By Stephen Whyno
April 7, 2016
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) scores the winning goal past Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) with defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) nearby in the overtime period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, April 7, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sidney Crosby's overtime goal made the Pittsburgh Penguins forget all about blowing a big lead to the Washington Capitals and made them remember how far they've come over the past few months.
After the Penguins blew a three-goal lead, Crosby scored to lift Pittsburgh to a 4-3 victory Thursday night that clinched home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It was Pittsburgh's eighth consecutive victory and 14th in 15 games.
The Penguins are 33-15-5 since Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach in mid-December, and they'll finish with the second-most points in the Eastern Conference behind only the Capitals.
''That's a long ways from the position we were in a bit ago,'' said Crosby, who has scored 30 of his 36 goals since Sullivan took over. ''We've worked hard to get to that point, and I think that we've just got to keep in mind what's got us here and make sure we continue to play the same way.''
Pittsburgh is 13-1-0 since Evgeni Malkin went out of the lineup with an upper-body injury. This victory was one that almost slipped away.
After the Penguins built a 3-0 lead on two goals from Matt Cullen and one from Conor Sheary, the Capitals responded. Marcus Johansson snapped an 18-game goal drought late in the second and added another goal early in the third before Andre Burakovsky scored with 6:34 left in regulation to tie it.
Crosby's goal four minutes into overtime allowed the Penguins to improve to 39-0-0 this season when leading after two periods. The Capitals took some solace in what they showed to come back, but a fourth loss in five games still stung the Presidents' Trophy winners.
''The work ethic wasn't there, the execution - nothing was,'' said goaltender Braden Holtby, who made 31 saves but fell short in his second attempt to tie Martin Brodeur's single-season record of 48 wins. ''I don't know how we got to overtime, so it was a big challenge tonight going against the hottest team in the league, and hopefully, we realize that we're a lot better team than that and we need to work.''
Pittsburgh and Washington can't see each other in the first round but the Metropolitan Division rivals would face off in the second if each one gets there. There could've been room for plenty of worry from the Penguins about coughing up a lead, but players and Sullivan instead saw it as a learning experience.
''Coaches never like to give up leads, but that's hockey,'' Sullivan said. ''They had some chances in the third, and they buried a couple of them. What I love about it is how our team responds to it.''
The Penguins cracked but didn't collapse under the weight of the Capitals' surging momentum in the third period. Goaltender Matt Murray, who stopped 27 of 30 shots to improve to 4-0-0 since Marc-Andre Fleury went out with a concussion, got a taste of playoff hockey.
And so did many young Penguins players, who also felt what it was like to get pushed by the NHL's top team.
''That's good preparation for the playoffs because nobody's going to go away no matter what the lead is,'' said Cullen, who scored his 15th and 16th goals of the season. ''For us it was good for us to see that, it was good for us to experience it.''
Losing again is not so good for the Capitals, who dropped three games in a row for the first time all season. They have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs and hope they can get into playoff mode with games against the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks this weekend.
''Yeah,'' coach Barry Trotz said. ''We don't have any choice.''
NOTES: Sullivan said F Beau Bennett was out with an undisclosed injury that has bothered him for several months. ... Penguins C Nick Bonino returned after leaving the game briefly after being boarded by Tom Wilson, who got a five-minute match penalty. ... Penguins F Tom Sestito had an assist on Sheary's goal after being called up in the morning ... Capitals C Nicklas Backstrom returned from a three-game absence with an upper-body injury. ... Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson was in attendance and received a rousing ovation.