Rookie goaltender Matt Murray stopped 47 of 49 shots to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of their second round series on Monday.
Murray's brilliance, though, was eclipsed as the lead story by another reckless check. Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang faces a likely suspension after hammering Washington forward Marcus Johansson with a late, high hit.
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The Penguins got first-period goals from Patric Hornqvist and Tom Kuhnhackl and the eventual game winner from Carl Hagelin in the second. Alex Ovechkin, with his first in six games, and Justin Williams replied for the Caps. Braden Holtby made 20 saves in the loss.
With the win, Pittsburgh takes a 2-1 series lead. Game 4 is set for Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
Here are three thoughts on Game 3:
Another ugly hit
Let's talk about Letang. If you watched him Monday you saw that he's not just Pittsburgh's best defenseman. He might be its best player, period. He brings intensity to every shift and makes things happen in all three zones.
Sometimes though, that intensity works against him. It did Monday when he delivered a hit that, while not as dangerous as the one that Brooks Orpik laid on Olli Maatta in Game 2, was just as dumb and just as deplorable.
On the play, Johansson had just entered the Penguins zone and had delivered a pass. As he’s admiring it, Letang comes in from his blind side and buries his shoulder into Johansson. Whether it was late is up for debate—NBC clocked it a .63 seconds after the puck was moved. So is the point of contact, although it appears to be the head. The Department of Player Safety will look at both elements, as well as the fact that Letang appears to leave his feet.
The NHL considers the outcome of hits when deciding their punishment, so the fact that Johansson returned at the start of the second and finished the contest could lessen any potential suspension. But it's not likely to get Letang off the hook.
Losing him for any amount of time would put the Pens at a deep disadvantage, and could potentially swing the series in Washington's favor. But the league has to do what's right here. Letang should at least sit for Game 4.
Everything but the W
This was the game the Capitals wanted to play. They tilted the ice right from the start with their speed and physical commitment. They controlled possession. Their penalty kill continued its flawless play. They dominated on the shot clock, loaded up on high-quality chances from good areas and got bodies to the net. And they got a brilliant all-in performance from their captain. Ovechkin was relentless, a force with the puck (a goal and an assist, seven shots, 18 attempts) and without it (a game-high nine hits, each of them a personal dose of punishment).
This was a game they deserved to win. By a wiiiide margin. Murray wouldn't let 'em.
You're going to run into hot goalies in the playoffs. It happens. What matters is how a team reacts the next time out.
Barry Trotz had the line blender going in the third period, and that helped to some extent. The Caps had 21 shots (they had 24 in all of Game 2) and scored both of their goals in the final stanza. It makes sense to keep those new units together on Wednesday.
Beyond that, though? They'll have to do more than just bring the intensity. The Caps have dropped four of their past six and are just two losses away from wasting a brilliant regular season. If they're going to win three of the next four, they have to get more from their other stars. The pressure is on Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom in particular to deliver the kind of opportunistic play the Pens have been getting from up and down their roster.
Buy Matt a drink and his dog one, too
When the inevitable expansion draft forces Pittsburgh to protect only one goalie next summer, remember this game when the guy it keeps is Murray.
There's only one reason the Pens won this game. This was all Murray, who produced as fine a performance as any delivered by a rookie netminder since Ken Dryden. Remember, this is a kid playing in just his 19th NHL game, and he's showing the poise of a 10-year vet. Right from the start, the Caps came at him hard. They tested his glove early and often—he denied Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie in the opening minutes—and then continued to attack him from all angles and distances. By the time they finally solved him (no chance for him on either goal), he'd held the fort long enough to steal the win.
For the record, starter Marc-Andre Fleury, apparently recovered from lingering concussion symptoms, made his first appearance of the series as Murray's backup. He's likely to remain in that role the rest of the way. Murray is the real deal.