Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Series: Tied 2-2
Next game: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, Capital One Arena
• Capitals drop Game 4, first without Tom Wilson, as series heads back to Washington tied at 2. (Read more)
• Top takeaways: Guentzel hot, Ovechkin not. (Read more)
• Jake Guentzel scored twice, including an empty-netter to seal Pittsburgh’s 3-1 win that leveled the series at two games apiece. (Read more)
• This series always features compelling hockey — and some other drama, too. (Read more)
PITTSBURGH – It was ironic that a penalty for too many men on the ice sealed the loss for the Capitals, preventing Washington from getting a man-advantage when it pulled goaltender Braden Holtby. The Capitals seemed shorthanded for the entire contest.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-1 win Thursday night tied the best-of-seven series at 2-2, with two of the next three games in Washington. Though the Capitals said the absence of suspended top-line right wing Tom Wilson would motivate them, it also was evident how much he was missed, especially as captain Alex Ovechkin was held without a shot on goal in a playoff game for just the third time in his career.
“Trust me, Ovi will get his shots,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said.
“If you play Pittsburgh, you’re not going to win if you score one goal,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “You need more.”
The Capitals entered the game more than a little peeved. The team was unhappy with the NHL Department of Player Safety’s decision to suspend Wilson for three games because of an illegal check to the head of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese, who suffered a broken jaw and a concussion. T.J. Oshie passionately defended Wilson on Thursday morning and called a three-game suspension “very extreme.” Oshie said the rest of the team would have to make up for the loss of Wilson’s physicality, and the Capitals had 43 hits to the Penguins’ 25 after one period. Oshie lead the way with eight.
“Any arrogance that we might have had from our last couple of victories has been squashed from the fact that we’re losing Tom, that he’s been taken away from us for a couple games here,” Oshie said before the game. “We’re fired up to play, and we want to win the game for him.”
But Wilson’s absence was a hit to a Washington forward corps already missing winger Andre Burakovsky, who recently had surgery for an undisclosed upper-body injury. Devante Smith-Pelly moved into Wilson’s right wing spot on the top line with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
That line looked disjointed throughout the game, and Ovechkin, who has eight goals this postseason, never got a shot on goal, held without so much as an attempt for the first 40 minutes. The trio were on the ice when Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel punched in a rebound for the first goal 9:21 into the second period.
“Devo did a really good job filling in,” Trotz said of Smith-Pelly. “Obviously, Tom is a unique player. But I thought that line was going head-to-head pretty well. There wasn’t much space out there on both sides.”
The Penguins have been hurting for secondary scoring — every Pittsburgh goal this series has come with captain Sidney Crosby on the ice — but Guentzel has shined. His 10 goals and 11 assists lead all players in postseason scoring. He added an empty-netter in the last minute of the game, after the too-many-men penalty to Washington. That was the Penguins’ 24th and final shot. The Capitals managed just 21, with both teams unable to get much going offensively.
Oshie tied the game on Washington’s second power play, one-timing a slick feed from Backstrom. But then it was Oshie who helped deliver the lead back to the Penguins. He was called for interference on defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and Pittsburgh took advantage of the power play. Evgeni Malkin dived for a rebound, knocking the puck in the direction of Holtby’s outstretched blocker. Just as in Game 2, there was a review to see whether the puck had indeed crossed the goal line, and this time the goal counted for the Penguins.
“I shot us in the foot there with that penalty,” Oshie said. “I was trying to make a smart play by taking away their [defenseman’s] stick, and it ended up being a dumb play by clipping his skate there. That was kind of the turning point in the game, when they got that goal there when I was in the box. So I’ve got to be a little smarter than that.”
Trotz then challenged for goaltender interference, and the league’s decision was swift there, too, again in favor of Pittsburgh.
“You can complain about this or complain about that or wonder about this or whatever,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “You just keep playing the game really hard and keep believing. I think we’re building a belief that we can beat these guys. We know we’re going to have to play really well, but it’s possible. We think we can do it. We’ve just got to play really well.”
Frustration boiling over?: The Capitals now face a best-of-three series against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. They’re in a much better spot than they were the past two years, when they dug 3-1 holes against Pittsburgh in the second round. Still, Thursday represented a missed opportunity for Washington and the frustration showed.
ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski reported that the normally mild mannered Nicklas Backstrom threw his stick against the wall on his way to the dressing room and shouted “F— this league” after he came off the ice. When Wyshynski asked what he was so upset about, Backstrom replied, “That we didn’t win.”
Jake Guentzel stays hot: Sidney Crosby has been on the ice for all nine of the Penguins’ goals this series, but the undisputed biggest difference-maker for Pittsburgh has been Jake Guentzel. The 23-year-old is having a postseason for the ages, and scored his ninth and 10th goal of the playoffs, to go along with 11 assists, in Thursday’s win. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Washington’s only goal of the game came with Guentzel in the penalty box.
Wilson’s absence: With Tom Wilson serving the first game of his three-game suspension for his Game 3 hit on Zach Aston-Reese, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz bumped Devante Smith-Pelly into Wilson’s usual spot on the first line. Perhaps no one missed Wilson more than Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals’ captain, who scored the dramatic game-winner in Pittsburgh with 67 seconds remaining on Tuesday, failed to register a shot on goal in a playoff game for the first time since 2012. Smith-Pelly also went shot-less, while first-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov led Washington with five shots on goal.
Motivation: Before the game, T.J. Oshie said he thought the NHL’s suspension of Wilson was excessive and that Washington was motivated to “win the game for him.” Oshie did his part, with a power play goal in the second period — his fourth of the playoffs — off a beautiful feed from Nicklas Backstrom. While Wilson’s absence clearly affected Washington offensively, the penalty-killing unit, of which Wilson is a major part when he’s in the lineup, performed admirably. The Penguins were 2-for-4 with the man advantage, but one goal was Guentzel’s empty-netter and the other featured some bad luck when Matt Niskanen broke his stick and scrambled to borrow Smith-Pelly’s. It didn’t work out well for the Capitals and led to the Penguins’ first goal of the night.
Final: Penguins 3, Capitals 1
Empty-netter: With 1:25 remaining and the Capitals still trailing 2-1, Braden Holtby headed to the bench to give the Capitals an extra attacker. Fourteen seconds later, Washington was assessed a two-minute minor for having too many men on the ice. After Holtby vacated the crease for a second time on the Penguins’ ensuing power play, Jake Guentzel buried his second goal of the game into an empty net. A two-goal lead is a lot less dangerous when it comes in the final minute.
T.J. Oshie and Kris Letang mixed it up and were assessed five-minute majors for fighting after Guentzel’s empty net goal, and that would do it for the excitement in Game 4. The series is headed back to D.C. tied two games apiece. Game 5 is Saturday at Capital One Arena.
Penguins making the sacrifice: In a frantic final period with few stoppages, the Penguins are sacrificing their bodies to preserve their 2-1 lead. Jake Guentzel wore a slap shot from John Carlson minutes after Patric Hornqvist prevented a Michal Kempny shot from getting through to Matt Murray. The Capitals have tilted the ice since the early stages of the period, but they only have three shots to show for it. At the other end of the ice, Braden Holtby kept Washington within striking distance with a dazzling save off a deflection by Guentzel with 3:53 remaining in regulation.
Pens still have edge to start third: The Penguins have three of the first four shots in the third period with more than six minutes gone by and the Capitals still trailing by a goal. Braden Holtby put an end to the best scoring chance by either team in the frame by covering up a loose puck in front of the net following a couple of shots by Jake Guentzel. (Who else would it be?)
An O-for for Ovi?: Alex Ovechkin, the hero of Game 3, has been a non-factor in Game 4. In over 14 minutes of ice time, including skating with the power play, he has yet to attempt a shot on goal. It’s probably nothing to worry about — he’s only had 14 games in his career, including the playoffs, without a shot on net — but Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, the defensive pair skating most against him, are helping tilt the ice in Pittsburgh’s favor. Letang alone has five shot attempts already, all at even strength.
Guentzel the Great: Jake Guentzel is doing it all for Pittsburgh. The leading scorer in the postseason potted his ninth goal in the second period and he leads the team’s forwards in shot attempts (four), high-danger scoring chances (three) and hits (four).
Give credit to Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz for trying anything to slow him down at even strength. All four of Washington’s top four defenseman have shared ice against him yet Guentzel and the Pittsburgh forward’s linemates still own the advantage in goals (1 to 0) and chances (5 to 1).
