WASHINGTON — Patric Hornqvist obviously liked getting a goal and an assist in the first two periods of his first game back in the lineup after offseason hand surgery.
What he liked just as much was being on the ice in the final minute of the third period as the Penguins doggedly were protecting a one-goal lead.
Hornqvist’s return sparked the Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night.
“As a player, that’s where you want to be in those key moments,” Hornqvist said. “You want to always feel that kind of pressure and then go out there and do your best.”
The Penguins led throughout but never pulled away in a tense, tightly played game.
When Evgeny Kuznetsov shot just wide after an end-to-end rush in the final minute, the Capitals looked to be inches away from forcing overtime.
Hornqvist, along with center Sidney Crosby and left wing Conor Sheary, played on the line coach Mike Sullivan trusted to wring out the final seconds.
“He plays with so much swagger,” Sullivan said. “He’s just a great competitor. When he’s on the bench, he brings so much juice to our bench. You hear him chirping all the time. He’s just awesome to have around.”
Including a 4-0 victory over Nashville on Saturday, the Penguins have won two in a row after a brutal 10-1 loss to Chicago in the second game of the season.
“It’s encouraging that we’re playing the game hard,” Sullivan said. “That’s what it takes to win.”
All three Penguins goals came on the power play, but it wasn’t the usual personnel groupings scoring them.
On the game’s first goal, Hornqvist and Bryan Rust whacked away in a net-front scramble before Kris Letang backhanded in a shot for his first goal since Feb. 4 after having April neck surgery.
In the second period, Tom Kuhnhackl was taking swings at a loose puck at the top of the crease before Hornqvist scored to give the Penguins a 2-0 advantage.
In the third, Sheary steered in a Justin Schultz pass as he slid into the blue paint to make it 3-1.
Sullivan said he was trying different combinations for a “fresh look” after the usual five-man first unit struggled early.
“We obviously have a really talented group out there. When we’re going well, we move the puck around and find seams,” Hornqvist said. “Today, we didn’t have our best game, but we still found a way to score three power-play goals.”
At the other end of the ice, the Penguins held Washington to 22 shots in a determined defensive effort. The Capitals went 0 for 4 on the power play.
“I think we were good off the rush, sorting it out,” goalie Matt Murray said. “They’re a big rush team. They get a lot of chances off of that. That was really important. Obviously the penalty kill was huge, too.”
Murray had a challenging night facing Alex Ovechkin, who had seven goals in his first two games of the season.
Ovechkin attempted 13 shots, getting seven of them on goal, including several from odd angles in the first period. His goal on a shot from the slot in traffic off a feed from rookie Christian Djoos with about seven minutes left was what made the game’s final minutes so tense.
“They have a guy like Ovechkin that is going to shoot every time,” Letang said. “You try to be in his face, try to deny time and space and make sure he doesn’t get quality shots on net.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.