Penguins Emotional Win Over Capitals Bigger Than Two Points

All season long, the Pittsburgh Penguins have struggled to get the bounces to go their way. They’ve hit posts, ran into stellar goaltending, been on the wrong end of some costly penalty calls, and just struggled to string wins together. They have continuously found ways to lose, but on Wednesday night against a red-hot Washington Capitals team, the hockey gods were on their side and they found a way to win, sparked by an excellent performance by goaltender Matt Murray.

Matt Murray Jack Johnson Devante Smith-Pelly
Matt Murray was stellar in net on Wednesday night, making 31 saves on 32 shots. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The scoring certainly didn’t start in the Penguins’ favor. In fact, the play mirrored the woes of the Penguins all season. As Jake Guentzel rushed up the wing, he was run into by a linesman, which caused him to turn the puck over instead of getting it deep into the Capitals’ zone. With the Penguins’ defensemen on a change, Capitals forward Tom Wilson set up Lars Eller for a breakaway and he eventually slid the puck through Murray to put the Capitals on top.

It was an eerily similar feeling for Penguins fans. A true “here we go again” moment for those of us who have endured their play this year. But this game was different, and it all started thanks to Jamie Oleksiak.

Jamie Oleksiak Answers the Bell

One of the biggest stories entering the game was that it would be the first time Wilson stepped on the ice against the Penguins since injuring Zach Aston-Reese with an illegal head shot in last season’s playoffs. Wilson was suspended for three games, a length that many thought was too light.

A minute into the game, bodies were already flying, and knowing he was going to eventually have to face the consequences for his actions, Wilson skated over to Oleksiak and dropped his gloves, an action reciprocated by Oleksiak. Wilson won the fight, dropping Oleksiak with a hard right hand that forced him to miss the rest of the game, but that’s the type of spark the Penguins needed. Fights can be momentum-shifting, and watching a guy like Oleksiak, a meat and potatoes type defenseman, go down to someone as hated as Wilson helped the Penguins skate a little quicker.

Jamie Oleksiak Penguins
Although he lost the fight, Jamie Oleksiak answering the bell was a huge move for a team that desperately needed an emotional spark. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Penguins could have used Oleksiak the rest of the game. His absence resulted in Kris Letang logging 32 minutes of ice time, but Oleksiak answering the bell and fighting Wilson helped the Penguins play their fastest and most physical game all season.

Finally Getting the Bounces

As I mentioned earlier, the Penguins have been on the wrong end of some poor bounces this season, but they were definitely on the hockey gods’ side Wednesday night as the Capitals had three premiere opportunities to even the game up after Bryan Rust put the Penguins up 2-1 in the second period.

Jakub Vrana had the first near-miss as he flew by Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson and ripped a wrist shot off the far post. The next two have to be seen to be believed. Evgeni Kuznetsov walked in from the far hash mark on the power play and thought he sneaked this one through Murray’s legs:

This seemed like the play of the game when it happened, only to be outdone by an absurd effort by newly-acquired Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson who, at the last second, dove behind Murray to prevent the puck from going in and to keep the score 2-1 in favor of the Penguins:

After so many games this season in which the Penguins have been on the wrong end of a play that proved to be a difference-maker, it was huge for the bounces to finally go their way. When it feels like the forces at be are against you, it can be difficult to get things turned around. But after Wednesday’s win, it appears the tides have turned.

The Penguins have a long way to go, but beating the defending Stanley Cup champions in a game that resembled the playoffs is much bigger than two points. It’s been a season of one step forward and two steps back, but this is a victory they will look to build upon. A clutch goal from captain Sidney Crosby, another game-winner for Bryan Rust, now with six goals in his last five games, a fight from Oleksiak on a team that needed an emotional spark, and perhaps bounces finally going their way may make for a scary team.