End of Period 2: Penguins 2, Capitals 1
The Penguins will take a one-goal lead into the third period for the second consecutive game after a wild 20 minutes that featured three goals, five penalties and another replay review for a goal that officials didn’t rule a goal in real time.
Unlike in Game 2, when replay review upheld a no-goal call on the ice that benefited Washington, officials determined that Evgeni Malkin managed to jam the puck across the goal line after a mad scramble in front of Braden Holtby.
The Capitals, who outscored Pittsburgh 2-0 in the third period of Tuesday’s 4-3 win in Game 3, have an 18-17 advantage in shots.
After review, and challenge, Penguins go up 2-1: For the second time in three games, there was a lengthy video review of a potential goal that wasn’t ruled a goal on the ice.
With 2:26 remaining in the second period and Pittsburgh on the power play, officials reviewed whether Evgeni Malkin’s diving rebound shot with Braden Holtby lying prone on the ice crossed the goal line.
The referee’s microphone wasn’t working, but his signal — pointing to the faceoff dot at center ice — told everyone at PPG Paints Arena and watching on TV what they needed to know. It was a good goal, and Pittsburgh led 2-1. The Capitals then challenged for goalie interference, but the goal was upheld upon review.
You get a penalty, and you get a penalty … : The more time Jake Guentzel spends in the penalty box, the more likely the Capitals are to head back to D.C. with a 3-1 series lead. Less than two minutes after T.J. Oshie’s equalizer, Guentzel headed back to the box for a slash of Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Capitals had four shots on goal with the man advantage, but failed to get one past Matt Murray. With seven seconds remaining on the power play, Oshie was sent off for interference, and that proved costly for the Caps.
All even after T.J. Oshie’s power-play tally: Three minutes after he gave the Penguins the lead, Jake Guentzel gave the Capitals their second power play of the game when he tripped Lars Eller at center ice. This time, Washington made Pittsburgh pay. Guentzel slapped his knees in frustration in the penalty box after T.J. Oshie one-timed a perfectly placed pass from Nicklas Backstrom past Matt Murray to tie the game.
Penguins take 1-0 lead as Jake Guentzel stays hot: For the first time in four games this series, the Penguins scored first. Jake Guentzel broke the scoreless tie 9:21 into the second period by jamming home a rebound past Braden Holtby off a shot by Dominik Simon. It was Guentzel’s league-leading ninth goal of the playoffs.
Another kill for the Caps: The Penguins managed only one shot on goal during their second power play of the game, which came after Chandler Stephenson was whistled for slashing 3:30 into the period. Pittsburgh is now 1 for 11 in the series with the man advantage. The Capitals’ penalty-killing unit has looked strong in Game 4, despite being without Tom Wilson.
Kick save and a beauty … by Dmitry Orlov: Shortly after the Capitals’ first power play of the game ended, Dmitry Orlov made the save of the night. With Braden Holtby out of position, Sidney Crosby found Justin Schultz, whose shot was headed for the back of net if Orlov’s leg hadn’t gotten in the way.
Matt Murray shaken up: In the first minute of the second period, Dmitry Orlov unleashed a missile of a shot from the point that caught Murray in the chest and caused the Penguins’ goalie to crumple over in pain. Murray eventually got to his feet as officials announced a delayed penalty on Evgeni Malkin for slashing. Murray would remain in the game to face the Capitals’ power play, which Pittsburgh killed off. Murray’s backup is Casey DeSmith, whose next appearance in the playoffs will be his first.
Pretty even first period: Pittsburgh and Washington were almost even in scoring chances (6 to 4) but the Penguins attempted four shots in the slot and the crease while the Capitals had just one. Jake Guentzel had two of those high-danger chances for Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, Carl Hagelin and Evgeni Malkin have yet to see their line put any shots on net. Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang have each been on the ice for seven shots on net and just two against.
End Period 1: Capitals 0, Penguins 0
Matt Murray and Braden Holtby both looked sharp during a scoreless first period. A few minutes after Murray took away the five-hole to turn away a Shane Gersich shot on a breakaway, Holtby denied the red-hot Jake Guentzel on the doorstep. Holtby got just enough of the shaft of his stick on Guentzel’s shot, which appeared headed for the back of the net for his ninth goal of the playoffs. Washington closed the period with a flurry, but Murray stopped shots by Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Chiasson in the final 10 seconds to keep the game tied.
