Here we go again. For the second year in a row, the Pens and Caps will meet each other in the 2nd round of the NHL playoffs. It would make a great Conference Finals matchup (wink, wink, NHL), but based on the current format, we’ll have to settle for round two of this marquee matchup in the 2nd round instead. Now that shots at the league are out of the way, let’s get down to business.
Previewing the Penguins (50-21-11, 111 points; 4-1 in playoffs)
The Penguins eliminated the 4th best team in the NHL in the first round of the playoffs, dispensing the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games, who themselves had a franchise-best regular season. It was an intense series that felt longer than five games, and was of a better quality than a five-game series suggests.
Goaltender Matt Murray re-aggravated a groin injury in warm-ups for game one of the series, leaving Marc-Andre Fleury as the starter. He filled in just fine starting all five games recording a .933 save percentage in the series, with a whopping .967 save percentage in the three games at home. He did struggle in the two games on the road, posting a forgettable .873 save percentage. Now, the team as a whole didn’t play very well on the road, especially in game four (the only game lost), but Fleury was still night and day with his home/road splits, keeping consistent with his regular season numbers.
The stars for the Penguins shined in the first round. Evgeni Malkin racked up a team-high 11 points (2G, 9A), Phil Kessel registered eight points (2G, 6A), and Sidney Crosby tallied seven points (2G, 5A). Jake Guentzel continued his success on Crosby’s line, scoring a league-leading five goals in the series.
The Penguins missed star-defenseman Kris Letang, who was diagnosed earlier in the month with a herniated disc that required surgery. The Penguins’ transition game struggled a bit, putting pressure on the defense and goaltending, while handcuffing the Penguins from establishing a good forecheck at times during the series. Overall, the defense did play pretty solid despite being without their best defenseman, including Olli Maatta whacking a puck out of mid-air that was seeming to go into the Pittsburgh net. Ron Hainsey played in his NHL playoff series of his long career, and even registered his first postseason goal.
Evgeni Malkin was the only Penguin to return from injury during the series. Chris Kunitz, Chad Ruhwedel, and Carl Hagelin all sat out the entire series.
How the Penguins will win: Speed, speed, speed. Just as last season showed, speed is the answer. They have to be smart in their own zone and their transition game has to be better than it was against Columbus, but the Penguins’ speed is the x-factor. If the Penguins play tight and smart with the puck, their speed and skill can overwhelm the Capitals and outlast them over the course of seven games. As head coach Mike Sullivan puts it, “Just play.”
Previewing the Capitals (55-19-8, 118 points; 4-2 in playoffs)
The Capitals had another amazing regular season, repeating as Metropolitan Division Champions and repeating as the President’s Trophy winner. Those are impressive accolades, but as the learned last season, the playoffs are a whole other animal. They are a team built for playoff success and are hungry to beat the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Washington beat the up-and-coming Toronto Maple Leafs in six games in the first round of the playoffs. It was a tight and intense series with five of the six games going into at least one overtime period. The Capitals and Maple Leafs each split games in Washington and Toronto in the first four game, and then Washington took games five and six.
Washington never looked to really take control of this series. They didn’t play their best hockey and Braden Holtby was mediocre. Their stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with savvy veterans like playoff-tested Justin Williams and former-Penguins Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen boast an impressive lineup, but the Capitals will have to step up their game against the second-best team in the regular season.
Washington does have home-ice advantage for the series, and that may have a big effect. Washington posted a league-best 32-7-2 record at home this season. And with Penguins’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at least starting the series between the pipes for Pittsburgh (who has struggled on the road), that could be a huge benefit for the Capitals. They will need to have that killer instinct at home.
How the Capitals will win: The Capitals will have to take their game to the Penguins. Forecheck, disrupt the Penguins’ transition game, pepper Fleury. They cannot wait to counter-punch the Penguins, or they’ll suffer the same fate as last season. They need to make their home-ice advantage count, especially with Fleury in goal for the Penguins. A neutral-zone trap can disrupt the Penguins’ transition game, so if head coach Barry Trotz is smart, he’ll be implementing some sort of trap.
