a shot that went through Nate Schmidt’s legs and beat Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby blocker side.

The goals were great, but Game 7 saw an improved process for the Penguins, something that could bode well for next round.

Coach Mike Sullivan spent much of Tuesday’s practice trying to reinforce the Penguins’ team concept.

They weren’t perfect Wednesday, but their breakouts were much, much cleaner in Game 7, and it results with substantially more sustained zone time.

That zone time finally got a tangible reward at 8:49 of the second period, when Rust roofed a top shelf setup from Jake Guentzel, who waited an extra tick for a passing lane to open up.

An underrated part of the sequence was Ian Cole’s keep-in. That sends the puck to Crosby in the right circle. Crosby slides a pass to Guentzel, who earlier on the play was knocked down by Matt Niskanen.

The save of the period — or probably the series — was up next. Tom Wilson slid a perfect pass to Ovechkin in the slot.

It looked like it hit Fleury’s blocker, but it was actually the shaft of his stick. And it wasn’t the only missed opportunity for the Capitals in the middle period.

T.J. Oshie missed an open net. Nicklas Backstrom had Fleury down. His shot, however, caromed off the outside of the post.

The first period ended in a 0-0 tie but with several notable improvements. In addition to better breakouts, Penguins defenseman were more aggressive in the offensive zone.

Sidney Crosby had a scoring chance late but shot it into Holtby’s chest. Crosby dropped a pass to Rust for a chance at 15:07. About a half-minute later, Conor Sheary fed Hornqvist in tight.

Fleury was sharp from the outset, despite hearing derisive “Fleury” chants 39 seconds into this one.

His best work came on a two-save sequence late, actually as the Penguins were on the power play. Lars Eller had threw a rebound at the net, and Matt Niskanen had a clear shooting lane from the point.

Former Penguin Daniel Winnik had a glorious opportunity, the puck banking off the wall and allowing Winnik to win a footrace with Chad Ruhwedel, but Winnik lost when he shot went wide left.

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(c)2017 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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