Say hello to the bad guy.
That’s Matt Murray, goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who almost single-handedly stole Game 3 from the Washington Capitals. Despite being outshot 49-23, the Penguins skated away with a 3-2 victory.
The story of this game for Pittsburgh was Murray, who turned away Capitals’ scoring chances early and often. This bid came from T.J. Oshie in the game’s opening minutes. Oshie, if you’ll recall, scored a hat trick in Game 1, so he’s no stranger to putting the puck past Murray in this series. The Capitals went for Murray’s glove side repeatedly, and the Penguin goalie was more than happy to oblige by snaring the puck out of the air.
Murray may have held off more than just the Capitals. Last night saw Marc-Andre Fleury dress for the first time this postseason. Fleury has been Pittsburgh’s #1 goalie basically since the 2005 lockout ended. There’s a school of thought that argues players shouldn’t lose their spot due to an injury, and that school likely would put Fleury back in the net. Goaltending is notoriously tricky to predict, and we haven’t seen enough of Murray to get an idea if his true talent level is higher than Fleury’s. That being said, you can only play 1 goalie at a time, and it seems absurd to consider sitting Murray for any reason when he’s playing this well.
Of course, Pittsburgh wouldn’t have won if they hadn’t pierced Braden Holtby at the other end. The Capitals didn’t allow many chances against, but as sometimes happens in this crazy sport, they got burned by the ones they did allow. Credit Jason Chimera for hustling back on this 3-on-2 rush, but then watch in horror as Chimera loses track of his defensive assignment, allowing Trevor Daley an uncontested shot from the middle of the ice that Patric Hornqvist tipped past Holtby.
The 2nd goal was downright strange. Kris Letang attempts a long cross-ice pass–an ill-advised pass, as Nicklas Backstrom reads it and is in perfect position to intercept. Except that Backstrom somehow misses the puck, which lands perfectly on the stick of Matt Cullen. Cullen’s centering pass gets deflected, bounces off the 34 on the back of Tom Kuhnhackl’s jersey, and ends up in the net.
One of the stories coming into Game 3 was the suspension of Capitals’ defenseman Brooks Orpik. That left a void in the top-4 of Washington’s blueline; how would the Capitals divvy up those minutes? The answer–along with placing a heavier burden on John Carlson and Matt Niskanen–was an increased role for Nate Schmidt.
You might be surprised to learn how that turned out. Schmidt tries a risky backhand saucer pass that missed its mark, finding Phil Kessel instead. The Capitals get caught out of position–notice that Carlson, Schmidt’s defense partner here, is blowing the zone even before his center, Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kessel passes to Nick Bonino, all alone in front of Holtby. Holtby does a great job staying in front of Bonino, but Bonino waits, waits, and waits some more, until he can pass the puck around Holtby. Schmidt actually makes a good read, stopping in front of the net, but doesn’t see Carl Hagelin coming from behind him and isn’t able to prevent Hagelin from jamming the puck home. 3-0 Pittsburgh.
Washington fans should know by now not to count their team out trailing going into the 3rd period. A broken rush ends up on the stick of Niskanen, who has time and space thanks to some collisions in the middle of the ice. Niskanen re-enters the zone, gets challenged by Letang, and drops the puck to Alex Ovechkin. What ordinarily wouldn’t be a prime scoring location becomes dangerous when the league’s best goal scorer is involved. With Niskanen forcing Letang back, and no other Penguin close by, Ovechkin steps into a wrister and wires the puck past Murray’s ear.
The score would hold at 3-1 until the game’s final minute. Pulling Holtby to gain an extra skater on the ice, the Capitals were swarming in the Penguins’ zone. The puck gets worked around quickly to Ovechkin, who snaps another wrister past Murray. Ovechkin’s shot hit the post, but caroms right to Justin Williams at the side of the net, who buries it for his 1st goal of the playoffs. The Capitals managed a few near-misses after that, but weren’t able to tie the game.
Williams has been something of a disappointment in these playoffs. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t had a chance to play in a Game 7 yet. More likely, it’s just regression to the mean, bringing his playoff scoring average back in line with his career numbers. Whether or not he’s having an impact on the scoresheet, Williams also hasn’t been playing his usual puck-dominant style. He took 2 bad penalties in Game 3, and may have suffered an injury, contributing to his lowest ice time this postseason (13:13).
Another concern for the Capitals has to be Kuznetsov. The team’s leading scorer in the regular season has just 2 points during this playoff run. We haven’t quite seen his usual magic with the puck. There is some speculation as to what the problem might be. Whatever it is, Washington’s young star is struggling at the worst possible time. Capitals fans shouldn’t panic, though. I can recall another Russian with impossibly great hands who seemingly had the playoff yips early in his career, and Pavel Datsyuk turned out just fine.
One thing to keep an eye on between now and Game 4 is the status of Letang. Pittsburgh’s top defenseman, who has been playing 32:27 per game in this series, picked up a minor penalty for interference for a hit on Marcus Johansson. The hit was fractionally late (per the NHL Department of Player Safety definition), and Letang’s shoulder makes contact with Johansson’s head. The optics aren’t as bad as with Orpik, and Johansson wasn’t injured on the play, so there remains a chance Letang could avoid a suspension, but you never know with the league’s emphasis on eliminating high hits.
The good news for the Penguins is that, even without Letang, it would be hard for them to give up any more shots than they did in Game 3. But I doubt they want to lean that heavily on Murray again.