PITTSBURGH — Evgeni Malkin beat Darcy Kuemper on a breakaway with 1:20 left in regulation to lift the Pittsburgh Penguins over the Washington Capitals 4-3 on Saturday night.
Alex Ovechkin scored his 42nd goal of the season and 822nd of his career during a furious third-period rally by the Capitals that saw them erase a three-goal deficit. Washington drew even when Dylan Strome flipped the puck into an open net with 2:44 to go in regulation.
Malkin‘s 25th goal of the season - a wrist shot that zipped to the far post - a little over a minute later helped the Penguins create a little breathing room over their pursuers for the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot.
Pittsburgh moved three points clear of Florida after the Panthers lost to the earlier Saturday. Both teams have nine regular-season games left.
Ryan Poehling and Chad Ruhwedel scored a little over two minutes apart in the second period. Jake Guentzel added his team-high 32nd goal early in the third before Washington scrambled back. Casey DeSmith played spectacularly at times while finishing with 31 saves.
Tom Wilson started the Capitals‘ comeback with his ninth goal of the season 5:19 into the third. Kuemper stopped 36 shots, but was outplayed by DeSmith as Washington‘s hopes of making a late push for a playoff berth took a serious hit. The Capitals are six points behind Pittsburgh with only eight games remaining.
It felt like old times for much of the night for teams that usually enter late March battling for a spot near the top of the Metropolitan Division.
Not this season.
While the 35-year-old Crosby is averaging over a point a game as usual and the 37-year-old Ovechkin is steadily making inroads on Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal record, their teams have spent most of the year skating in place.
Pittsburgh has been wildly uneven thanks in part to goaltending that has fluctuated between solid and shaky, the main reason a 17th straight playoff appearance is hardly assured. Washington, meanwhile, appears to be pointing toward the future after injuries and a small sell-off at the trade deadline.
Pittsburgh put itself on slightly firmer footing thanks in part to contributions from somewhat unlikely places.
Poehling, who missed four weeks with an upper-body injury before returning on March 16, scored his first goal since Jan. 23 when he broke in alone on Kuemper and flicked a shot over his glove 10:10 into the second period.
Ruhwedel, thrust into a regular role with several defensemen - including Jeff Petry and Marcus Pettersson - sidelined by injuries, followed 2:07 later with his first goal in 11 months when he fired a shot by Kuemper’s glove off the rush.
That was more than enough for DeSmith, who’s making a compelling case he should supplant Tristan Jarry as Pittsburgh‘s top goaltender down the stretch.
Jarry, a two-time All-Star, has struggled with his form and his health over the season’s second half. He played well in a victory over Colorado on Wednesday only to sit out on Thursday due to a lower-body injury. He felt well enough to back up DeSmith against Washington, a position that may become familiar if DeSmith keeps it going.
DeSmith was spectacular at times, including a handful of brilliant saves against Ovechkin and John Carlson.
Guentzel’s power-play goal 27 seconds into the third gave the Penguins a seemingly comfortable 3-0 lead only to see Washington erase it before Malkin‘s late heroics.
Capitals: Host the New York Islanders on Wednesday.
Penguins: Visit Detroit on Tuesday.
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