Thoughts, musings and observations from the locker room prior to the Pens' Second Round Game 5 showdown against Washington.
* Carl Hagelin played in the Pens' 4-1 Game 4 victory on Thursday night, his first game action of the team's Second Round series against Washington. And he felt good despite missing a week of action.
"It was fun to be back. It's a very intense series," the winger said. "Anytime you can come back and be part of a win it helps your confidence."
Hagelin had been out of the lineup after receiving a high hit from Philadelphia's Claude Giroux in Game 6 of the First Round. He was forced to wear a full-face shield. Although he wore one in college at the University of Michigan, that was seven years ago.
"It was good to get that one game under my feet with a lot of people coming at you," he said of having the shield. "Skating today I felt even better."
Hagelin was inserted into the lineup with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist. The trio played together for a stretch during the regular season and experienced a lot of success.
"I think we had a pretty good game last game," Hagelin said. "It should only get better here going forward."
* After posting a 17-20-4 on the road in the regular season, the Pens are 4-1 on the road in the playoffs so far. A lot of the guys have been asked recently what's behind their newfound success on the road, but nobody seems to know why.
"I don't have a great explanation for you," Sidney Crosby said. "In the playoffs, I think everyone tries to elevate their game and you know how important it is, especially on the road, to be good there. Maybe just more of an emphasis on it being the playoffs."
One thing they do know is that the Caps tend to come out really hard in front of their home crowd. As Malkin said right after Game 4, "We go to Washington, it's a crazy building." The Caps scored just 17 seconds into Game 1 and 1:26 minutes into Game 2. The Pens know that they have to do a better job of managing that and making sure they come out with an equally strong effort.
"I think just our start is the most important thing," Riley Sheahan said. "The last time we played here I think that was one thing that was bad for us. So if we can just get out to a good start, be physical and match their intensity, I think we'll be fine."
* Another thing everybody is trying to figure out is how Jake Guentzel is performing like he is. He's been asked about it constantly, and today, he had this to offer: "I think the nerves and excitement that you get playing at this time, I think you want to be a part of this and you want to go as long as you can. It's definitely a fun time to play in."
* The other day, Mike Sullivan said he and the rest of the coaching staff has talked with this group since Day 1 about what their team identity is and how they can play to their strengths to give themselves the best chance to win. "We've got to be committed to that game in and game out because that's what gives us the best opportunity to win games and that's the most important thing, that's why we line up every night at 7 o' clock," he said.
The Pens' identity is playing with speed, playing with pace and playing a north-south game where they challenge their opponent with either puck possession or pursuit. As Sullivan has put it, sometimes their best defense takes place up the ice.
That wasn't necessarily the case in Game 4. The Pens were really, really happy with their defensive effort, especially in the third period. And understandably so - they limited the Caps to just three shots in the final frame and kept Alex Ovechkin from registering any in the game. And while I thought it might be a concern that the Pens spent a lot of the game in their end and on their heels instead of their toes, the Pens don't see it that way.
"Well, we always want to play with pace and play with speed. But that doesn't mean we have to do it at the expense of defending," Sullivan explained. "A lot of it boils down to decision-making, both with and without the puck. As long as we're diligent with our decision making and we make sure we stay above the attack and we have numbers tracking back, we can still be a team that plays with a lot of pace and I think we have to continue to try to do that."
* Just wanted to take a moment to give Chad Ruhwedel some much-deserved credit. The defenseman has made some terrific defensive plays in the last couple of games - like getting back to break up a breakaway for Alex Ovechkin in Game 3 and doing the same to Jakub Vrana in Game 4. But for the most part, he's been quietly getting the job done on the blue line for the Pens since stepping into the lineup on a regular basis following Ian Cole's departure at the trade deadline.
"I think he plays his best games when you don't notice him," Sullivan said with a smile. "He's just a real solid player. He makes good outlet passes, he competes hard on pucks, he's a real mobile skater so he gets back to pucks quickly, he uses his skating and his stick to defend. And you know, he's playing competitive hockey for us right now. We thought his last game he played might have been one of his best in the series."