Three games into their best-of-seven second-round playoff series, the Caps and the Pittsburgh Penguins are now much more familiar with one another than when they faced off for Game 1 last week, the first game they played against one another in nearly three months.
"I think as a series goes on and you play a team, there are little adjustments," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "The Penguins will make adjustments and we'll make adjustments. It's a little bit of a cat and mouse game. They will have some adjustments we'll have to adjust to, and I think we made some that helped our game, last game.
Video: Trotz talks to the media before #CapsPens Game 4
"From that standpoint, we'll see where that goes. We have a couple of adjustments for tonight, and they'll have to react to us, too. I think as the series goes on, there are less and less of those, and you get to know and feel a team, hopefully for a long period of time and there are not a lot of secrets. You sort of flip back and forth from things that you might do in certain situations. But for the most part, everybody's adjusting and trying to build your game against an opponent that's very good."
Washington is down 2-1 in the series heading into Wednesday's Game 4, and a victory would square the series and return home ice advantage - for whatever that is worth - to the Capitals. A loss to the Pens tonight removes all of Washington's breathing room and would force the Caps to win three straight games to keep their season going.
"Obviously it's a huge opportunity for us to tie the [series] and go back home with it at 2-2," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "It's the biggest game of the year."
Video: Alex Ovechkin meets the media before Game 4
And it's the biggest game of the year since last game, which was also the biggest game of the year. Winning Game 3 on Monday is what put Washington in a position to head home after tonight's game with an even series, and there are elements of Monday's win the Caps would like to bring to the fore tonight in Game 4.
"I definitely think we played probably the best overall 60 minutes in terms of not giving them odd-man rushes and not having individual breakdowns for lapses of time," says Caps center Lars Eller. "We didn't really have that last game. But there are still a lot of things we can improve. I think our play with the puck and maybe a little bit of execution sometimes, but we did a better job of staying patient and staying with the game plan throughout 60 minutes, and we got rewarded in the end."
Video: Caps players talk to the media before Game 4
Top Six Heavy - Washington has scored 25 goals in its nine playoff games this spring for an average of 2.78 per game. That's fourth among the remaining eight teams in the postseason, but a deeper look reveals the Caps aren't getting the secondary scoring they got during the regular season.
During the 82-game regular season slate, the Caps got a total of 76 goals from forwards outside their top six, and that's 15 more than they got from non-top six forwards in 2015-16. Only six of the 76 goals came on the power play; most were scored at five-on-five.
But Tom Wilson's three playoff goals represent the entire contribution of Washington's bottom six forwards to this point, nine games into the playoffs. The Caps have gotten three goals from defensemen, but all three have come on the power play. At least one of the Capitals' top six forwards has had a hand in 22 of the team's 25 goals to date this postseason, with Wilson's trio of tallies standing as the exceptions.
"I think we just have to keep at it," says Eller. "I think over the first two or three games here - and I can only talk for myself - but I think my line is playing most of the time in their zone and creating the looks, and that's really the first thing you've got to do. Once you do that, I think over time the results will come.
"So we just have to stick with it and not change too much, really. There's nothing you're doing wrong, it's just that little play of execution and the puck going post-in instead of post-out. It's been a little bit post-out here recently."
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Putting The Pieces In Place - Pittsburgh lost two key players to concussions in Game 3, and neither Sidney Crosby nor Conor Sheary is expected to play for the Pens in Wednesday's Game 4.
The Penguins have forwards Scott Wilson and Carter Rowney availaible, and they recalled forwards Josh Archibald and Oskar Sundqvist from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Tuesday.
Pittsburgh conducted an optional practice on Tuesday and an optional skate on Wednesday morning, so how the Pens' lineup will look for Game 4 is still quite the mystery.
"I'm not going to share the lineup with you," says Pens coach Mike Sullivan, "but I'll tell you that we look at the players we have at our disposal and we ask the question amongst our coaching staff, 'Which group of players here and combinations are giving to give us the best chance to win?" And we go through a process there, that's where it starts."
Video: Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan talks before Game 4
What we were able to glean from the morning skate is that both Archibald and Sundqvist were out skating late, along with spare blueliners Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Streit. That means they're likely out for tonight, while Wilson and Rowney are likely in.
With Crosby out, the Pens still have centers Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen in the lineup, but they'll need someone to move from wing to the middle of the ice as well.
Rookie Jake Guentzel has flourished on the left side of Crosby's line, but he has experience at the pivot position and could be the man on the move for Pittsburgh tonight.
"He has obviously played a lot of center," acknowledges Sullivan, "and his versatility helps us in these types of circumstances. Every possibility is on the table in this type of circumstance."
Pittsburgh racked up nearly 300 man-games lost due to injury during the regular season, and they've played without No. 1 netminder Matt Murray and top defenseman Kris Letang throughout the postseason to date. Sullivan and his staff have persevered through all that, and the Pens managed to rack up 111 points - the second highest total in franchise history - during the regular season in spite of all of the injury-related absences.
"I don't think we're going to change our game plan just because someone is in or out of our lineup," says Sullivan. "We're going to play the type of game that plays to our strengths and gives us the best chance to win. We have capable guys, and we're going to put a lineup on the ice that we believe we know we can win a game with.
"We're just going to go out and we're going to try to be committed, and make sure that we have a readiness to us and that we're focused on playing the game the right way. And when we do that - regardless of who is in our lineup - I believe that this group of players has a chance to win any game against any opponent. That's our approach. We're focused on winning one hockey game, and that's tonight."
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In the Nets - Caps goaltender Braden Holtby bounced back with a strong performance in Monday's Game 3 of the series, two nights after he was pulled after 40 minutes of work in Game 2. It marked the first time in Holtby's career he was pulled from a Stanley Cup playoff game.
Holtby stopped 28 of the 30 shots he faced in Game 3, and both shots that beat him came in the 59th minute of regulation with the Penguins going with an extra attacker. Holtby is now 17-7 lifetime in the start immediately following games in which he was pulled.
Part of Holtby's prep between Games 2 and 3 was to touch base with his sports psychologist, as he revealed in a postgame interview with NBC's Pierre Maguire after Monday's Game 3 win over the Pens.
"He's a guy that I have worked a lot with over the years," said Holtby on Wednesday morning, "and obviously being apart, you don't get to see him as much. It was more about seeing how he was doing and to kind of talk through things, hear from a familiar voice to break the mental side of the game down. His basics are what I go off every game, so it's more just talking to a coach to figure out how you can get better."
Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has saddled with his first loss of the series on Monday, but he is still an impressive 6-2 with a 2.44 GAA and a .933 save pct. in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs to date. He has permitted two or fewer goals against in eight of his last dozen postseason starting assignments, and he is 1-3 in the games in which he surrendered three or more goals during that stretch.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals to look for Wednesday's Game 4. As for the Penguins, we have no idea how the Pens' forward group will shake out, but we believe they will consist of the dozen players listed below, in some combination or another. The Penguins defense pairs should be accurate.
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
65-Burakovsky, 20-Eller, 43-Wilson
23-Wilson, 59-Guentzel, 72-Hornqvist
17-Rust, 71-Malkin, 37-Rowney
62-Hagelin, 13-Bonino, 81-Kessel
14-Kunitz, 7-Cullen, 34-Kuhnhackl
2-Ruhwedel (upper body)
30-Murray (lower body)
58-Letang (neck surgery)