CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — As a handful of Pittsburgh Penguins trickled onto the ice for an optional morning skate at the team’s practice facility Wednesday morning, they found themselves in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place. It was less than 14 hours after they had suffered a crushing 4-3 loss in Game 3 to the Washington Capitals, who are just the second team in as many years to own a playoff series lead over the two-time defending champions.
Pittsburgh had found itself chasing Washington in Games 1 and 2 after slow starts in each, and now it finds itself in the rare position of chasing in the series. It is reminiscent of the 2-1 hole the Penguins fell into in last year’s Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, which set up a pressure-packed Game 4 in that series. Pittsburgh won that game, 3-2, a pivotal response as it outlasted the Senators in seven games before ousting Nashville in the Stanley Cup finals. Thursday’s Game 4 against Washington carries similar stakes, so Wednesday for some players was a chance to work on their shortcomings and find full closure after Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin had shocked them in their own building with a game-winning goal with 67 seconds left Tuesday night.
“It’s good to be out there. I mean, especially after a game if there’s things you want to work on,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who was one of the few payers to skate Wednesday. “You know when there’s kind of a lower number of guys you get to do a little bit more out there sometimes.”
Crosby got plenty of work done Wednesday morning, but most other players took the day off to decompress and rest. That left just a few players in the locker room addressing the controversial hit by Washington’s Tom Wilson on Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese, who left the game with a broken jaw and concussion, according to Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan.
While that hit was at the forefront of discussions Wednesday – Aston-Reese’s injured jaw will require surgery – another development was more positive for Pittsburgh. Injured forward Carl Hagelin may soon return.
Sullivan said Hagelin, who suffered an upper body injury in the Penguins’ first-round series against Philadelphia but participated in the morning skate Wednesday, is a game-time decision for Game 4. That could be a crucial addition for a team that will lean on its veterans to navigate this rare series deficit. Pittsburgh fell into a 0-1 series hole twice during its championship run two seasons ago – including against Washington – and it was down 3-2 against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals before rallying with two victories to take the series. But it has trailed 2-1 in a series just once before over the past three postseasons.
“It’s 2-1 now. We’ve been down 2-1 before,” Hagelin said. “You don’t want to be there, but at the same time, we’re playing at home tomorrow and we’ve done a lot of good things so far. It’s just a matter of getting that win tomorrow.”
That could largely depend on how Pittsburgh starts Game 4. The Penguins allowed Washington forward Evgeny Kuznetzov to score just seconds into Game 1, and it spotted the Capitals a 3-0 lead after another lackluster start in Game 2. Pittsburgh looked more disciplined in the first period in Game 3, using a conservative approach and limiting Washington’s odd-man rush opportunities. But Pittsburgh couldn’t protect its leads, blowing 2-1 and 3-2 advantages after the first period. That seemed out of character for a team that is chasing a third straight title, which will only happen if the Penguins are able to climb out of this unfamiliar hole.
“We have lots of experience to draw on, and circumstances. It’s hard to win in the playoffs. You’re going to go through emotional highs and emotional lows,” Sullivan said. “Right now, our eyes are on Game 4.”
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