Here is how the series looked immediately after Game 3 concluded:
Crosby leaves game after Niskanen hit in first period
Crosby exited the game after the high cross-check by Niskanen, which came just 5:24 into the first period and left Crosby lying on the ice until a trainer attended to him. Niskanen was called for game misconduct and was ejected from the contest as a result.
Crosby’s line — which has included Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist — was red hot in the first two games: Crosby scored twice in one minute in Game 1, Phil Kessel scored one of his two Game 2 goals while skating with the group, and Guentzel also scored twice in Game 2 (his second goal sailing into an empty net). That all gave Crosby four points (two goals, two assists) in the first two contests, and then the line was broken up when Crosby went to the locker room Monday night. What Crosby’s exact injury was remained unclear as the rest of the action unfolded.
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz had said he would consider playing Karl Alzner in favor of a 12th forward, and he finally did Monday after Alzner returned from an upper-body injury. Alzner technically replaced forward Paul Carey after missing six games, as it was Carey who supplanted Brett Connolly on the Capitals’ fourth line before Game 2. The decision became even more timely once Niskanen was ejected from the game, since Trotz still had six defensemen to work with.
The play also broke up the defensive pairing (Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen) Trotz has regularly used against top lines this postseason. But most of the game unfolded without the Penguins’ top line intact, and Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan put Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and Kessel together as a pseudo top group. Where the series goes from here hinges, in no small part, on Crosby’s status moving forward.
Holtby was perfect for 58 minutes
Braden Holtby was pitching a shutout until the final two minutes of regulation, the two quick Penguins goals brought the embattled goaltender back down to earth.
Holtby, who was named a Vezina Trophy finalist after a great regular season, was pulled before the second period of Game 2 after allowing three goals on 14 shots. That left Philipp Grubauer in net to give up two more goals before the Penguins added an empty-netter for good measure. After raising some doubt after Game 2, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz emphatically called Holtby his starter Sunday morning.
“When a game doesn’t go your way, there’s a few more areas you’re a little more focused on. You zone in on it,” Holtby said after the Capitals skated Monday morning. “You come to the rink, and you’re a little more ready to prepare, just that kind of competitive instinct, I guess. But I don’t look too much at patterns, I look at today. I look at today as an opportunity to play more of my game, get back to my basics and help this team.”
He did that for most of Game 3, making eight saves in the first period and 15 more in the second to maintain a one-goal lead. But Fleury, who faced less threats early and allowed a five-on-three goal to Nicklas Backstrom in the first period, was game for a goaltender’s duel. This save made that much evident:
But the Capitals doubled their lead when Evgeny Kuznetsov beat Fleury with 10:14 left in the contest, a goal that came on the team’s 30th shot on net. That left Holtby standing tall in a performance both he and the Capitals so badly needed, then Malkin and Justin Schultz each netted five-on-six goals in the final two minutes.
From there, the next goalie who cracked would be the loser in a game of few goaltending mistakes. That turned out to be Fleury, and Holtby left the ice with a performance to build on.
Capitals’ special teams come through
The Capitals had not held one lead in the first 133 minutes 5 seconds of the series, and then their power play delivered an early one-goal advantage.
That came when Carl Hagelin (high sticking) and Bryan Rust (delay of game) gave the Capitals a five-on-three advantage. Backstrom beat Fleury with a quick wrist shot from below the fight faceoff circle. It was an encouraging sign for a power play that went one for five (and gave up a shorthanded goal) in Game 2, and the Capitals’ penalty kill then played a large part in preserving the lead.
The Capitals didn’t allow a goal on Niskanen’s five-minute major in the first, though some of it was cut down after Malkin went to the box for closing his hand on the puck. The Capitals extinguished three power plays in the second period, and the kill came up especially big when Kuznetsov committed two minor penalties in a 3:08 span. In the end, the Penguins were held scoreless on four power plays, and the Capitals won it on Shattenkirk’s power-play goal. It offered an encouraging sign for the Capitals as the margin for error is only getting smaller as the series rolls along.
The Penguins had the special teams advantage in Game 2, netting a shorthanded goal in the second period and a power-play goal in the third. The Capitals won because they tilted that facet of the gave in their favor Monday.
Penguins block a lot fewer shots
The Penguins averaged 31 blocked shots in the first two games of the series, but finished with just 18 in Game 3. That was mainly because the Penguins went on four power plays and, unlike in Games 1 and 2, the Capitals chances were limited by a lack of sustained puck possession throughout the first two periods.
The Penguins blocked 29 shots in Game 1 and 33 more in Game 2, keeping the Capitals’ offense at bay despite a lot of time spent in the offensive zone. As a result, the Capitals finished with two goals on 83 total shot attempts in Game 1 and two goals on 88 total shot attempts in Game 2.
The Penguins lowered number of blocked shots didn’t lead to an offensive outburst for the Capitals, but was more illustrative of the Capitals’ ability to win a tightfisted defensive affair. Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan wasn’t thrilled with the shot-blocking trend through two games, because having to block so many shots indicates the other team is regularly possessing the puck. It changed Monday and the Capitals took their turn playing on their heels for long stretches in the first and second period.
And they played the part just well enough to put themselves in position to win down the stretch. That was momentarily erased in the final two minutes of regulation, and then salvaged in overtime.