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Mark Madden: Penguins out of sync but still in series

| Friday, May 4, 2018, 7:57 p.m.
The Penguins' Jake Guentzel beats Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby in the second period during Game 4 on Thursday.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Jake Guentzel beats Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby in the second period during Game 4 on Thursday.
The Penguins' Jamie Oleksiak and Brian Dumoulin combine to upend the Captials' Devante Smith-Pelly during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Jamie Oleksiak and Brian Dumoulin combine to upend the Captials' Devante Smith-Pelly during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018.

Their second-round playoff series against Washington is four games old, and the Penguins are not in sync.

The Penguins haven't scored unless Sidney Crosby is on the ice.

The Penguins haven't netted a first-period goal.

Phil Kessel can't shoot. He's probably hurt.

Matt Murray can't catch. Not sure why.

Derick Brassard, the Penguins' big trade-deadline get, is stagnant.

Except for the pyrotechnics of Crosby and Jake Guentzel, the Penguins' high-octane offense is stuck in neutral.

Yet the Penguins and Capitals are tied, two games each. The Penguins won Game 4 on Thursday, 3-1, at PPG Paints Arena. The series' momentum didn't obviously swing the Penguins' way, but the Capitals are showing cracks.

Washington's T.J. Oshie tried a weak excuse of a high hit against Kris Letang near the game's conclusion Thursday, doing no damage and causing Letang to label the attempt “good emotion.” What's the French word for “condescending”?

Oshie's teammate, Nicklas Backstrom, tossed his stick like a javelin and screamed abusive epithets about the NHL upon leaving the ice.

If Oshie's pre-game verbiage is any indication, the Capitals are far too rattled by Wilson's suspension. The Penguins were less troubled by not having the way superior Evgeni Malkin for the series' first two games.

The Penguins don't seem troubled, period, as reflected by their relatively calm execution of Plan B in Thursday's win.

Thursday was the Penguins' 305th competitive game since the start of the 2015-16 season. Fatigue can't help but be an issue. The Penguins can't go a million miles per hour every shift, every game. Not now.

So, taking a 2-1 lead into the third period, the Penguins decided to play defense. Turns out they're good at it. Who knew?

The Capitals had a lot of the puck over the last 20 minutes but only three shots on goal. The Penguins had seven, mostly via counterattack. The Capitals prefer to attack on the rush. The Penguins made them work down low. Washington sniper Alex Ovechkin had no shots on goal in the third period. In fact, Ovechkin had zero shots on goal for the game.

The Penguins kept the Capitals on the perimeter and the puck out of the house. It was nervy and hardly flawless. But it worked.

The players put their egos in check and did what was needed. Coach Mike Sullivan made some tough decisions, and they came out good.

Let's see how those decisions carry over to Saturday's Game 5 at Washington.

Sullivan benched Phil Kessel for the last seven minutes of Game 4. Kessel seems to be nursing an upper-body injury, though Sullivan downplayed that likelihood. Kessel never has been a defensive juggernaut.

Sullivan has Brassard doing fourth-line duty. He played just 9 minutes, 29 seconds at even strength, more than three minutes fewer than Riley Sheahan.

Sullivan moved Patric Hornqvist from Crosby's line to Evgeni Malkin's trio, obviously in an attempt to create balance. That's understandable. Putting Dominik Simon on Crosby's line was tougher to embrace. Including playoffs, Simon has just four goals in 39 games with the Penguins this season, and that encompasses lots of ice with Crosby and Guentzel.

But Simon had an assist Thursday and was plus-1 in 14:01 played. Maybe it doesn't matter who skates with Crosby and Guentzel.

The Capitals have home ice. It seems their series to win or lose.

Don't be surprised if they lose it.

Wilson got suspended, not Ovechkin or Backstrom. The Capitals' apparent hysteria over Wilson's ban reeks of looking for an excuse, as does their overreaction to Thursday's loss.

But the series figures to go seven games. Wilson would return for Game 7 and be greeted at D.C.'s Capital One Arena like Maximus at the Roman Colosseum. That's meant in the worst possible way.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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