Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin.
Climbing out of a 2-0 hole against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins won't be easy, but it's not impossible with a roster as strong as the one the Capitals boast.
The old adage goes that a team’s not in trouble in a post-season series until they lose at home. So, if we’re to go by that, it would seem the Washington Capitals are in a load of trouble following the first two games of their first-round matchup.
As the series shifts to Pittsburgh Monday, the Capitals find themselves trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven, having squandered the opportunity to take advantage of home-ice advantage to start the series. In both of the opening games, there were times where the Capitals looked incredibly threatening, but that doesn’t change the fact coach Barry Trotz’s club dropped a tight Game 1 before getting blown out 6-2 in a Game 2 laugher.
But one game does not a series make, and the same goes for two. Washington proved their mettle in the regular season by capturing the Presidents’ Trophy for a second-straight year and now’s the time for that success to translate into some hard-fought playoff victories. It’s not going to be easy for the Capitals to come back and dethrone the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, but it’s far from impossible.
Here are five ways the Capitals reverse their fortunes in this series:
Braden Holtby winning the goaltending duel
Holtby won’t be alone in shutting down a star-studded Pittsburgh offense, but the last line of defense has to ensure that nothing – or very little – gets by him. Coming into the series, the one area the Capitals were believed to have the surefire edge was in goal, where Braden Holtby was set to be pitted against Marc-Andre Fleury. While the former Penguins starter is far from the worst option for Pittsburgh, Washington’s advantage was supposed to be sizeable. That hasn’t been the case thus far.
Things can change, though, and maybe Trotz’s decision to give Holtby the hook in Game 2 can spur the Capitals netminder on to a few game-stealing victories. He’s had a couple big games in the playoffs, specifically a 37-save series-clinching performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, and now’s the time for him to have another. Holtby can steal the series if he’s at the very top of his game.
Turning back the clock on Marc-Andre Fleury
This doesn’t exactly go hand-in-hand with Holtby winning the goaltending duel, because Holtby won’t even have to be that sharp if the Capitals can make the Fleury of present look more like the Fleury of old.
Before this post-season, Fleury had posted a .906 save percentage and 2.66 goals-against average in 98 playoff games. That’s not to mention that in seven playoff outings against the Capitals heading into this series, Fleury had an ugly .878 save percentage. However, those seven games came all the way back in 2009, and Fleury has been a different player this post-season, boasting a .936 SP, 2.37 GAA and winning all but one game.
Fleury has shown some holes, though. Across Game 3 and 4 against the Blue Jackets, Columbus notched nine goals and Fleury posted an .873 SP. There’s no guarantee a similar scoring run comes for the Capitals, but if they keep putting 35-plus shots on goal each game, they’re bound to get some breaks. Once Fleury has a tough outing, maybe Washington can get in his head.
Alex Ovechkin blasting the Capitals to a win
The Ovechkin-versus-Sidney Crosby storyline is a dead horse that’s been so beaten the thing has vaporized. And this isn’t about Ovechkin-versus-Crosby or Ovechin-versus-anyone. Ovechkin will catch some heat if the Capitals don’t win this series but, at this point, that would be entirely undeserved. He has three points in two games, a goal and two assists, and has put six shots on net. He’s making Fleury and the Penguins’ defense work for their wins.
That said, Ovechkin can be a game-breaker, and now is the time for him to have that game-changing outing. One point is good, two points is better, but having that statement game, the refuse-to-lose type performance that everyone wants from him, could spark the entire roster. Ovechkin has that in him and his four goals and six points this post-season are strong numbers. Let’s see him get back to the same form from the 2009 series, where he potted a hat trick, including the game-winner, in a 4-3 win over the Penguins.
Depth scoring coming alive
Expecting Ovechkin to almost singlehandedly power the Capitals to one win is a lot to ask no matter how bright his star shines. That’s why the rest of the offense will need to step up around Ovechkin, especially those scorers who had some moments of brilliance in the opening round against the Maple Leafs.
So far, in the second round, here’s who has found the score sheet for Washington: Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Matt Niskanen. That is four members of the top six and a top-pairing blueliner. Eller is the only forward who doesn’t take a top-six shift who has made any impact on the series and that’s simply not good enough to defeat a deep Penguins team.
For every goal Scott Wilson or Matt Cullen scores for Pittsburgh, Washington has to hope for an answer from the likes of Tom Wilson or Andre Burakovsky. When best-on-best go at it, match-ups can cancel each other out. That’s why depth scoring will be of utmost important going forward.
Kevin Shattenkirk proving he was worth deadline deal
The Capitals made a big play at the deadline to solidify themselves as Cup contenders by shipping Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, a first-round pick and a conditional 2019 second-rounder to the Blues for Kevin Shattenkirk. It was believed an already strong back end had only gotten stronger and that Shattenkirk, even if not the most savvy defender, could put Washington over the top.
Shattenkirk has certainly helped on the power play, where he has three assists, but that’s not exactly an area the Capitals needed the most help. Washington already had the fifth-best power play in the league before acquiring Shattenkirk. He’s yet to provide any even-strength offense for the Capitals in the post-season and is barely being used more than Nate Schmidt through two games against the Penguins.
Shattenkirk is getting the chances, though. He’s got a 69.2 percent scoring chance for percentage in the series, has been on ice for eight high-danger chances for and one against and play has been heavily in the Capitals’ favor when Shattenkirk is on the ice. But now he has to chip in and show he can make a difference.
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