By Sidney Mahan (@PuckSniper_3)
Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley (left) and captain Sidney Crosby (right) celebrate after Patric Hornqvist’s overtime goal in Game 4 Wednesday night. (Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)
Coming into their Round 2 playoff series against their hated rivals, the Washington Capitals, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the underdogs. Typical fan and analyst consensus leaned towards the Capitals, the 2016 President’s Trophy winners as top team in the league, winning the two teams’ first playoff meeting since their iconic 7-game showdown in 2009. Some people didn’t even expect to see Pittsburgh get a good look at the Eastern Conference Final, saying the Penguins would crumble under a dominant Washington team in no more than 5 or 6 games.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Following a thrilling overtime win in Game 4 at Consol Energy Center that meant back-to-back home arena victories in Pittsburgh to grab and extend a series lead, it is the Penguins, not the Capitals, who are holding their opponents at elimination point. The Penguins currently sit with a 3-1 series lead and a chance to close out the Capitals at Verizon Center in Washington in Game 5 on Saturday. Game 4, especially, saw the Penguins unleash speed, physicality, and intensity upon the Capitals, and although Washington tried hard to fight back, tying the game to send it to overtime, the Penguins eventually took the game of Patric Hornqvist’s OT goal.
Granted, it hasn’t been easy for the Penguins to get in such a good position – far from it, really. Pittsburgh has had its fair share of adversity, and obstacles it had to avoid to get such a big series lead on the Capitals. Injuries, suspensions, and intense pressure from Washington are just a few of the hurdles the Penguins needed to jump to get where they are right now. It hasn’t always been dominance this series by the Penguins in terms of play, either – the Capitals have kept the Penguins busy on defense, each game getting steadily more intense until they fully come down on Pittsburgh in third-period pushes that have been barely fought off by the Penguins. So why have the Pittsburgh Penguins suddenly gained a 3-1 series lead? Because of resiliency – which the team has proven it has in a lot of ways. Here’s my list of some of the bigger obstacles Pittsburgh has survived so far to get a leg up on the Capitals.
Outhit and Outmuscled – The Penguins have definitely gotten a fair share of bumps and bruises this series, with minor to major impacts. The Capitals definitely established most of the physicality in the series, particularly in the first three games. While there have been big hits on both sides, including player suspensions on both teams (more on that in a bit), Games 1, 2, and 3 saw the Capitals outhit Pittsburgh 43-29, 31-21, and 58-25, respectively. Obviously, first glance at those numbers show who the more physical team was through the first three games. Players like Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, and John Carlson have all gone for big hits in this series and through the first games of the series you could see Washington repeatedly trying to batter and bruise the Penguins as much as possible – which they sometimes took a little too seriously. In Game 1, Wilson delivered a late knee-on-knee hit to Penguins forward Conor Sheary, but was only given a $2,403.67 fine for the incident:
Then in Game 2, Washington defenseman and former Penguin Brooks Orpik delivered a late head shot to Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta. Maatta left the game with an upper-body injury and has yet to return, while Orpik earned himself a three-game suspension for the hit. Maatta was far from playing his strongest game when he got injured, but Coach Mike Sullivan didn’t seem to want to give up on him anytime soon – and besides, if the Penguins want him sitting out, they’d obviously prefer him being a healthy scratch than being out with what appears to be a concussion. Game 5 will be the third of the games Orpik must sit out for because of the suspension for the hit:
Game 3 saw a suspension hit by Kris Letang, but since that game was still seeing the Penguins get severely outhit, I’ll reserve that discussion for later on here. For the most part, the Capitals were outplaying the Penguins with the body the Penguins and using their physicality to force turnovers and aggressively pressure Pittsburgh. Game 4 finally saw the Penguins really start to return the hits on Washington. Not only did the Penguins come out flying, they also came out hitting, with several hard hits occurring all over the ice. The Penguins’ don’t normally have a very physical style, but it seemed to work to try it out last game, as the Penguins’ increased physicality allowed them to shut down, force turnovers, and increase the aggressiveness of their forecheck, which allowed them to have better puck possession and continue attacks at the Capitals’ net. The Penguins finished the game outhitting the Capitals for the first time in the series, 47-41, and if they’re able to keep the Caps from banging them up so much any longer, you can definitely say that they have fully gotten past this hitch in the road.
