Matt Murray was hurt by a high shot, moments after Evgeni Malkin took a dumb slashing penalty high in the defensive zone. On the resulting power play, the Pittsburgh Penguins penalty kill did not allow the Washington Capitals a shot on goal. Following the suffocating penalty kill, Penguins forward Dominik Simon outskated everyone through the neutral zone to win a loose puck then set up Sidney Crosby for a Grade A scoring chance.
Those few minutes encapsulated the Penguins effort and the close game. The Penguins played one of their best games of the playoffs in tight, unyielding conditions and won 3-1. They tied the series 2-2 and avoided an elimination game in Washington, tomorrow.
Game 4 was not a the firewagon hockey, thing of beauty like Game 3. Game 4 was tight checking, there was little space, and everything was earned. Game 4 was also noticeable for its lineup shift. The Capitals were without the physical agitator, but top line winger Tom Wilson. The Penguins added immeasurable speed and stability back to their lineup, Carl Hagelin.
The Penguins dividends were obvious.
The Penguins top two lines, now including Hagelin, earned their keep. However, the Capitals essentially bullied the Penguins “third line,” anchored by Derick Brassard with Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl to the bench. Rust and Kuhnhackl played more minutes in the third period as defensive specialists, but the line was largely disbanded down the stretch.
The Capitals bottom lines ate the Penguins lunch and took their money. The shot attempts (Corsi), scoring chances, and the eye test provided enough reasons the Penguins coaches left the Brassard line on the pine. Phil Kessel and Conor Sheary joined them as spectators for much of the third period.
Defensively, Penguins allowed the Capitals to play with the puck in the third period but provided a wall in front of Murray. The Capitals were able to get only three shots through the mass of Penguins.
Three measly shots. Here is the overall heatmap for three periods, from NaturalStatTrick.com’s coverage of Game 4, is as impressive as anything you will see. The Penguins owned their zone, kept the Capitals away from the net, yet owned the dirty areas in the Washington zone.
Overall, the Penguins allowed only 21 shots on goal. The report card will reflect that effort, for those who played, anyway.
Also, note the heavy concentration of Penguins shots at the point. By playing gritty down low and working the puck deep in the zone, they re-opened their low-to-high passing game. Especially in the first period, the Penguins were getting shots from the point.
The Report Card
Jake Guentzel: A
Guentzel has played his best games of the season in this series. Four hits, seven shots. Two goals.
Fans will salivate over the offensive production. But coaches are salivating over the 200-foot game Guentzel has brought. He is playing “stiff” on the puck from one end wall to the other. Give the kid props for his complete game.
Derick Brassard: D
As PHN wrote yesterday, Brassard is looking for a bounce. After Game 4, he is still looking. The Capitals bottom six gobbled up Brassard and his line. Brassard has to find his game, or simplify his game to a steady no risk-no harm game until he feels comfortable. His track record and ability far exceed his current output.
Phil Kessel: D-
There are no credible reports of Kessel suffering an injury. If you’ve read one, you’ve read unfounded internet gossip.
However, if you believe that he must be injured because otherwise, he can’t be this bad, you will get little argument. Kessel had one shot and three turnovers. In this series, Kessel has as many giveaways (5) as shots (5). Kessel showed some signs of life in Game 4, but the Penguins desperately need him to provide secondary scoring.
Justin Schultz: B+
The great secret in the Penguins universe is how solid Schultz has become in all three zones. PHN has written about it. Talked about it. But, praising a defenseman for defending isn’t the sexiest thing we’ll ever do.
Schultz is quietly becoming an all-around defenseman who can run a power play. He again played well over 20 minutes (21:19) and had three blocked shots. He started the game with Jamie Oleksiak, and the pair had a bobble early but settled in, nicely. Refer to the shot chart above. Both Schultz and Oleksiak played a big part in that success.
Kris Letang: A
The defenseman played nearly 25 minutes, quarterbacked the top power-play unit on the game-winning goal, had three shots, three hits, and one helper. Quiet Letang is good Letang. The T.J. Oshie-Letang scrap at the end of the game was proof that Letang played a good playoff game. Letang also handled himself well at the end of the game, when run by Oshie.
Dominik Simon: A
The kid played over 14 minutes, created a couple of Grade A chances, won puck battles and was noticeable. He only had one shot on goal but attempted three and missed one.
T.J. Oshie: A-
Oshie has become the Capitals stalwart. Oshie played well for 60 minutes, including the rough stuff at the end. He didn’t attempt to injure Letang, but he was attempting to bruise him, and distract him for Game 5. Oshie’s stat line included a game-high eight hits and one goal. And, Oshie attempted to send a message to one player whose performance the Capitals need to diminish in Game 5.
Oshie was forceful on the rush and worked hard down low.
Capitals Bottom Six: B+
The Capitals bottom forwards continued to win the battle against the Penguins bottom lines. Simply recount the scoring chances in the series by players like Brett Connolly, Alex Chaisson, Lars Eller, and last night by Shane Gersich.
The Capitals pluggers are getting chances. That’s a win for them and a loss for several Penguins.
Game 5, Saturday at 7 p.m.