Pittsburgh Penguins hold Washington Capitals’ top line in check with Tom Wilson suspended
PITTSBURGH — Alex Ovechkin was on the ice when Jake Guentzel scored into an empty net, sealing the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ Game 4 victory over the Washington Capitals on Thursday night. It was Guentzel’s second goal of the 3-1 victory, on his seventh shot. Ovechkin ended the night with no goals, nor any shots for the first time in his otherwise-dominant 2018 postseason.
This was notable because this was the first game Ovechkin didn’t have Tom Wilson on his line with Evgeny Kuznetsov, as the big Capitals winger served the first game of a three-game suspension for an illegal hit to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3.
With Wilson in the lineup, Ovechkin had 31 shot attempts in the first three games of the series, resulting in three goals and two assists. Without him, and with winger Devante Smith-Pelly on his line instead, Ovechkin had two missed shots and nothing else on his offensive stat line.
“I don’t know if they’ve done anything differently. Trust me, Ovi will get his shots,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “I think [Smith-Pelly] did a really good job filling in. Obviously, Tom is a unique player. But I thought that line was going head-to-head pretty well. There wasn’t much space out there on both sides. I mean, you look at, I think after two periods, there was only 15 shots or whatever for each side roughly. There wasn’t much space. We’re committed on both sides. We’ll just continue. I thought Devo did a real good job, and it’s next man up.”
As a member of the Capitals’ top line, Wilson created space for this linemates and made little plays that helped spring the two Russian scoring stars on odd-man rushes. He had at least a shot in the first three games; Smith-Pelly, in contrast, had one shot blocked but nothing on net in Game 4.
Losing Wilson from the lineup hurt the Capitals’ offense, winger T.J. Oshie said.
“Any time [Wilson] is out of the lineup, you see a loss. He has an impact, every shift, whether he’s making hits or not, because guys have to be aware that he’s out there,” Oshie said. “He’s a very big part of this team, and we miss him, but we’re going to have to do a job without him.”
It wasn’t just the loss of Wilson from the top line that affected Ovechkin, whom the Capitals did not make available for postgame comments. The Penguins studied up on the odd-man rushes they allowed to Ovechkin’s line in the first three games, including the one that resulted in the winning goal in Game 3.
“We’ve been watching a lot of film on that over the last couple of games. Trying to be more diligent, so we don’t give them the 2-on-1 opportunities that they got in the third period of Game 3,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “And so if we can do our best to limit those opportunities, I think that takes one element of a dangerous transition game out of it. We’ve gotta do what we can to make sure that we stay on the right side of the puck.”
As for the loss of Wilson for this game and the next two games in this deadlocked series, ahead of Game 5 on Saturday night in Washington?
“I didn’t give it that much thought,” Sullivan said.