PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins will be without defenseman Kris Letang when they face the Capitals for Game 4 of their second-round playoff series Wednesday night here at Consol Energy Center.
Letang has been suspended one game for his open-ice check to the head of Capitals left wing Marcus Johansson, who missed Tuesday’s practice with an upper body injury.
“He’s the backbone of their defense,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said of Letang, who leads the Penguins in average ice time with 29:13 a game. “He goes back for pucks and gets them out of his zone with a pass or a flip. He transitions the puck and logs key minutes on their PP.”
With Letang out of the lineup the Penguins likely will turn to Justin Schultz and Derrick Pouliot for their third defense pairing. The two young defensemen have combined for just two career playoff games.
“He’s an important player for them,” Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie said. “He plays both sides of the puck, he plays big minutes for them. We lost a key component on our D line in (Brooks Orpik). Everyone has to make adjustments. It’s a big loss for them but they’ve got some players who can make a difference too.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz said he doesn’t think Letang’s one-game suspension will change anything for the Penguins, but it will heighten the importance of the Capitals’ game plan of targeting Pittsburgh’s defensemen.
“They have an identity,” Trotz said of the Penguins, “and they’ll try to play to their identity. Kris is a tremendous defenseman in this league. He’s a top guy. They’re just going to have to try to fill the void like we are with Brooks out.”
Unlike Game 2, when Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta did not return after taking a hit from Brooks Orpik, Johansson returned to play the second and third periods in Game 3 after absorbing the hit from Letang. Johansson finished the game with a career-high nine hits in the game.
“Nothing should lessen (the length of a suspension),” Trotz before the suspension was announced. “… I said a lot yesterday and I’m probably going to say not very much today. You know my thoughts from yesterday. I read all them.”
Trotz insinuated on Monday that the NHL gave Orpik a three-game suspension because the Penguins are their opponents.
As for what goes on inside the NHL Department of Player Safety, Wilson said it varies from hit to hit. He referenced Brayden Schenn’s chop at the back of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s right leg in the first round against the Flyers. If Kuznetsov was injured on the play, Wilson said he’s certain Schenn would have been suspended.
“The league looks at a million different things,” Wilson said. “They slow it down to a fraction of a second and see exactly where the contact was and they take into consideration how the other player’s doing. It’s unfortunate it has to come down to how the other player’s doing. It should be more black and white. But if you see a guy go down with a concussion, the hit is usually a little more severe.”
Wilson joked that he’d love for the NHL to turn back the clock 20 years and let players settle their grievances on the ice.
“I’d love to be able to go out there and drop the gloves and grab Letang, but it’s a new age,” Wilson said. “It’s not old-school hockey anymore.”