Patric Hornqvist tussles with Matt Niskanen Image by: Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: How They Win, 5 Things To Watch, THN Series Prediction and Playoff Depth Charts.
Why, why must it be the Penguins again? This is surely the sentiment of many Capitals fans and, behind closed doors, perhaps some of the Caps themselves. But the playoff dominance that Pittsburgh has lorded over Washington must be faced and the star power that has always made these matchups incredible in the past is still front and center.
Once again, two of the biggest names in hockey meet, with captains Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby renewing their, admittedly, one-sided rivalry. This time, there are zero expectations on the Caps: outside the Beltway, most hockey folks just assume they will crumble in the second round as per usual. But it would only take one series to reverse history’s course and you can never completely count out a team with so much talent.
How The Capitals Win
The power play that was so good in the regular season has continued to be a strong suit for Washington, which has the luxury of Ovechkin setting up in his office near the top of the circle. The Caps cashed in on 33 percent of their man advantages against Columbus and if they are going to hang with the Penguins, the power play – and the team's offense as a whole – must continue to produce.
In net, the Capitals have a Vezina Trophy winner in Braden Holtby and he has returned to form in the post-season after an uncharacteristically shaky regular season. Since getting benched in favor of backup Philipp Grubauer to begin the first round, Holtby won all four starts to help Washington wipe out an early 2-0 series lead for the Blue Jackets. During that span, Holtby registered a 1.92 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. Not only that, but he has clearly used the opening round snub as motivation, much to Washington’s benefit.
On the back end, defenseman John Carlson has continued to put up points while logging heavy minutes. The pairing of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov has also been very effective and, given the Caps’ lack of depth, this is a necessary development.
How The Penguins Win
When it comes to playoff hockey, it has often seemed lately as though Pittsburgh has been playing chess while its opponent is stuck on checkers. That was the case for much of the Philadelphia series and it will be imperative that Washington doesn’t get sucked down the same drain. The Penguins are a fast, smart and experienced team with two of the best centers in the world in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (though Malkin has been ruled out of Game 1 due to a lower-body injury sustained against the Flyers). That depth down the middle got even better this season when GM Jim Rutherford snagged Derick Brassard at the deadline from Ottawa, ostensibly giving the Penguins two No. 1 centers and a second-liner playing on the third line.
On the back end, Pittsburgh boasts a largely workmanlike group that simply retrieves the puck and gets it up to the potent forwards without much fuss. Kris Letang and Justin Schultz bring some offensive flash to the group, but when you have all those centers plus wingers such as Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel, the defense corps’ job doesn’t have to be too complicated.
In net, the Penguins have a goalie in Matt Murray who literally doesn’t know what it’s like to finish an NHL season without hoisting the Stanley Cup. Murray was up and down in the Flyers series, but he’s still a heckuva safety blanket back there.
Five Things To Watch
1. War of attrition. In what will be a high-wattage series, the Penguins come in down two forwards already. In addition to Malkin, speedster Carl Hagelin is also on the shelf. Both players bring a ton of playoff experience and other Pens will have to step up in their absence.
2. Depth on the back end. Washington’s ‘D’ corps is quite uneven this year, a result of a salary cap crunch. While Carlson, Niskanen and Orlov all played big minutes against Columbus, the bottom end of the blueline was utilized far less. Jakub Jerabek and Christian Djoos split sixth-man duties in the first round, but they can’t hide against Pittsburgh.
3. Coaching battle. There were thoughts that Washington’s Barry Trotz would be fired if his team didn’t get past Columbus, but the Caps made it. Nonetheless, he’s got a big challenge on the other bench in Mike Sullivan, who has two Cups in his two full seasons with Pittsburgh (he came in as a mid-season replacement the year prior). Playoffs have not been kind to Trotz; he has never been past the second round in the NHL. Can he get over the humpthis time?
4. The long, hard road. No team has played more games in the past three seasons than Pittsburgh. The Penguins won the past two Cups and now have 88 games under their belt in 2017-18. Does it catch up to them at some point ? So far, Crosby is humming along as one of the top scorers in the post-season, but that’s a lot of miles. The same can be said for veterans such as Kessel and Patric Hornqvist.
5) Sid vs. Ovie: It’s the storyline that won’t go away until Ovechkin beats Crosby in a meaningful head-to-head. Can Washington break its curse against Pittsburgh after years of futility? Can Ovie finally face Crosby in a handshake line on the positive end of things? And will Ovechkin be a difference-maker in the series?
THN series prediction: Penguins in seven.
LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES