PITTSBURGH – What makes the playoffs so special is the heightened emotion and battle level, but also the stakes.
Virtually every moment, every play, has the ability to swing a game. Or even a series.
When the latest chapter in this Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry is finally written, we may very well look back to a decision by Kris Letang in the first period of Monday’s Game 3 as a seminal one. The Penguins defenceman has been an absolute force for his team all year, but he crossed the line when he stepped up and levelled Marcus Johansson in the middle of the ice.
The hit was late, coming a little after the established 0.6-second limit the NHL’s department of player safety uses as a standard to judge such things.
That likely means a suspension is coming for Letang – one that would keep him out of Game 4 here on Wednesday night and potentially another beyond it. The Capitals believe it’s worthy of the same three-game ban given to Brooks Orpik on Sunday – “Yeah, I’d say so,” said Johansson – but that hit was much later.
It looms as a massive loss for a Penguins team already playing without Olli Maatta, who suffered a suspected concussion on the Orpik hit.
Letang has played more than any other player in this series with over 97 minutes logged through three games and is an invaluable piece of his team’s blue line. Soldiering on without him would be a great burden, especially now that Alex Ovechkin is starting to make his presence felt.
“I don’t think you can replace a player like that,” said teammate Ian Cole. “You can try to do it by committee, but he’s a (special) guy. As hard as he plays, as well as he plays, for as long as he plays it’s very, very tough to just replace a guy like that.”]
Even if it ends up being just a one-game suspension for Letang it could be the game that tilts this series.
There was a strange feeling inside Consol Energy Center after the hit. The Penguins were ahead 2-0, but got soundly outplayed for the remainder of the game and only emerged with a 3-2 victory because of a heroic 47-save performance from Matt Murray.
Pittsburgh may hold a 2-1 lead in the series, but it was the Capitals who seemed happier about their situation.
“There was a lot to like about our game,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “The only thing I don’t like about it is the result.”
Even though this matchup has produced numerous storylines so far, they haven’t been the ones we expected. What started as Crosby vs. Ovechkin has immediately devolved into a referendum on discipline and fairness.
Some of that is inevitable with what’s at stake, but it would be nice to see the skill players get more of a chance to do what they do.
One of Letang’s best attributes is his competitive nature and he certainly hasn’t backed down from any physical confrontations against the Capitals. But levelling Johansson the way he did was unwise.
“I saw him coming full speed,” said Letang. “I tried to step up in the middle. Things happen fast, I can tell you that.”
Emotions are running pretty high on both sides.
Prior to Game 3, Trotz suggested that Orpik’s suspension was as long as it was “based on who we’re playing and all that.” When asked about Letang’s hit later in the night, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan replied: “It was a body check.”
Trotz didn’t want to break the play down in much detail either, but noted that Letang changed his angle to step up and hit Johansson.
“Where he hits him, he’s vulnerable,” said Trotz. “I’ll let the league handle it. I just get myself in trouble if I say anything more.”
With the heat and pressure bound to get dialled up even more as the series goes along, it’s impossible to overstate how important it is for these teams to try and keep their cool. The margin between them isn’t very large.
Just ask Justin Williams, a Stanley Cup winner on three occasions who was signed by Washington last summer because of his experience: “It’s not always going to be roses and grapes all the time. You’re going to have to battle through bad calls, bad breaks, everything. It’s playoff time.”
The Capitals haven’t missed an opportunity to take the body with Letang and will no doubt be trying to do that when he re-enters this series.
In the meantime, he can expect a call from the NHL to discuss a hit where Johansson was fortunate to suffer nothing more than a sore neck.
“It was just a step up to hit him,” said Letang. “There was no intention (to hurt him).”
Yes, but there will be consequences.