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The Morning Narrative: Big Skates to Fill, All Eyes on Geno... and Some on Nick

Three things we’re talking about this morning when we’re talking about the Caps

Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. One needs look no further than Game 3 to know that with or without Sidney Crosby (who will miss Game 4 with a concussion) in the lineup, the Penguins are an incredibly dangerous team that can give the Washington Capitals fits. Still, that’s a gaping hole that simply can’t be filled... on paper:

And the Caps have taken advantage of Crosby’s absence in the past:

But before you chalk Game 4 up to Washington, note that one of those games came on Opening Night of this season (which, incidentally, feels like a lifetime ago)... a 3-2 shootout loss to a Pens team with Marc-Andre Fleury in net.

Like we said, the loss of Crosby changes everything... on paper. But if this series was played on paper, the Caps would be up 3-0 right now. They’re not. There’s absolutely no reason to think that Game 4 won’t be a tight and hard-fought battle that could go either way. Buckle up.

2. So who steps up in Sid’s (and Conor Sheary’s) absence?

No, probably not those guys (although that would be so Caps). All eyes are on #71:

There are plenty of healthy Pens that can kill the Caps (the names “Kessel,” “Geuntzel,” “Bonino,” “Hagelin,” “Rust,” “Hornqvist,” among others, come to mind, in no particular order). But a focus on Malkin is a must, particularly seeing as he’s been on absolute fire these playoffs:

With the last line change, Mike Sullivan is going to have an easy time getting Geno out against whomever he wants to. In Game 3, that was Jay Beagle, to tremendous success. Via Natural Stat Trick:

In Game 4, it’s incumbent upon Barry Trotz to be aware every time he’s putting Beagle on the ice to do so in a situation (five-man deployment, face-off zone, Malkin’s readiness for a shift) that won’t be handing Pittsburgh easy scoring chances with their most dangerous weapons. And it’s not just Beagle:

Malkin vs. Brook Orpik, Karl Alzner and Beagle, individually, were three of the most-lopsided head-to-head match-ups at five-on-five over the course of the teams’ four regular season meetings. As much as Trotz leans on Beagle as his shutdown center, and Alzner and Orpik to perform the same roles from the back end, they don’t appear to be up to the task of handling Malkin (which is nothing of which to be ashamed - few are), and an unwise deployment could be the difference between 2-2 and 1-3.

3. One guy who has shown he can handle Malkin (to the extent anyone can) is Nicklas Backstrom, who is quietly having a terrific playoffs. Per Caps Today:

Nicklas Backstrom registered two points (1g, 1a) in Game 3 at Pittsburgh (5/1), marking his second consecutive multi-point game (4/29 vs. PIT: 1g, 1a) and team-leading fourth multi-point game of the postseason. In addition, Monday marked his 17th career postseason multi-point game. Backstrom has tallied 10 points (4g, 6a) in nine games this postseason and ranks tied for fourth in the NHL in points and tied for fifth in assists and goals. The Gavle, Sweden, native has recorded 22 points in his last 22 playoff games (5/13/15-5/1/17: 6g, 16a) and has earned 16 points (5g, 11a) in 16 career playoff games against Pittsburgh.

Backstrom’s four multi-point games in these playoffs is second in the League (behind Malkin), and he’s the top non-Penguin scorer in the tournament so far. He’s also sporting one of the circuit’s top score- and venue-adjusted Scoring-Chance For percentages (minimum 120 minutes). Per Corsica:

The Caps’ top line has been very good throughout the playoffs, and Trotz should continue to ride them as hard as he can. If Sullivan wants to avoid matching Malkin against them, that’s less time for Geno; if he chooses to go power-vs-power against the Caps, that’s a match-up the Caps can hopefully come out of even if not better.

For the Caps to have any success in the post-season, Nicklas Backstrom has to be a difference maker. So far, he has been. Quietly, of course.