Each Wednesday throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the game that intrigues him most that night. Weekes also will be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Washington Capitals bulldozed through the regular season with a team-record 56 wins and 120 points to win the Presidents' Trophy for the second time. They did not lose back-to-back games in regulation during the season but they've done it twice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It goes to show you how hard it is to win playoff games, let alone series.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, who had 48 wins, finished 16 points behind the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division but head into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday (8 p.m., NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) with a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.
The Penguins were struggling before firing coach Mike Johnston in December and replacing him with Mike Sullivan. Including the postseason, the Penguins are 39-18-5 under Sullivan and have looked every bit like a Stanley Cup contender.
This essentially is a must-win game for the Capitals, who don't want to go down 3-1 in the series or else their Stanley Cup-or-bust season will be hanging in the balance.
Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: The Capitals are getting a lot of shots, so they are generating a lot of offensive chances. They had 49 shots on goal in Game 3 and another 36 shot attempts that missed the net for were blocked. That's not going to change in Game 4. It's just a matter of them going in.
Goalie Braden Holtby continues to be great for them. I think he has been outstanding. He's allowed two goals or fewer in seven of nine playoff games. There is no worry in terms of what he's been doing or will continue to do for them.
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm2: Holtby stones Crosby on the doorstep
Washington hasn't been sloppy in its game; Pittsburgh just has played better. The Capitals have the offensive personnel to be able to score, led by Alex Ovechkin (eight points), Nicklas Backstrom (eight), Marcus Johansson (seven) and T.J. Oshie (seven).
Minuses: Washington has lost four of six games since taking a 3-0 lead in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers. They need to play more of a heavier game. They need to generate more chances down low and extend their offensive possessions, and spend more time in the offensive zone and play the heavier game.
I also think they need to do a better job of traffic in front and around Penguins goalie Matt Murray. Force him to have to see through screens. He's been seeing the puck really well.
The Capitals have to make some better decisions defensively in the neutral zone, but also offensively because the Penguins are doing such a great job of limiting their time and space. Capitals coach Barry Trotz said it's like they are skating through a bee hive in the neutral zone. They have to chip and chase, get in on the forecheck and force the Penguins to have to defend.
And forward Evgeny Kuznetsov needs to raise his play. He has two points in nine playoff games after leading the Capitals in points (77) and assists (57) during the regular season.
Pluses: What can you say about Murray? He stole Game 3 for the Penguins with 47 saves. He's 5-1 with a 1.79 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage in the playoffs, and his only loss came in overtime. Murray, a 21-year old rookie, has been unflappable. It will be hard to bench him in favor of Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury served as the backup in Game 3 but hasn't played since March 31.
Murray was the MVP in the American Hockey League last season. He was 25-10-3 with a 1.58 GAA, a .941 save percentage and 12 shutouts.
Video: PIT@WSH, Gm1: Bonino finishes Hagelin's feed for tie
Pittsburgh's depth scoring has been amazing, with lot of guys making plays; forwards Nick Bonino, Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Cullen and Conor Sheary, just to name a few.
The line of Bonino, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin has been the best in the series. It's been the fastest, most consistent, most dominant line and they are generating offense in different ways.
Minuses: Defenseman Kris Letang is suspended for the game and someone will have to take his minutes. Letang played more than 34 minutes in the first two games of the series and is so dynamic for the Penguins, offensively and defensively. Look for Trevor Daley to play, I believe, 25-27 minutes; he's averaging 22:26 of ice time per game in the playoffs.
The Penguins need to be disciplined; they can't continue to give the Capitals looks on the power play. They were heavily outshot last game. The Capitals didn't score in almost seven minutes of power-play time, but having more opportunities could give them momentum at 5-on-5.
And Sidney Crosby is a minus-3 and doesn't have a point in the series. That's not good, but the Penguins still lead the series.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Who takes up the minutes in Letang's absence?
2. What adjustments do the Capitals make in the neutral zone, offensively and defensively?
3. Can the Capitals' elite offensive players be game breakers?