Penguins/Capitals Playoff History
This will mark the tenth time the Pens and Caps have met in the playoffs. The Penguins have been dominant in the previous nine meetings, winning eight of them while posting a 34-21 record. The Penguins have also had to beat Washington in the playoffs every time the Penguins have won the Cup. Clearly for Pittsburgh, the road to Cup glory goes through Washington, and in order to raise Lord Stanley again, 2017 will be no different. Here’s a quick recap of the playoff history of these two teams:
1991: Penguins win 4-1 (Penguins won Stanley Cup)
1992: Penguins win 4-3 (Penguins won Stanley Cup)
1994: Capitals win 4-2
1995: Penguins win 4-3
1996: Penguins win 4-2
2000: Penguins win 4-1
2001: Penguins win 4-2
2009: Penguins win 4-3 (Penguins won Stanley Cup)
2016: Penguins win 4-2 (Penguins won Stanley Cup)
Matchups To Watch For
Crosby vs. Ovechkin. It seems so obvious, and a little overhyped to tell the truth, but it is still worth mentioning. These are two of the greatest players of their generation. They thrilled the hockey world in 2009, while both men played out of their minds. 2016 definitely saw a bit of a difference while the role players of both teams made big impacts on the series. Both men still played solid, but didn’t light up the scoresheet. Evgeni Malkin may have something to say about the marquee matchup too if he can build off of a stellar first round.
Capitals’ Size/Grit vs. Penguins’ Speed/Skill. This is the most important matchup and will most likely decide the series. Columbus tried to run around and punch the Penguins in the mouth in the first round. When the 3rd period would come around, the Blue Jackets would be gassed and the Penguins skated circles around them. If Washington tries a similar game, the Penguins have the advantage. Washington isn’t built to run like Pittsburgh. If they try to, they’ll fail. Don’t forget, Washington has plenty of skill themselves. If Washington slows it down, establishes a forecheck, matches skill with skill, Washington may run away with it. For Pittsburgh, make Washington chase you. Overwhelm them with speed. If the Penguins can force Washington to skate with them, the Penguins take the advantage. This will be fun to watch.
- G Matt Murray (groin – not skating)
- LW Chris Kunitz (lower body – practicing; game-time decision for game one)
- D Chad Ruhwedel (upper body – practicing; game-time decision for game one)
- LW Carl Hagelin (foot – practicing with non-contact jersey; day-to-day)
- D Kris Letang (neck – IR; out 4-6 months)
- Karl Alzner (upper body – not cleared to play; day-to-day)
This will be a fun series. Last year’s series was exciting and this year should be no different on that front. This year, I’m concerned about the absence of Kris Letang from the lineup. The Pens got away with some bad play in the defensive zone and on the break out against Columbus, but that won’t fly against Washington. I don’t think most fans realize just how important he is to the Penguins’ game. He has an impact on all 200 feet of ice and his absence was noticeable with the Penguins’ transition game against Columbus. Even though Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky had a better regular season than Washington’s Braden Holtby, Holtby is a better goaltender and is playoff tested. It will be a bigger challenge for Pittsburgh to score on him. Add in that Washington has home-ice advantage and that Fleury has been awful on the road all of this season and in the two road games in Columbus, this is not a good recipe for winning. If the Penguins had Letang, I’d take the Penguins in six because he’s a game-changer, but with the scenarios the way they are, the Penguins will have to be perfect at home and steal a game in Washington, something very hard to do. Either team winning would not surprise me at all. I can see very realistic scenarios that play out well for both teams. And honestly, the winner of this series wins the Cup. Washington is running out of time. They have several players becoming unrestricted free agents this offseason and keeping that team together will be difficult. The million-dollar question is: Will Washington finally put it together and get their Cup?
Nope. Penguins in 7.