This was supposed to be the Washington Capitals’ year and maybe it still will be. But the Caps are now facing a long road back, as the Pittsburgh Penguins have taken a 3-1 series lead after last night’s Game 4 overtime win in the Steel City. And if you’re watching this series, it’s no mystery why.
Pittsburgh is controlling the battle for pace. These are teams that bring a contrast of styles. Washington has become a more physical, defense-first team under the leadership of head coach Barry Trotz. The Capitals excel at limiting opportunities for the opponent. The Penguins, with deeper offensive talent and not as physical on defense, are at their best in the open ice.
To watch the series—I’ve seen all four games—is to see a lot of open ice and up-and-down skating. If you simply look at box score data, you see each team averaging over thirty shots a game, a number that’s often a good dividing line for whether a game is being played fast or slow.
Washington is playing competitively in the process. They’ve actually outshot Pittsburgh 144-136 over the first four games and last night’s overtime loss came on an awful break when a tipped puck went right into the stick of Patric Hornqvist for an easy shot at point-blank range. It would be easy that the Capitals have just had some bad breaks. There’s truth to that, but you can’t ignore that the team which gets the pace it wants has a much better chance of getting the breaks.
What has to be especially frustrating for Caps fans, who have endured more than their fair share of frustration is that the more physical team generally wins in the playoffs. In 2013, a favored Penguins team was dismantled in the conference finals by the more physical Boston Bruins. In 2014, a favored Penguins team coughed up a 3-1 series lead to the more physical New York Rangers.
But this Pittsburgh team looks different. For one, while they still have the deepest offensive arsenal in the league, they aren’t as offense-heavy as they were in 2013-14. It seems the front office finally realized that maybe 2-3 good scorers being fed by Sidney Crosby was enough and you didn’t have to stockpile every scorer in the league.
The other thing that’s different is that Marc Andre-Fleury is no longer in goal. I’m just not a believer in him. When he was knocked out late in the year, the Penguins were forced to call up Matt Murray and that looks like manna from heaven right now. Murray was brilliant in the final 13 games of the regular season and no one can score on him in the playoffs. Having reliable goaltending means Pittsburgh can push the pace more freely and count on the goalie to bail them out if an odd-man rush comes back the other way.
Pittsburgh is still an offensive team, but through both good moves and good luck, they’ve now got enough balance to win in the postseason. Washington can still come from behind—Alex Ovechkin might not be scoring, but he’s constantly attacking, averaging over five shots per game, and that usually translates to good things for the Caps. They’re getting some great goaltending themselves from Braden Holtby.
There have just been too many instances of Holtby facing uncontested shots from great offensive players who are right on top of him. If that doesn’t change, this series will end Saturday night in the Verizon Center. And it won’t change unless the Capitals start going to the hockey version of the halfcourt offense.