Suspension – Okay, now’s the time to address the Letang hit. Capitals forward Marcus Johansson was controlling the puck entering the Pittsburgh zone, and as four Penguins, including Letang, closed in on him, Johansson managed to get the puck to teammate Justin Williams. Letang, who had been coming in for a hit, followed through a little too late with the hit, and also was slightly too high with the hit. Letang was suspended after a hearing on the grounds of interference. After the news of the Letang suspension got out, there was instant worry about how the Penguins would be able to manage without arguably one of their most valuable players this series. There was serious concern among Penguins fans that the series would be evened up by the Capitals with the Penguins having to play Game 4 minus Letang. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Letang’s absence and the challenge his suspension presented to the team led to the Penguins’ defensive corps providing a spectacular effort Wednesday night. Trevor Daley, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Derrick Pouliot did their part to hold down the fort; the only defenseman I was a little displeased with was Pouliot, whose lack of playoff experience became evident quite a few times during the game, with Pouliot making some questionable decisions on playing the puck or positioning. NBCSN analyst Keith Jones is one of quite a few people expecting Pouliot to be scratched for Game 5 with such inconsistent play. But despite that, give the d-men credit, because they for the most part played great games and by the end of the night proved they could survive at least one game without Letang. Daley in particular stepped up to take on Letang’s role, contributing at both ends of the ice as Letang tends to do as well. Daley had the highest player rating of any player on the ice, +3, as he was on the ice for every single Pittsburgh goal and was on the ice for neither of the two Washington goals. In fact, Daley himself contributed the first Penguins goal of the game 9:16 into the first period, tying the game at one (Capitals forward Jay Beagle had scored almost three minutes into the game). He led the defensive corps to a great night, and overall did the best job possible of replacing Letang. In the end, with the Penguins playing probably their best game of the series in Game 4, and with the defensemen working hard to support their team, Pittsburgh was able to get the win even without their star defenseman, and Letang will get to come back for Game 5 and try to help his team close out the series.
Dangerous opposing offense – No doubt about it, the Washington Capitals have made sure that no win has been even close to easy for the Penguins. Washington’s offense has continuously pressured Pittsburgh all series, and have proven to get especially dangerous and lethal as the game progresses. The third period Capitals offense is where Penguins fans probably get the most stressed out. Only two words can describe the real, biggest reason why Washington’s offense hasn’t gotten the results you’d think they would: Matt Murray. Pittsburgh’s rookie goaltender has looked nothing like a guy who’s playing in his first ever NHL playoffs. Ever since taking over in net for the Penguins in their third game of the first round, Murray has a 6-1 record, and has absolutely been a brick wall in the Pittsburgh net. He has completely frustrated Washington’s top scorers, and that includes scoring sensation Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin has so far only managed to get one shot past Murray this series, despite having thrown 21 pucks on goal so far. That would mean that Murray has held the Great 8 to a shooting percentage of just .05%, which is remarkably low considering the quality looks Ovechkin’s gotten on Murray. The young Penguins goalie has successfully dulled down Ovechkin so much that the Russian star began chirping the goalie last game, always a sign of frustration with the lack of pucks going in the net. Ovie’s accustomed to scoring almost at will, and Murray has not allowed him to get anywhere near that level this series. Despite the continued pressure by the Capitals, who often are able to trap the Penguins in their own zone, Murray has looked completely calm and collected and has been consistently praised for his play and hailed as a hero to his team. Every single game has seen the Capitals throw every offensive weapon they have at Murray, and the rookie has responded spectacularly, already getting his name in the history books and setting records for his achievements as a rookie goalie in his first NHL playoffs. The Pens’ skaters have also helped out, with good defensive sticks, several shot blocks, and improving their defensive zone clearing and breakout techniques, but no doubt that the #1 reason that the Penguins have so far gotten past the danger presented by the Capitals offense is young Matt Murray.
“I’ve really grown to admire the character in the room, how much they care about winning, and their work ethic.” – Head Coach Mike Sullivan
Now, these aren’t the only forms of adversity the Penguins have met this series. You could also name Sidney Crosby’s slow start to this particular series (although he showed signs of heating up again in Game 4) or some questionable comments from Caps coach Barry Trotz and the Washington players. The point is, the most impressive thing about this Penguins team is that they’ve proven they are a strong group. They’ve been given these challenges and they’ve met them head on. They lost Game 1 to the Capitals, but far from throwing in the trouble, they’ve come right back with three straight victories and can eliminate the league’s best team on Saturday to earn a trip to the conference final. Best of all, the Penguins are getting to this all while motivated by wanting to win for their teammate Pascal Dupuis, who was forced to stop playing hockey this season after complications with blood clots. Dupuis made valiant efforts to play as long as he could, combating many injuries and conditions, and has been named a candidate for the Masterton Trophy for this reason. Dupuis, who for the longest time would not watch his team’s practices because of the pain it caused him to not be out there playing with his boys, has been proud to see the team break through so many barriers. He’s been able to witness a team who many thought at one point had little chance of making the playoffs continue to push through people’s expectations, delivering to the fans and proving the nay-sayers and the doubters wrong. The point is, the Penguins are obviously a team that enjoys skill and speed, but their real strength is the fact that they are a tight group that has continued to show what they’re made of, gladly accepting the obstacles thrown in the path they are fighting to travel along to win the Stanley Cup. And that has made all the difference in the world.