There was no ice to be had for either the Pittsburgh Penguins or Washington Capitals. None. Game 4 was a blue-collar, tough, working person’s game and the complete opposite of the first three games of their Round 2 series. Quality chances were minimal and so too was the offensive output.
But there was one big difference for the Penguins: The Capitals did not have Tom Wilson. Now, before you light up the comments with angry Wilson rhetoric, Wilson is one of the Capitals integral defenders. His absence in the neutral zone and defensive zone coverage crippled the Capitals, as much as he tried to cripple Zach Aston-Reese.
In Game 4, the Penguins defensive efforts stole the show. The allowed only three shots on goal in the make-or-break third period. Even Capitals leader Alexander Ovechkin, one of the great goal scorers of this generation, had a blank space in the shots column. It was a lockdown clinic.
However, several times in the offensive zone, the Penguins were able to expose the Capitals, sans Wilson. This may have been the difference in Game 4 and something to watch moving forward. If the series arc continues along these restricted lines, the Penguins may have found their advantage.
In the first three games, the Capitals were able to stack the neutral zone with a 2-3 (two Capitals at their offensive blueline, three who flirt with center-red to defensive-blueline). This was a significant issue for the Penguins during breakouts that begin just inside their defensive blueline. It limited stretch passes and forced defensemen to make quick decisions, to force a pass or carry the puck to center ice.
Wilson’s speed and aggressiveness at the red line limit opponents.
The Penguins made adjustments to the Capitals 2-3. They started the break from a bit deeper in their zone which gave the defensemen more options. Another helpful element in Game 4 was the neutral zone drop-pass, the same strategy which is used multiple times on every Penguin power play.
The result was successful. The Penguins had a much easier time entering the offensive zone.
Once the Penguins gained the offensive zone, the Capitals sold out to cover the slot. The Capitals did not allow the Penguins a single shot from between the faceoff dots. They packed the middle. Wingers played low and tried to shut down anything along the wall. It allowed the Penguins to blister shots from the point, as our Dan Kingerski noted in the Game 4 postgame analysis. The heat map from NaturalStatTrick.com was clear.
It was not a terrible strategy considering the Penguins forward’s offensive firepower but look how long it takes for Ovechkin to play Kristopher Letang at the point on this sequence. Spoiler: Letang could have had a sandwich and autographed a puck for T.J. Oshie:
When Letang received the pass from Crosby at the point, Ovechkin is even with the faceoff dot. With that amount of time and space, Letang could read his options. He made the right play with the D-to-D pass and opened the middle of the ice. The shooting lane was vacant until Jake Guentzel cheated towards the net at the last second.
It was spectacular puck movement but the Capitals’ wingers, by sagging too deep in the zone, didn’t make hard enough on the Penguins.
The Capitals were without their best player in those situations–Tom Wilson. Of course, that is entirely Wilson’s fault.
Letang’s play above wasn’t the only options with low wingers. Letang had the option to throw the puck in deep and depend on a forward to gain possession (In that case, the play underneath would have been Sidney Crosby’s responsibility. Depending on Crosby is not a bad option, anytime). This would be another way to utilize the low-high pass that was successful in Game 4.
The Penguins played well in every phase of the game on Thursday. Chances were generated from the rush, and their speed made the Capitals whiff on the low-high pass. Watch how the Capitals defend the point in Game 5. They must make the adjustments, but their lack of depth on the right side will be an issue without Wilson.