Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins (not pictured) scores past Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — The Washington Capitals were road warriors during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs — that is, until Thursday night.
The Capitals lost a road game for the first time this postseason in a lackluster showing against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of their playoff series. Pittsburgh evened the series two games apiece with a 3-1 win at PPG Paints Arena.
T.J. Oshie scored the Capitals‘ only goal on a power play, while Jake Guentzel scored twice (once on an empty net) and Evgeni Malkin added a goal for the Penguins. Braden Holtby had a strong night outside two messy goals allowed, making 21 saves. Matt Murray had 20 saves for Pittsburgh.
It was Washington’s first game of the series without top-line winger Tom Wilson, who began his three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head on Zach Aston-Reese.
Whether or not due to Wilson’s absence, the top line was ineffective. Alex Ovechkin did not take a shot on goal and Devante Smith-Pelly struggled in Wilson’s place.
“I think anytime 43’s out of the lineup, you see a loss,” Oshie said. “He’s stepped into a very big role for us and done a great job and we miss him, but we’re gonna have to do a job here without him.”
Lest Capitals fans thought their team would go up 3-1 against Pittsburgh for the first time since 1995 and have a chance to clinch at home Saturday, the Penguins made sure this series would last at least six games, as it did when the Capitals lost in 2017 (seven games) and 2016 (six).
“It’s been a long series the last two years,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “That’s what we prepare for, and what we’re prepared for now.”
Pittsburgh did a better job of puck management than in earlier games. The Penguins kept possession in their offensive zone for much of the first 10 minutes and went on their first power play just 70 seconds into the game. Smith-Pelly lost his handle on the puck in the offensive zone more than once.
The Penguins opened scoring midway through the second period. Matt Niskanen lost his stick, and with a Pittsburgh odd-man rush heading up the ice, Smith-Pelly gave Niskanen his. Niskanen got to the rush late and took Dominik Simon’s initial shot in the leg. Guentzel stuffed in the loose puck behind traffic.
Washington answered three minutes later when Guenztel was called for tripping. Nicklas Backstrom dribbled the puck patiently around the right circle before passing to T.J. Oshie in the slot for a one-timer.
“Nick doesn’t really surprise me about where he can put the puck these days,” Oshie said. “I was ready for it, he knew I was ready for it. I knew it was just a matter of time until he felt like it was the right time to put it through.”
But during a Penguins’ power play late in the second for an Oshie interference, a shot bounced off the inside of the right pipe and Holtby sprawled across the crease. The puck glided to the left inside corner of the painted area, Patric Hornqvist made a play on it and Evgeni Malkin dove in to poke it across the line.
It was only ruled a goal after an official review, and then it withstood a Trotz challenge that sought goaltender interference.
Before the review, Malkin said he did not think the puck crossed the line all the way and was mad at himself for a missed chance. Rather than taking any credit, Malkin gushed over Hornqvist’s play to set him up to score.
“It’s not me. It’s [Hornqvist]. He’s unbelievable,” Malkin said. “He stay in front and he take rebound and give me right away. It’s unbelievable. I see the open right side and tried to shoot quick as I can and tried to get the puck go in.”
But where Malkin saw a clutch hockey play, Trotz and his staff saw goaltender interference.
“Our video coaches and staff looked at it. Hornqvist came in and drove a pad, and we didn’t feel that Orpik had pushed him in,” Trotz said. “He was grabbing him at the end but he forced that situation, pushing the pad. Most goaltenders have the ability, once they get their edges down, to move to any other puck. He wasn’t able to do that.”
Oshie assigned himself the brunt of the blame for going to the box in the first place.
“I shot us in the foot there with that penalty. I was trying to make a smart play by taking away their D-man’s stick and ended up being a dumb play by clipping his skate there,” Oshie said. “I think that was kinda the turning point in the game, when they got that goal there when I was in the box. So I gotta be a little smarter than that.”
The Capitals had extended zone time in the middle of the third period, but could not take advantage of scoring chances. Jake Guenztel added an empty-netter in the final minute, tallying his NHL-leading 10th goal of the playoffs.
Wilson’s hits in Games 2 and 3 and subsequent punishment have dominated the series’s headlines this week, butCapitals players like Niskanen were not ready to use his absence as an excuse.
“You can complain about this or complain about that, or wonder about this or whatever,” Niskanen said. “You just keep playing the game really hard, keep believing. I think we’re building a belief that we can beat these guys. We know we’re going to have to play really well, but it’s possible. We think we can do it.”
Trotz was not upset with the performance of Wilson’s replacement on the top line.
“I think Devo did a really good job filling in,” he said of Smith-Pelly. “Obviously Tom’s a unique player, but I thought that line was going pretty well head-to-head.”
With the series a de facto best-of-three, the Capitals host Game 5 Saturday at 7 p.m.