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Game 4 Preview: The quest to even the series for the Pens

Pittsburgh will look to get back to even tonight in Game 4 of their series with the Caps.

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Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Three


Washington Capitals (2-1) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (1-2)

Start time: 7:00 PM

How to watch: NBCSN nationally. Online find out how to stream on

SBN area to show you’re REALLY not mad online: Japers Rink

Series to date: The Pens exploded for three goals in a five minute span to tip the balance and take Game 1. Then, as is Caps playoff history, they injured a player after a very good start for them in Game 2 and held on for a win as the series shifts back to Pittsburgh tied at a game a piece. The Pens drop a 3rd period lead and Washington took a 2-1 series lead on Pittsburgh ice on Tuesday night.

Eye on the Pens

As per tradition on a playoff game day, many of the star players skate the day between games and take the option on the morning skate, so it was a sparsely attended Pens practice this AM.

If Carl Hagelin can’t go, there were three options on the ice this morning, one of whom would step in for the injured Zach Aston-Reese. They were Carter Rowney, Josh Jooris and Daniel Sprong, listed in the order that the Pens coaches staff seem inclined to play them.

Aston-Reese is a left wing, as is Hagelin, so if a reserve is needed, the bottom lines will likely be shuffled a bit but not too much. Tom Kuhnhackl has been playing a lot of RW lately but he’s been a LW in the past, so he probably flips back and Rowney or Jooris can jump into the 4RW spot. Somehow though, I get the feeling it’s a moot point as Hagelin may just make his return.

A piece of Josh Yohe’s Q&A at The Athletic stuck out, even more than most it was very good and if you don’t subscribe what are you doing?

Q: Who you got in this series? Part of me sees the writing on the wall but another part says until this team loses 4 out of 7 you can’t count them out can you? — @Mkozak25

A: Sounds about right. I do believe they’re in pretty serious trouble. You can just feel it. Not only have they been outplayed for the majority of these three games, but I just don’t sense a lot of energy in that locker room right now. I wouldn’t say there’s a sense of acceptance, but I do believe this is a fatigued group of players. My pick was Penguins in 6 so I’ll stick with that. And frankly, it wouldn’t shock me. If they win Game 4, the pressure suddenly shifts back on the Capitals.

The line about energy and fatigue stuck out. Now, that’s just Yohe’s off-hand observation, no need to crush him for his take. But we heard when the Pens lost Games 5 AND 6 to Washington last year from many different places in the media that it looked like they were “out of gas” and elimination was probably imminent.

We heard in the Ottawa series they were breaking down and about to fizzle out when guys like Rust, Schultz and Hornqvist all missed time with injuries and the team limped along and through another long grind of a series.

We heard the Pens had hit a wall against Nashville when they were controlling much of the puck possession and tempo that this would be the place Pittsburgh would lay down and lose out.

..And it never happened.

But will it now? Only the folks in the room probably know how much energy they have and if it’s enough. Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby and the energizer bunny himself Patric Hornqvist don’t seem that tired.

Results don’t lie and tonight could be telling, in either direction. The Pens haven’t really started well, they’ve scored 0 first period goals against the Caps. The first two games Pittsburgh was objectively bad in the first period. I think it’s fair to say all eyes will be watching the start of this game, how it goes and whether the home team has much jump and fight left in them.

There’s definitely a sense the Pens have to answer the bell tonight and put in a really great effort to even the series and maybe even prove to the hockey world that this team still has what it takes to make this a series again. I’m not sure I agree with Yohe’s statement that “they’re in pretty serious trouble. You can just feel it.” just yet. But a loss tonight —and especially a sluggish performance -- and there would be no other option but see that is the case.

And in the other corner, the headshotters of Washington

The Capitals have their first lineup change of the season, courtesy the long overdue suspension to Tom Wilson.

So it looks like the Caps will leave their 2nd line in tact and have Devante Smith-Pelley try to replace the Wilson. Like Wilson, DSP is a low-scoring (7 goals, 9 assists in 75 games this regular season), space-opening right winger. Smith-Pelley did score two goals in Washington’s first series against Columbus though, he’s got a good motor and willingness to go to the net and can finish every once in a while. He’s a decent enough player but certainly not one you would expect to do much on a 1st line.

The real beneficiaries of the Wilson suspension look to be Shane Gersich and Jakub Vrana. The 21-year old Gersich played this season for the University of North Dakota before signing a pro contract and appearing in three regular season games (recording no goals and one assist). He’s a good skater and has some skill upside but in his NHL playoff debut likely won’t be tasked with a big opportunity to play much.

Vrana, on the other hand, just might get a bigger role starting tonight. The 21-year old former first round pick, Vrana scored 13 goals in the NHL regular season (only 1 less than Wilson, with a much less favorable role!) but has played an almost team-low 9 minutes per game in the playoffs this season, because Barry Trotz doesn’t know how to manage talented young players. However, he’s slowly, barely been ramping up Vrana’s ice time including 10:21 last game, the most he’s played in six games. Vrana has great wheels and good hands and is a concern with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, see the power play goal he scored against the Pens in Game 2.

Without Wilson, the Caps (outside of Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie) have maybe 2 or 3 serviceable-to-good NHL wingers. Their lineup already wasn’t deep and now it takes a hit at even strength and on the penalty kill, where Wilson played a first group role.

All this may give them the under-dog role, and up 2 games to 1 the Caps are playing with house money in this game anyways with still up to two more games at their home rink in the series. But it also makes them a weaker team and one the Pens need to come out and beat in order to tie the series and re-gain a steady footing for Game 5.

As the old saying goes, buckle up baby.