The Pittsburgh Penguins walked away with a 3-2 win in Game 3, but it cost them their top defenseman.
Kris Letang was suspended one game for a high hit on Marcus Johansson, which means the Penguins will be without their clear-cut best defenseman for Game 4. Letang is averaging just more than 32 minutes per game in the series, almost 10 minutes more than Brian Dumoulin, who is second on the team in time on the ice.
Assuming Olli Maatta doesn’t dress for Game 4 (he missed Game 3 following Brooks Orpik’s high hit in Game 2), the Penguins will be without their top pair on the blue line, giving the Capitals a prime opportunity to even out the series at two games apiece.
As far as series losses go, the Capitals are relatively satisfied with their performance in Game 3. At even-strength play, Washington managed 43 shots on goal, much more than Pittsburgh’s 19. The Capitals’ hope the offensive production continues, but the overall result is different.
“We got a good vibe coming out of this game,” coach Barry Trotz said following the Game 3 loss. “It sort of reminds me a lot of last year against the Islanders (the Capitals fell behind 2-1 in the series), where we weren’t quite where we needed to be, and then, once we got there, it was a good buy in and we were fine. We’re looking forward to Game 4.”
In a series filled with brutal collisions, highlighted and marred by two suspensions, it’s the Capitals that have been powering the way in the hits department. Through three games, the Capitals have 132 total hits, 57 more than the Penguins on the series.
Normally, that’s a bad sign, meaning the Capitals are throwing significantly more hits because they simply don’t have the puck as often as the Penguins. But the Capitals have managed 215 total shot attempts at Penguins’ goaltender Matt Murray, 23 more than the Penguins against Braden Holtby, suggesting the Capitals are possessing the puck fairly often. That means the Capitals know their advantage is their overall physicality. After all, the Capitals’ average player weight is 205 pounds, while the Penguins’ average roster weight is just 197 pounds.
“When we’re hitting and we’re forechecking, we’re playing fast. That’s our best hockey,” Tom Wilson said following yesterday’s morning skate. “When you’re hitting guys, that means you’re in the forechecking and you’re playing hard. We’re not looking to change. We’re looking to play Game 4 exactly the way we played Game 3. Just hard and intense.”
Slight tweaks to the Capitals’ lineup in Tuesday’s practice may come to fruition for Game 4. Dmitry Orlov, who was healthy scratched in Game 2 but filled in for the suspended Brooks Orpik in Game 3, took line rushes with John Carlson, suggesting Orlov may slot in on the second pairing. That means Taylor Chorney and Nate Schmidt will likely be the bottom pair.
The Capitals held an optional skate prior to Wednesday’s game. In Tuesday’s practice, Marcus Johansson did not dress. Trotz explained Johansson would be further evaluated prior to Game 4. Johansson didn’t hit the ice in the morning skate prior to today’s game, but he was seen kicking a soccer ball with T.J. Oshie, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner.
For the Penguins, Eric Fehr and Bryan Rust did not participate in the morning skate. Head coach Mike Sullivan said both will be game-time decisions. Rust was injured in the first period of Game 3 blocking a shot and did not return. Should one or both not play in Game 4, either Oskar Sundqvist or Tom Sesito will likely take their place.
With Letang’s absence, Justin Schultz is expected to be inserted in the lineup. The Penguins sent the Edmonton Oilers a 2016 third-round draft pick for Schultz in late February. The offensive-minded defenseman has four goals and 14 assists on the year, but just one goal and seven assists as a Penguin. Expect Trevor Daley to take Kris Letang’s spot on the power play, and Daley and Dumoulin will serve as Pittsburgh’s top defensive pair.