Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. With the playoff calendar turning to May, the Washington Capitals find themselves with their backs against the wall, looking to avoid an early exit at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Capitals and Penguins meet for Game 3 tonight in Pittsburgh, the latter club holding a 2-0 series lead on their longtime rival. The Capitals didn’t claim a win in either of their regular season appearances in Pittsburgh this season, nor did they earn a single victory in the Penguins’ building during last year’s playoffs. As they look for their first win in PPG Paints Arena since December 2015, here are the top storylines for Game 3:
Game 3: 7:30 p.m. ET on CBC
Can’t shake the injury bug
The Penguins were decimated by injuries over the latter half of the regular season, but managed to stay afloat and hold on until the playoffs. They got the majority of their key names back once the playoff schedule kicked off, aside from blue-line anchor Kris Letang.
But it seems they aren’t out of the woods just yet. Patric Hornqvist, Ron Hainsey, and Tom Kuhnhackl all exited Game 2 with injuries, and it remains to be seen which, if any, can suit up on Monday night. Hainsey and Kuhnhackl managed to take part in the club’s morning skate; Hornqvist, Brian Dumoulin and Carl Hagelin were all absent. Head coach Mike Sullivan dubbed the group game-time decisions.
While Pittsburgh has capable bodies who can step in – particularly Mark Streit on the back end and Scott Wilson up front – the losses are sure to change the complexion of their play in both ends of the rink. Hornqvist recently ascended to the top line alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, while Dumoulin led all Penguins skaters in ice-time (24:07) last game. Hagelin, who was a force for the Penguins during last year’s series against Washington, just recently returned from injury for Game 2.
Special teams battle
Washington didn’t earn a single power play opportunity in Game 1, but the club can no longer rest on that as an excuse for their lacklustre performances after what transpired in Game 2.
The Capitals were dealt the better hand in the series’ second tilt, earning five power play chances to Pittsburgh’s three. They didn’t do much with those opportunities, however, scoring on only one of their man-advantage chances while giving up a short-handed goal in the process, negating the effort.
More than half of captain Alex Ovechkin’s goals came on the power play this season (17 on the man-advantage, 16 at even strength) so this isn’t just an unfortunate side-story. Converting on the power play is crucial to activating Ovechkin’s offensive impact, but right now it seems the Penguins have Washington’s number.
The middle frame
In the first two games of the series, neither team was able to find the scoresheet in the first period. However, in both tilts, the Penguins flew out of the gates in the middle frame, scoring within the first two minutes of the second period to break the deadlock. It was Sidney Crosby 12 seconds into the second period in Game 1 (and then again 52 seconds after that) and Matt Cullen with a short-handed tally 1:15 into the second period of Game 2.
Half of Pittsburgh’s 30 playoff goals thus far have come in the second period, and they led the league in this regard during the regular season as well. The middle 20 is where they do their best work.
The onus is on the Capitals to get on the board early and change the first intermission conversation in both teams’ locker-rooms. If they can’t, they risk allowing the Penguins to snag the game’s momentum in the second period for the third straight tilt.