Pittsburgh Penguins proving there's more fight in these dogs than there used to be

WASHINGTON -- Eric Fehr, the hero of the moment for the Pittsburgh Penguins, was asked about his long history of being on the other side of the fence as a member of the Washington Capitals.

Specifically Fehr, who scored the winning goal in Game 2 with 4:28 left in regulation to give the Penguins a 2-1 win and a split of the first two games of this emotional second-round playoff series, was asked whether the game plan against the Pens was to try to get under their skin, get them off their game.

"I don't know if I want to answer that," Fehr said with a grin.

But in not answering, he spoke volumes about what this Penguins team might have been about in the past and how dramatic has been their transformation since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach in mid-December.

"I think we're a harder team to play against," said Fehr, who is in his first season with the Penguins after being a first-round draft pick of the Caps in 2003. "We, for the most part, make teams earn their goals. We do a much better job of managing the puck, and I think the whole year that's something we really focused on was being harder to play against and being really strong in our [defensive] zone and letting that be our strength and turn that into offense for us."

The fact is the Penguins have been the better team for most of the first two games of this highly emotional, often-nasty series.

They lost Game 1 on a T.J. Oshie overtime goal and early in Game 2 they lost defenseman Olli Maatta to a borderline hit by Capitals defenseman -- and former Penguin -- Brooks Orpik.

Sullivan did not sound particularly optimistic about Maatta's condition, although a further update is expected Sunday. But in spite of losing a key defender, the Penguins spent most of Game 2 keeping the puck away from the reigning Presidents' Trophy winners as the top regular-season team.

When Carl Hagelin gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead midway through the second period, it was the Pens' 19th shot on goal. Washington had just five at that time.

Then, when the Capitals tied the game early in the third period on a power-play goal that came after a questionable tripping call against Kris Letang, the Penguins answered with even more resolve, peppering Capitals goalie Braden Holtby with shots and ultimately scoring the winner.

"That was a big game for us," said Fehr. "After they tied it up on the power play, we could have folded and said it was a good try, but our team didn't give up."

This isn't to suggest that the Penguins teams that have failed to live up to expectations practically from the moment they won the Stanley Cup in 2009 haven't wanted to win in the playoffs. Of course they did. But they lacked some fundamental element that allowed them to have success when it mattered most in the past six years.

They were a team that seemed like they could go off the rails in the face of adversity, whether that meant bad luck or being punished physically or not having success on the power play.

Saturday's win suggests there is something different about this team, because to lose this game in spite of launching 80 shots at Holtby over two games might well have been to lose this series.

But it didn't happen that way.

They did not retaliate after the Maatta hit. They did not crumble after the Caps' power-play goal. They did not wilt after missing on all five power-play opportunities, including four in the second period.

"I think there are critical moments in every game that arise and you have to handle them the right way if you're going to control the result," Sullivan said. "I thought we did that tonight."

Veteran NHL netminder and national broadcast analyst Glenn Healy recalled the Pens' last long playoff run, in 2013, when they were swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals and scored twice in the entire series.

"The first thing [Bruins captain Zdeno] Chara did was punch [Sidney Crosby] in the jaw, and [Crosby] had no points in the series," Healy said. "The team kind of fell apart."

Although the Capitals have tried to exploit the Penguin defense with a physical game, the Pens have not been sucked into those kinds of battles.

"I think that's what has got us here," Crosby said. "We're a skilled and fast team, and a lot of teams try to slow us down or try to be extra physical against us. We know if we get sucked into that, then we're getting away from our game and we're not productive that way. I think it's pretty clear that we know if we get caught up in that we put ourselves in a bad position."

Healy suggested previous incarnations of the Penguins seemed "a tired, stale team."

Not anymore.

"They're refreshed, they're younger, they're faster," Healy said.

This series is a million miles from being over.

And there might be points when the Penguins do falter, do wilt. But there does appear to be something very different about this team's DNA that suggests the Capitals are going to dig a lot deeper and perhaps come up with a different strategy if they're going to prevail.