There's no overstating the importance of Game 4 to the Washington Capitals. It's not just a matter of avoiding a 3-1 series deficit against a speedy and opportunistic Pittsburgh Penguins squad. It's that they've been gifted with a chance to take on the Pens while their top player, defenseman Kris Letang, sits out a one-game suspension for a check to the head of Capitals forward Marcus Johansson in Game 3.
If the Caps can't take advantage of this break, it's hard to see them coming back to win three straight.
Here are five thoughts ahead of tonight's pivotal contest (8:00 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS).
• Say it again: Letang is Pittsburgh's most important player. He averages nearly 30 minutes of ice per game. He's the key to their transition game—remember, both of their first two goals in Game 3 were instigated by his stretch passes out of the zone. He runs their power play. And in this series, he's been charged with shutting down Alex Ovechkin. The Pens can't replace that kind of presence.
The numbers prove they're a different team without him.
Pittsburgh's record with Letang in the lineup this season is 46-18-7. Without: 2-8-1.
Their goals-for is 3.10 with him, and 1.91 without.
Goals-against? 2.38 and 2.73 respectively.
That's an impact. And it cuts even deeper into a team that was alread short a top-four regular. Olli Maatta missed Game 3 after suffering a suspected concussion in Game 2. He's listed as a game-time decision for tonight, but didn't skate in the morning practice, making him unlikely to go.
Now, with Letang out of the lineup, they Pens will turn to their seventh and eighth defensemen, Justin Schultz and Derrick Pouliot, to man their third pairing. The two young blueliners are mobile and capable of moving the puck, but have a combined two games of playoff experience. And that plays right into Washington's plan of attack.
The Caps have targeted Pittsburgh’s defensemen all series long. Now? They'll look to get every puck deep, supported by two forecheckers, with an eye on forcing the D to rush decisions and create turnovers. And if they happen to run them through the boards once or twice, so much the better.
The Pens will make mistakes tonight. Washington's ability to capitalize on those opportunities will be critical.
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• Matt Murray stole Game 3. The Pens will probably need him to steal Game 4 as well.
That's a lot to put on a rookie, but all indications suggest he's up to the challenge. Over his past 13 decisions—a stretch that includes six playoff games—Murray boasts a 12-1-0 mark with a 1.91 GAA, a .935 save percentage and two shutouts.
In Game 3 he made a career-high 47 stops, but it wasn't just the quantity that stood out. It was how perfunctory he made it all look. Murray relies on strong positioning, so there's little fanfare in his game. Shots simply hit him and rebounds are either corralled or cleared harmlessly away. There's little emotion, either. Even when he's under siege, as he was on Monday, there's a steadiness to his presence that tends to carry over to his teammates.
But he's a battler as well. And given what he's likely to face tonight, that might be his most valuable asset in Game 4.
• The clash of the titans has been a one-sided affair to this point. Alex Ovechkin was more noticeable than Sidney Crosby through the first two games, but it took until Game 3 before he delivered an epic performance. The Great 8 notched his first goal of the series, a snipe show that beat Murray just under the crossbar, launched 18 shots attempts and landed nine bruising hits. That was the work of a player determined to impose his will on a contest.
Meanwhile, Crosby has been noticeable only if you've looked hard. Yes, he's been doing all the little things that help define him as a generational talent. He's winning draws. He's been strong on the puck. He's been hard on the back check.
Those are all great. But tonight, the Pens need the big things. They need Sid to deliver a performance as huge as Ovechkin's. A multiple-point effort will be their key to victory.
• Maybe that starts on the power play. The Pens are 0-for-11 in this series, and haven't generated much, in terms of opportunity or momentum, either. It's possible that Letang's absence will work in their favor here. They'll have to switch things up and a change might be what it takes to clear the pipes. Both Schultz or Pouliot have games that lend themselves to power play usage. This could be where they make an impact.
• John Carlson has quietly put together an excellent postseason for the Caps. He leads the team in scoring with nine points (three goals) and has points in three straight. He's done an excellent job of both distributing the puck in the offensive zone and getting it to the net—not an easy task given how well Pittsburgh has controlled the middle of the ice in its own end. Tonight, he needs to kickstart a power play that's been largely ineffective in the series, scoring just once on 10 chances. The key: quicker reads and puck movement to take advantage of Pittsburgh's tendency to swarm toward the carrier. If he can find those cross-ice seams, the Caps should be more effective with the extra man.