Tied 1-1, the Penguins-Capitals playoff series will likely turn on a breakout by Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin.
The Washington Capitals have a lot to deal with heading into Game 3 on Monday night in Pittsburgh (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC). They've blown their home ice advantage. They're struggling to score. And now they've lost one of their most important defenders for the meat of the series.
Brooks Orpik will be out of the lineup for the next three games after being suspended by the NHL for a flagrant head shot on Pittsburgh's Olli Maatta in Game 2. And that puts coach Barry Trotz in a tough spot. Orpik is a go-to guy. He plays upwards of 20 minutes a night as part of the team's top four. He's a stalwart on their top-ranked penalty kill. And he's one of their most consistent physical presences. As the temperature of this series rises, he's a guy you want on the ice, not in the press box.
Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner will be asked to assume most of Orpik's minutes, and that extra work makes them vulnerable, especially as the series progresses. Dmitry Orlov came off the ice at practice this morning before Mike Weber, so it looks like he'll step in for Orpik. Orlov was scratched for Game 2 after a Game 1 miscue. He misread his coverage and laid out partner Nate Schmidt in the neutral zone, clearing a path for Pittsburgh to attack and score its second goal.
How much of a leash will he have in this one? The Caps need Orlov to soak up about 12 minutes of action. Anything less and you'll know how much Trotz trusts him.
Here are some thoughts on what to look for tonight:
• While this series has earned top marks for entertainment value, it hasn't provided much of what we expected to see: an offensive showdown between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
Maybe it was too much to hope for a repeat of that legendary 2009 series when the two combined to score 16 goals, including the double hat trick in Game 2. But after two games in this series, neither has made much of an impression with the puck.
That's not to say they haven't played well. Ovechkin has been the more noticeable of the two. He picked up an assist in the opener, and generated a couple of dangerous chances via partial breakaways in Game 2. But he's been largely silenced by blueliner Kris Letang and the Crosby line, which has controlled the bulk of possession when they've been on the ice together. And he's been reduced to a bystander on the power play. The Pens' penalty killers are taking away the cross-ice passes that he feeds on for one-timers, shrinking those two minutes into a four-on-four battle while Ovi watches idly from the far circle.
Crosby is –3 in the series after he and his linemates were on the ice for all three of T. J. Oshie's goals in Washington's 4–3 Game 1 win. But he's earning his keep by paying attention to the details. He wins draws, he's tough along the walls, and he's forcing the Caps to spend too many exhausting minutes battling below their own face-off dots. It's not glamorous, and it's not going to show up on the highlight reels, but it's effective.
Seems like only a matter of time though before one of them makes an impact on the scoreboard. And whichever one breaks through first is likely to swing the tide in favor of his team.
Barry Trotz seemed intent on matching Ovechkin's line against Crosby's for most of the first two games in Washington. Now that Mike Sullivan will have last change in Pittsburgh, it'll be interesting to see if he does the same.
• Outside of those two stars, the men under the most careful scrutiny tonight will be wearing stripes.
Francis Charron and Wes McCauley could be in for a tough night. After the Orpik incident on Saturday—which was blown on the ice by referees Dan O'Halloran and Kevin Pollock—you can expect tensions to be elevated.
What you don't want to see from tonight's officials is an effort to manage the game. Call the fouls, and call 'em right to the end, just like Brad Watson did in whistling Antoine Roussel for that interference call in overtime of Dallas's 4–3 loss to St. Louis on Sunday, and they'll be alright.
• Along with Oshie and Braden Holtby, who has a .938 save percentage on 80 (!) shots through the first two games, the two most impactful Caps to this point been fourth-liners Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik.
That's no backhanded compliment. The two have been the stalwarts as Washington has shut down the Penguins' power play on seven consecutive opportunities in the series. The key: quick feet, quick reads and their aggressive hounding of Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin. They're attacking the snake at the head, eliminating Pittsburgh's ability to get pucks down low where Crosby and Patric Hornqvist are so effective at creating deflections and pouncing on rebounds.
That they're enjoying success isn't particularly a surprise—after all, the Caps ranked second during the regular season with an 85.2% success rate on the penalty kill. But by silencing the Pens in this series, they're buying time for the team's offense to get on track.
• Hard to believe that scoring, of all things, has become the No. 1 issue for the Caps. Washington is averaging just 2.38 goals per game (only Nashville, at 2.00, is scoring fewer among the eight competing teams). The Caps have managed to score just 10 goals at five-on-five through the first eight games.
And in this series, they're being outshot, 80-59. They're lucky, very lucky, that they're not heading to Pittsburgh down 2-0.
That dry spell will end eventually. It just depends on when Washington's second line decides to show up.
There might not be a more disappointing player to this point of the postseason that Evgeny Kuznetsov. Washington's leading scorer during the regular season has just one assist in the playoffs and has scored just one goal since March 2.
His linemates are equally snakebit. Justin Williams has gone 15 games without a goal. And neither Andre Burakovsy or Marcus Johansen has been effective as the third wheel on this wobbly trike.
What's odd is that the east-west game that Kuznetsov and Burakovsky and Johansen excel at should be the perfect counter to the style of Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray. The rookie has a tendency to be aggressive in his positioning, which leaves him vulnerable to the sort of side-to-side puck movement that this line can execute as well as any. And with Williams' ability to get down low and pick up the loose change, things should be clicking. So keep an eye on them tonight. It's only a matter of time before they break through.
• Sullivan says Maatta's replacement will be a game-time decision between veteran Justin Schultz and rookie Derick Pouliot. It's a no-win call because neither player is up to speed. Schultz hasn't played since making his six-minute cameo in Game 1 of the Rangers series. Pouliot last appeared back on April 9. Successfully utilizing either of them, even in a depth role, will take some careful management. Again, having the last change will be a benefit. Sullivan will be able to protect his choice with offensive-zone starts against favorable matchups. But even then, there's a large risk factor.
Both are strong skaters with excellent puck-moving skills. Those will be key assets against Washington's forecheck. But both can be an adventure in their own end. Whoever Sullivan picks, it'll be the player he trusts to make the best decisions under pressure in his own end.