WASHINGTON — Marc-Andre Fleury turned back the clock with a brilliant 29-save shutout, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist scored and the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Washington Capitals 2-0 in Game 7 on Wednesday night to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
The defending champion Penguins are eight victories away from another Stanley Cup and will have home-ice advantage against the Ottawa Senators. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals failed to get beyond the second round for the seventh time in as many chances in the Alex Ovechkin era.
Rust was again a hero in a crucial game for Pittsburgh, scoring his eighth goal in 12 career games facing elimination or with the chance to eliminate an opponent. Fleury looked like his old self from the start of the series if not his 2009 Cup run in frustrating the Capitals.
Braden Holtby made 26 saves in a losing effort.
Despite it being the second round, this Game 7 had the feel of a deciding game of the Stanley Cup Final with the top two teams in the NHL facing off. After Pittsburgh took a 3-1 series lead, Washington roared back to tie it and seemed to have all the confidence.
When the Capitals had the game’s first four shots, Fleury was there to weather the storm and the Penguins responded with the next six. It took until 8:49 of the second period for Pittsburgh to silence the crowd as a failed clear by Matt Niskanen got the puck from Sidney Crosby to Jake Guentzel to Rust for his fifth goal of the playoffs.
Holtby and Fleury went save for save, with the Penguins goaltender getting the shaft of his stick on a shot by Ovechkin in the second period. It was so close Ovechkin started to raise his arms thinking he had scored, and Fleury’s wide smile could be seen through his mask.
It remained a one-goal game until another failed clear by Washington’s Kevin Shattenkirk and Ovechkin. The puck ended up on Hornqvist’s stick, and the Swedish forward put a backhander short side on Holtby 4:14 into the third to make it 2-0.
The Capitals tried everything, including Brooks Orpik fighting Scott Wilson midway through the third, but couldn’t mount a comeback to turn the tide. Fans booed the final seconds of another home Game 7 loss.
The Capitals are now thrust into an offseason of change. T.J. Oshie, Karl Alzner, Shattenkirk and Daniel Winnik are unrestricted free agents and with several restricted free agents due raises it’ll be almost impossible to keep this team together.
Pittsburgh is missing several big pieces yet is moving on. The resilient Penguins have been without top defenseman Kris Letang and starting goaltender Matt Murray all playoffs, lost defenseman Trevor Daley before Game 6 and dealt with a brief absence of Crosby because of a concussion.
NOTES: Pittsburgh improved to 6-0 on the road in Game 7s and 9-1 in series against Washington. … Penguins LW Carl Hagelin was a surprise scratch, replaced in the lineup by Scott Wilson. … Daley missed his second consecutive game with a lower-body injury. … Murray dressed as Fleury’s backup for the first time since being injured in warm-ups prior to Game 1 of the first round. … F Carter Rowney replaced Tom Kuhnhackl (healthy scratch) on Pittsburgh’s fourth line. … The Capitals fell to 3-7 in the Ovechkin era in Game 7. … Washington has not made the conference finals since 1998. This is the Penguins’ fifth trip in 10 seasons.