- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2020

The NHL knew what it was doing by scheduling one of its most popular rivalries to play on national TV the afternoon before the Super Bowl. For sports fans that tuned in while preparing their evening meals and snacks, the big game before the big game delivered some exciting hockey.

Both teams scored with less than three minutes to play, but the Pittsburgh Penguins held on for a 4-3 win over the Washington Capitals Sunday at Capital One Arena.

Clinging to a one-goal lead for much of the third period, Pittsburgh made some breathing room when Brandon Tanev buried a wrister with 2:33 left to play. But Lars Eller came back just 15 seconds later to score and draw Washington within one again.

However, the Capitals didn’t have enough left to tie it and force overtime, dropping the first meeting with their archrivals of the 2019-20 season.

Eller scored twice, Evgeny Kuznetsov added a goal and Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for the Capitals (35-13-5, 75 points).



Samsonov had won his previous 11 decisions, but the streak was snapped Sunday with his first loss since Nov. 15.

The Penguins (33-14-5, 71 points) are now breathing down Washington’s necks for the lead in the Metropolitan Division. They’ll meet again in Washington in three weeks, then play twice in Pittsburgh during March.

Capitals coach Todd Reirden’s postgame message was not one of panic. He insisted there was plenty his team would learn from the matinee and improve going forward.

“I knew for sure we were going to take something from this afternoon’s game and that’ll be the case,” Reirden said. “We’ll review that as a staff and continue to get better. Now we’ve got a little bit of something to draw upon in terms of games that are at that type of level and heading into these last 30 games.”

To that effect, Reirden said he thought Samsonov’s first time facing Pittsburgh went “fine” and would prepare him for similar situations in the future.

“I think a couple bounces don’t go his way so I’d probably like that back, but we’ll learn something about him and how he can be a little bit more solid in his next opportunity of a game of this magnitude,” he said. “That’s what I felt about a lot of our players. We didn’t have our full team playing at that level until the third period and it was a little too late.”

Early on, Eller took a bad penalty by pushing Patric Hornqvist down as both were heading to their benches. But after a stellar penalty kill, in which Samsonov saved three shots despite the Penguins’ furious efforts, Eller came out of the box to create an odd-man rush the other way. Richard Panik fed him the puck at the right circle for a wrister.

“He’s a horse for us every night,” Tom Wilson said of Eller. “He works extremely hard. He takes care of himself. He’s a great pro. On a night like tonight he’s just one of those players that when he’s going he can’t be denied.”

But the opening goal didn’t keep the Penguins down for long. They responded 68 seconds later when fourth-line center Sam Lafferty picked up a pass in the neutral zone, sprinted into open space and beat Samsonov top-shelf.

Just a minute later, Pittsburgh moved ahead on a bad slip-up by Samsonov. John Marino shot, Hornqvist redirected it low and Samsonov got his stick on the wrong end of the puck — steering it in behind him instead of away from net.

Samsonov was beaten again in the second period. Dominik Simon picked up a rebound, deked right and deposited it through both Michal Kempny’s legs and Samsonov’s.

The Capitals came out in the third period playing much more physically — Wilson later said they had gotten “fed up a bit.” Wilson set a career high with 13 hits, including one in which he plowed into Kris Letang, which fired up the home crowd.

On the other end, Kuznetsov collected a wayward pass, skated in on net and chipped a shot off Marino’s skate and past Matt Murray to cut the lead to 3-2.

After Tanev made it 4-2, Eller shook one defender on a nifty O-zone entry and beat another with a toe drag before firing. His goal audibly clanged off the crossbar and in. But Washington couldn’t follow it up with a 6-on-5 goal in time to force overtime.

“You should always play like it is your last game and with the determination we saw in the third, that is how we are going to have success,” Eller said. “It is very hard to do for 82 games. I don’t think any team can do that, but we are growing, we are growing. We played well for the most part of the season. Today was just not our best for 60 minutes and that’s it.”

The Capitals have talked about the need to stay out of the box, but they continue to take piles of minor penalties, a category in which they’ve led the NHL for much of the year. Eight more Sunday brought them to 204 this season.

On the flip side, the Capitals are exposed to so many power plays that their penalty kill has remained razor-sharp. Washington killed all six of Pittsburgh’s power plays and own the second-best PK percentage in the NHL.

The Capitals stay at home for three more games, starting Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings.

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