WASHINGTON — Already facing a one-game deficit in their second-round series, the challenge for the Washington Capitals could be made even more difficult as they look to mount a comeback against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
On Saturday, Penguins center Evgeni Malkin participated fully in practice wearing the usual yellow jersey, as opposed to a non-contact jersey typically designated for injured players.
Malkin missed the Penguins’ 3-2 series-opening win on Thursday with a lower-body injury, but Pittsburgh’s leading scorer during the regular season could return to their lineup for Game 2 Sunday (3:00 p.m.; WFED 1500AM).
“I’m fine today, I feel so much better,” Malkin told reporters after the Penguins practiced at Capital One Arena. “We’ll see [how] I feel tonight and overnight, I can’t say right now [if I’ll play], but it feels better.”
Pittsburgh Head Coach Mike Sullivan confirmed that Malkin’s availability will be a game-time decision.
Regardless of whether Malkin returns, the Capitals must do a better job limiting Pittsburgh’s top line of Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist. The trio was responsible for all three Pittsburgh goals as the Penguins erased a 2-0 third-period deficit en route to the eventual Game 1 win. Guentzel, Crosby and Hornqvist combined for three goals and seven points in a span of 4:49.
“They actually probably could have had three before they scored the first one,” said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, who was on the ice for all three goals against.
“Guentzel had a great chance in the first. They had two 2-on-1s, semi 2-on-1s, in the second. But they’re fast and they’re creative [at] finding open ice. I think we had pretty good awareness through two periods and even on the goals, at least the first two, we had pretty good coverage. So I’m not going to over analyze it. I don’t think there’s a big adjustment to be made. It’s just you’ve got to be all over them because they’re good.”
Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz primarily matched his No. 1 line against Pittsburgh’s top unit, which meant the Capitals trio of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson was frequently deployed against the Crosby line.
While Kuznetsov and Ovechkin both scored to give Washington a 2-0 lead, the Capitals top line was also on the ice for each of Pittsburgh’s first two goals of the game.
“For the most part, if you look at it analytically, it was not bad,” Trotz said of matching the Kuznetsov line against Crosby’s. “But at the same time, the only thing that matters is what’s on the board- the big scoreboard.”
Soon after the Penguins tied the game 2-2, Trotz had his second line of Chandler Stephenson, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie up against the Crosby line. Sure enough, Crosby threw a puck on net that was redirected by Guentzel for the eventual game-winner. But perhaps a seed was planted for a match-up we may see more of in Game 2.
“I don’t think I’m going to be set on any match-ups,” Trotz said. “They’ve got two good lines; we have two good lines, and that’s just what we started with. We did it with Columbus and we switched halfway through and we may do the same thing.”
Backstrom has traditionally been trusted to go head-to-head against an opposing team’s No. 1 line, but Kuznetsov saw more of those responsibilities gradually swing his way this season.
“It was just a couple of mistakes,” Kuznetsov said of his line’s play in the first game. “Overall, I think it was a pretty nice game. They got some good looks, we got some good looks too, but we have to score those empty-net chances that we had. If you want to beat those guys, you have to score those chances.
“When you play against [Crosby] you have to pay attention a little bit more, but at the same time, they create and when they create something more offensively, that opens up some holes.”
Kuznetsov was suggesting that when the Penguins are aggressive on the fore-check, the Capitals may have an opportunity to turn up ice in transition. Such was the case on each of the Capitals’ two goals when odd-man rushes ensued after a Penguins defenseman was caught pinching up ice (Brian Dumoulin on the first goal; Kris Letang on the second).
“I thought our line played great,” said Wilson. “We were skating, we probably could have had six or seven goals, but that’s the way Pittsburgh plays you. You feel like you’re having a great game and then all of a sudden they tie it up. I think there are a couple of plays that maybe our line wants back. That being said, it’s a long game, it’s 60 minutes and when you match up against someone you’ve got to do the job offensively but you’ve got to make sure you’re keeping them off the board too. That’s a huge task.”