PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins left the CONSOL Energy Center with a less-than-pretty 3-2 playoff win against the Washington Capitals Monday but won’t know what it cost them until Tuesday evening.
The excitement of rookie goalie Matt Murray’s posting a 47-save victory has to be tempered by concern that star defenseman Kris Letang could face a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety because of the illegal hit he laid on Washington forward Marcus Johansson in the first period.
No one is sure what will happen with Letang, but everyone is sure that Murray saved the Penguins in Game 3.
“It’s a culmination of things (with Murray),” said Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin. “His poise, quiet confidence, his calmness is well beyond his years.”
At 21, he boast a .944 save percentage and a 1.79 goals-against average. He’s drawing comparisons to the way young Patrick Roy performed for the Montreal Canadiens in 1986 or Cam Ward played for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. In both of those situations, young goalies led their teams to a Stanley Cup championship.
“I thought he was terrific,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan. “The disparity in shots was because (the Capitals) had the puck all night.”
But Murray’s performance was overshadowed by concern about Letang’s fate.
“It will be interesting how (the NHL Department of Player Safety) handles it,” said Washington goalie Braden Holtby. “If it is fair, he won’t be in the next game. But that’s out of our control.”
The fairness reference is about the fact that Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik is sitting out a three-game suspension for an illegal hit against Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta in Game 2. One major difference is that Maatta was injured to the point he couldn’t play Game 3. Johansson did return to the game.
“I didn’t see him coming,” Johansson said. “He came from the blind side. I just looked at it, he obviously leaves his feet, and hits me in the head. It’s the kind of play you want out of the league. Doesn’t look good.’’
He said he expects Letang to be suspended. ``I went through all the concussion tests and stuff like that. Just some issues with my neck right now,’’ Johannson said. ``I just got hit right in the head and a little whiplash I think. It is what it is.’’
Although Letang was given a two-minute minor for interference, the replay shows he came up high with his shoulder.
“Things happen fast,” said Letang, who said he was just trying to stop Johansson from driving to the net.
How much of the head did Letang get? Did he launch into the check? How long after Johansson released the puck was the hit delivered? All of those factors will be considered by the NHL office before it makes a decision.
“It’s a real physical series on both sides,” said Sullivan who didn’t want to discuss the Letang situation any further.
Although the Penguins won, they didn’t look as sharp as they did in the first two games in Washington. They now own a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal that resumes Wednesday with Game 4 in Pittsburgh.
Over the first 40 minutes, the Capitals out-shot Pittsburgh 28 to 14 and yet trailed 3-0 on goals by Patric Hornqvist, Tom Kuhnhackl and Carl Hagelin.
The Capitals had heightened focus in the third period when Alex Ovechkin scored his first goal of the series to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to two goals. Justin Williams scored with less than a minute left to make Washington fans nervous.
Murray’s strong goaltending prevented the Caps from rallying.
“We can’t expect to play like that and continue to win,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think we all understand that and we have to be better in Game 4.”
If the NHL decides that Letang should have a hearing, it would probably come Tuesday afternoon and the league would rule in the early evening. At least, that was the timing in the Orpik case.
“I don’t think you can replace a player like that,” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. “You can try to do it by committee, but he’s a guy – as hard as he plays, as well as he plays for as long as he plays, it’s very very tough to just replace a guy like that by committee. “
What makes the Letang situation more fascinating is that Monday afternoon Washington coach Barry Trotz insinuated that the NHL of giving the Penguins preferential treatment when Orpik was suspended three games.
“I'm disappointed, but not surprised (by the suspension length) based on who we're playing and all that," Trotz said.
When asked to elaborate, Trotz said: "Take it for whatever you want."