May 3 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and FAN 106.7 FM
Game 4, Eastern Conference semifinal series. Caps lead, 2-1.
Tom Wilson's emergence as a top six winger has been vital in the Capitals' success this season. In his fifth season in the NHL, Wilson established career bests in every offensive category in 2017-18 and his average ice time rose - as it has in each of his seasons in the league - to a career high 15:59.
During the playoffs, Wilson has been productive and impactful; he is tied for 10th in the NHL with seven even-strength points (two goals, five assists) in the 2018 playoffs and he ranks second in the league with 41 hits.
But the Caps will have to make do without Wilson for the next three games. The NHL's Department of Player Safety announced on Wednesday evening that it has suspended Wilson for Washington's next three games for his hit on Pens' forward Zach Aston-Reese in Tuesday's Game 3 here in Pittsburgh.
Video: Barry Trotz | May 2
"We will see what the league says and then react off of it," said Caps coach Barry Trotz, after the Caps' optional Wednesday practice at PPG Paints Arena, and hours before the league's DPS announced Wilson's punishment. "We're going to prepare like we always do. Our focus is on the next game and any adjustments or any changes that we make, we'll just react to whatever we need to."
Wilson skates the right side of the team's top line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, so that's where the void will be. How the Caps choose to fill that void won't be apparent until Thursday's morning skate.
Washington is carrying three extra forwards at the moment, right-handed center Travis Boyd and left wings Shane Gersich and Nathan Walker. Each of those three debuted in the NHL in 2017-18, and none reached the double-digit level in games played. One of those three players will draw into the lineup, and changes in the other three units will likely be made as well in Wilson's absence.
Video: Caps 365 | May 2
With the Caps down a goal entering the third period of Tuesday's eventual 4-3 win over the Pens, Trotz made changes on the left side of a group of forward lines that had been intact since early in the team's first-round series against Columbus. Trotz moved Jakub Vrana onto the left side of Nicklas Backstrom's line, he put Chandler Stephenson on the left side lf Lars Eller's trio, and he moved Brett Connolly onto the portside of Jay Beagle's line.
"Each game, you start out with a plan," says Trotz. "I felt that we had a couple of guys that were not going as well as I'd like [them] to. I had a couple of guys that I thought were going better, and we sort of mixed it up a little bit. Some of the special teams allowed us to going into those different match[up]s. I liked what I was seeing, and then we had a couple of shifts where certain guys had a little more pop to their game and so we stuck with it a little longer, and we may go forward with it."
Vrana and Connolly have been deployed on the right side at times, and Stephenson is capable of playing in the middle, so Trotz can move some pieces around and mix and match while Wilson is sitting out.
Vrana logged 10:21 in ice time on Tuesday, most of it later in the game. It's just the second time in eight playoff games he has reached the double-digit level in minutes, and the first such occurrence was Washington's Game 3 win in double overtime over Columbus in the first round. He was able to tee up six shot tries on Tuesday, but got only one of those on goal.
"Jake was good, he had lots of pop [Tuesday] night," says Trotz. "The whole playoffs are totally different. Your first experience, you react to it differently. I think he's settling in. And because he is settling in, that's good for Jake and that's good for us.
"Yeah, he can be an X-factor for us. There is question. We're going to need his legs, we're going to need his speed and we're going to need his skill."
Video: All-Access | The Right Attitude
When they arrived in Pittsburgh on Monday, the Caps knew they would have to win at least one game in this city to win the series, and they knew they would need to come up with consecutive victories at some point as well. Failing either of those tasks would result in losing the series, and the Caps took care of both items on Tuesday, retaking home ice advantage - for whatever that is worth (Pittsburgh is 3-1 on the road in the 2018 playoffs) - in the series with their Game 3 triumph.
"I really like that we didn't wait around for it," said Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen in the wake of the Game 3 win. "We had urgency tonight after a win. That was a good sign, and I think it showed some growth from the past where maybe we would have just taken a night and kind of semi-hard. We played really hard tonight. We really wanted that game. Now, let's get greedy and go after another one."
The Caps have now won all four of their road playoff games this spring, matching a franchise playoff record established in 1998. Washington won seven of its eight road games in the first three round of the playoffs two decades ago. They've also won nine straight road games overall; they finished the regular season with a five-game road winning streak.
Just for perspective's sake, the franchise record for consecutive regular season victories is six, and it's been achieved twice. The Caps haven't lost on the road since March 18.
"I think we're completely bought in to what it's going to take," says Niskanen. "Road hockey is difficult sometimes. They are going to get a boost from being at home and with their fans and whatnot. We did what we had to do tonight as far as being really good in our own zone, winning battles when we could on the walls. We were hard on the walls. We were opportunistic, and we scored some goals."
Strong wall play is also one of the many things the Caps look to Wilson for on a nightly basis. He dug the puck out of the corner after Washington lost a draw in the offensive zone on Tuesday, starting the play that resulted in Niskanen's game-tying goal.
Video: Capitals Locker Room | May 2
Wilson has averaged 19:16 per night in the postseason - a figure that is skewed somewhat by a quartet of overtime games in the first round - and his absence will create some choices for the Caps in the short term. It will also create opportunity for some of his teammates to step into the breach and shine when it matters most.
"Obviously [it's] not up to us, so we kind of just forget about it," said Beagle of the possibility of playing without Wilson. "We don't really think about it too much. We are more focused on the task at hand for [Thursday] and seeing probably the best game that we're going to see out of [Pittsburgh in Game 4]. We're excited for the challenge."