Now that Mike Sullivan and Barry Trotz have matched wits in a playoff series for three consecutive years, they harbor very few secrets.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals know each other inside-out from 17 postseason games since 2016. The coaches are very familiar with the dynamics of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and just about all the other moving pieces.
“Every move that we make there’s a counter move, and every move they make there’s a little counter move,” Trotz said. “It’s funny: A lot of them are the same things that we’ve seen at different parts in the last couple series. They just come in different order sometimes at you. There’s only maybe so many bricks that you have and they are just lined up a different way all the time.”
Sullivan moved his pieces around as Pittsburgh tied the series at 2-2, and now Trotz gets the next chance in their chess match for Game 5 on Saturday (7 p.m. EDT, NBC). After Alex Ovechkin put no shots on net for the third time in his playoff career — with Tom Wilson suspended the first of three games — it starts with finding the right mix on the top line.
Trotz tried Devante Smith-Pelly with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and that trio was outshot 21-9 at even strength. Maybe Smith-Pelly will be back on that line, maybe he won’t after the Capitals coaching staff pored over video to see what went wrong.
“We’re looking at that,” Trotz said. “I think that whole line has to be better for us. They’re going to need to be productive.”
Pittsburgh’s top line of Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and whoever else has been incredibly productive. All 10 of the Penguins’ goals in the series have come with Crosby on the ice, and Guentzel leads all players in the playoffs with 10 goals and 21 points.
“I just think he’s the best player in the game,” Sullivan said of Crosby, who played with Guentzel and Dominik Simon in Game 4. “Sid certainly makes everybody around him better players but you’ve got to give Jake a lot of credit for the game that he’s playing.”
The Penguins got speedy winger Carl Hagelin back from injury while the Capitals lost Wilson. That’s a disadvantage for Washington, but the spotlight is still on Trotz to make the necessary adjustments as Capitals-Penguins becomes a best-of-three series.
“I think every game both teams recalibrate, if you will, in some areas,” Trotz said. “There’s little changes we’ve noticed with them, and there’s some changes that we added in. Some of them worked and some of them didn’t have the effect that we wanted to. At the end of the day, it’s two guys going nose to nose, battling for position, battling for free pucks, executing on plays under pressure. Once we put a plan in place, we put the players in charge, really.”
CHESS MATCH II
In the West, Nashville coach Peter Laviolette also made a key change in the series between the NHL’s top two teams, benching Game 2 double-overtime hero Kevin Fiala in favor of veteran Scott Hartnell for more size, strength and experience against Winnipeg. That, plus replacing Alexei Emelin with Yannick Weber, allowed Nashville to better counter imposing Winnipeg defenseman Dustin Byfuglien in tying the series at 2-2. Game 5 is Saturday night in Nashville (9:30 p.m. EDT, NBCSN).
Laviolette said making a change involves taking into account the opposition, building, a player’s experience and style of play.
“They’re never easy,” Laviolette said. “But I thought the guys that went in the lineup last night did a really good job. Hartnell played a good game. He did what we were hoping he would do, and I thought Yannick Weber went in and played a good game.”
With the Jets held without a shot for the first 12 minutes of the third period, Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice started mixing up his lines. He swapped centers, skating Mark Scheifele with Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine with Paul Stastny between Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor. Laine scored his first goal of the series and first in the postseason since Game 2 on April 13 against Minnesota.
DERBY DAY ODDS
The betting favorite to win these two series will be whoever comes out on top in Game 5, based on history alone. The 256 previous times where it was tied at 2, the Game 5 winner went on to win the series 78.9 percent of the time. So there’s no urgency lacking.
“We’re going to need our best effort of the series probably in Game 5 to get a win,” Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I think we’re building a belief that we can beat these guys. We know we’re going to have to play really well, but it’s possible. We think we can do it.”
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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