Ovechkin and Crosby go boom: Even with Tom Wilson serving the first game of his three-game suspension, the Capitals out-hit the Penguins, 22-11, in the first period. Washington’s impressive total included a (perfectly legal) Alex Ovechkin check on Sidney Crosby in the final minute. Wilson ranked second in the NHL in hits through nine playoff games.
Welcome to the playoffs, Shane Gersich: The Capitals’ best scoring chance of the first period thus far belongs to … Shane Gersich. Making his playoff debut, the rookie skated in all alone on Matt Murray after receiving a pass at the blue line, but his five-hole shot couldn’t breach Murray, who made the save.
Pretty even early: Penguins goalie Matt Murray was shaky throughout Game 3 and gave up a number of juicy rebounds, but he handled his first difficult chance Thursday, denying an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot through traffic from in front of the net. Through seven-plus scoreless minutes, the Penguins have a 4-3 advantage in shots on goal.
An early kill for Capitals: The Penguins entered Game 4 only 1 for 9 on the power play, but they had an early chance to improve on that Thursday when John Carlson was sent to the box for hooking a little more than a minute after the opening faceoff. Pittsburgh managed one shot on goal over the next two minutes, as Washington’s penalty-killing unit was again up to the task.
Steel City dominance: #BeatPittsburgh has been the synergistic rallying cry for Washington’s baseball and hockey teams this week, and let’s just say it was a terrible oversight if D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser didn’t make a few friendly wagers with her Pittsburgh counterpart, Bill Peduto. The Nationals completed a sweep of the Pirates with a 3-1 win on Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park, giving Max Scherzer and Co. plenty of time to get home and watch the Capitals try to extend the District’s two-sport, five-day winning streak against the Black and Gold to seven games.
Shane Gersich to make playoff debut for Washington; Carl Hagelin active for Pittsburgh: After watching the first nine games of the playoffs from the press box, Washington forward Shane Gersich was one of the first Washington players on the ice at PPG Paints Arena for pregame warmups before Game 4. He’ll make his NHL postseason debut in the wake of the suspension to Tom Wilson.
On the other end, Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin also participated in pregame warmups, albeit with a full shield. It appears that he will play tonight for a team who lost Zach Aston-Reese to the Wilson hit but whose health is otherwise trending upward with the return of center Evgeni Malkin and Brian Dumoulin to the lineup in Game 3.
Free Jakub Vrana: Vrana was barely used during the first two periods of Game 3 but when he was promoted to the second line and skated alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie he helped make stuff happen. His individual rate for creating scoring chances (12 per 60 minutes) ranks 12th in the playoffs among skaters playing at least 50 minutes and is second on the team after Alex Ovechkin (16). With Wilson out, Trotz won’t be able to afford stapling him to the bench.
Tom Wilson’s absence a blow to Capitals’ offense: Losing Wilson for three games is going to hamper the Capitals’ offensive power. During the regular season, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Wilson outscored opponents 15 to 11 at even strength with more than 51 percent of all scoring chances generated going in Washington’ss favor. Swap in Devante Smith-Pelly for Wilson and it was slightly outscored (6 to 5) with just 45 percent of chances on the ice generated by that trio.
And high-danger, even-strength chances can be the difference in this matchup. Washington has scored on four of its 27 attempts in the slot and crease (15 percent) while Pittsburgh is only 1 for 26 (4 percent). The Penguins will eventually start to cash in on their chances — the league average conversion rate is 13 percent — so the Capitals will have to find a way to get more production from that top line over the next three games.
• Suspension: The Capitals got bad news on Wednesday night with the NHL Department of Player Safety’s verdict that Tom Wilson would be suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese. Washington’s forward corps is already depleted with Andre Burakovsky out with an “upper-body” injury, and Wilson has been a top-line complement to Alex Ovechkin for most of the season. Wilson wasn’t made available to the media, but his teammates expressed disappointment in the decision.
“I think any arrogance that we might have had from our last couple of victories has been squashed,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “The fact that we’re losing Tom, that he’s been taken away from us for a couple games here, we’re fired up to play and we want to win the game for him.”
• Playoff debut: With Wilson out, rookie Shane Gersich will make his postseason debut, playing beside fourth-line center Jay Beagle. Gersich played in just three games this season, signing with the team late in the year after his junior season at the University of North Dakota. Gersich is arguably the fastest player on the Capitals’ roster, and that speed could be an asset against a quick Pittsburgh team.
“Obviously I’m going to use my legs the best that I can, keep my game pretty simple and just help the team get a win,” Gersich said.
“He brings a lot of the elements we’re looking for,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s got great wheels, has a competitive spirit about him, real good hockey IQ, he’s played some games, not any playoff games, but he’s done a real good job when he’s been in the lineup. I think it’ll be a real good fit. He goes on that Beagle line and they’ve played together. It’ll be a good match there. I told him to have fun. There’s nothing like playoff hockey, so get out there and do what you do within our structure.”
• Road strength: The Capitals are undefeated on the road this postseason. A win on Thursday night would give Washington a commanding three-games-to-one series lead and push the Penguins to the brink of elimination.
“I think sometimes at home, you tend to complicate the game a little bit, try and do a little too much,” Beagle said. “I think on the road it’s pretty easy just to settle into a road game, knowing that the expectation really isn’t on the away team as much as the home with the crowd and everything. And that you can just go out and play a more simple game. Sometimes it changes the game a little bit into pucks deep and playing a more north-south game. And I think when we do that, that’s when we play our best.”
Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly played beside Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov for more than 151 even-strength minutes during the regular season, so it makes sense that he was tabbed to replace Wilson on that top trio. Trotz has been complimentary of Smith-Pelly’s postseason play — he’s scored two goals — and he brings a similar physicality as Wilson to Washington’s top-six forward corps. Smith-Pelly scored seven goals during 75 regular-season games, and he has two goals and one assist through these first nine playoff games.
“He’s a big boy,” Ovechkin said.
“I’m comfortable playing there,” Smith-Pelly said. “It’s been a while, but I’ve said it every time I’ve changed lines: I don’t really have to change what I do. Those guys are good enough to kind of adapt to the way I play. I’m similar to Willy, so I don’t have to change anything.”
Derick Brassard: The Penguins acquired Brassard before the trade deadline to bolster their depth up the middle, but the center who has a reputation for being a playoff performer has gotten off to a slow start this postseason. In nine games, he has one goal and two assists with a minus-one rating. The secondary scoring that propelled Pittsburgh in its past two Stanley Cup runs has been missing; the Penguins’ top line has scored five of the team’s seven goals this series and captain Sidney Crosby has been on the ice for every Pittsburgh goal.
“I think there’s always that feeling-out process in how the player’s going to fit in, what role he’s going to play and who he plays with and how we’re going to utilize him throughout the course of a game,” Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan said. ” … We’ve gone through the process where we believe Derrick makes us a better team, we’re deeper down the middle. One of the things we really like about him is his versatility. We can use him in so many ways. And we have done that since we’ve acquired him. We can play him up and down the lineup, he can play power-play time, he kills penalties, he’s a pretty good faceoff guy and he’s a solid two-way center iceman. Because of that and his versatility, we think we can utilize him in so many different ways. We’re trying to put him in a position where he can play to his strengths. We’re trying to surround him with people we think can help him play to his strengths, and that process continues.”
Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Devante Smith-Pelly
Chandler Stephenson-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller-Brett Connolly
Shane Gersich-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Scratches: Andre Burakovsky (upper body), Tom Wilson (suspension), Travis Boyd, Brian Pinho, Nathan Walker
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos
Scratches: Jakub Jerabek, Madison Bowey
Braden Holtby (starter)
Scratch: Pheonix Copley
Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Dominik Simon
Carl Hagelin-Evgeni Malkin-Patric Hornqvist
Conor Sheary-Riley Sheahan-Phil Kessel
Tom Kuhnhackl-Derick Brassard-Bryan Rust
Scratches: Carter Rowney, Zach Aston-Reese (concussion, broken jaw)
Brian Dumoulin-Kris Letang
Olli Maatta-Justin Schultz
Jamie Oleksiak-Chad Ruhwedel
Scratch: Matt Hunwick
Matt Murray (starter)