The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals in seven games to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Penguins won the first two games of the series in Washington before the two teams split the games in Pittsburgh. Although the Capitals came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Penguins to tie the series 3-3, they were unable to complete the comeback falling short 2-0 in Game 7. For the ninth time in ten all-time playoff series between the two franchises, the Penguins came out on top. It was a hard fought series that came down to goaltending and depth as the x-factors of the Penguins victory.
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Second Round Series Recap
The Goaltending Battle
Marc-Andre Fleury went into the second round series for the Penguins with many expecting that he would be the series’ second best goalie. With Braden Holtby as a Vezina Trophy candidate, he expected to play a big part in whether or not the Capitals would win. However, in the seven games, Holtby put up just a .877 save percentage and 2.42 goals against average. Fleury posted a modest .918 save percentage and 2.57 goals against average.
While Fleury allowed a goal more than Holtby in the series, he was clearly the better goalie and often had to come up strong to keep his team in the game. Early in the series, Holtby was a liability for the Capitals as he had two sub .900 save percentage performances. This gave the Penguins an early stranglehold on the series. By contrast, Fleury was the reason the Penguins stayed in the game during the first period of Game 7. If not for Fleury, the Penguins could have been out of the game early. With Fleury holding his own, the rest of the team took over and never turned back.
The biggest story line of the series was the concussion Sidney Crosby suffered in Game 3. Crosby sustained his concussion following a crosscheck by Capitals defenseman, and former teammate, Matt Niskanen. The play was controversial, considered by some to be dirty with Niskanen having crosschecked Crosby in the head. The league deemed the play was not suspendable due to Crosby being in the process of falling when contact was made. This concussion was the fifth of Crosby’s NHL career.
Adding to the controversy, Crosby came back quickly from the concussion, only missing Game 4. It even led to some fans doubting the superstar ever had a concussion. After everything the league has learned about concussions, it is hard to believe that the Penguins training staff would have allowed Crosby to play if he had not cleared protocol. Especially considering it is his fifth concussion, they must have been cautious in deciding whether he was able to play. With his whole concussion history, it was expected that Crosby would be out long term. Nonetheless, he missed only one game before returning to the lineup and helping the Penguins finish off the Capitals.
Capitals Fight Not Enough
Heading into Game 5, the Capitals found themselves down 3-1 in the series, on the verge of yet another second round elimination. Alex Ovechkin was demoted to the third line in an attempt to get the team going. The Capitals were outplayed through four games and needed a spark.
After two periods of play in Game 5, the Capitals trailed 2-1. It seemed over for the President’s Trophy winners. However, they were able to find offense from Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin. This sent the series back to Pittsburgh where the Capitals offense came alive yet again. This time they beat the defending Champions 5-2 to bring the series back home, in a full-team effort.
Despite the Capitals increased offense in Games 5 and 6, all it took for the Penguins was for Fleury to find his game and shift the momentum. This allowed the Penguins to play a more conservative style and capitalize on their chances. Bryan Rust scored the series winner at 8:49 into the second period of Game 7. It seemed to be a back-breaker for the Capitals who barely generated any offense afterward. With the Capitals losing again, many questions surround their off-season as to what their future will entail.
The Penguins Have the Capitals Number
Although they were without their top defenseman in Kris Letang, the Penguins were able to shutdown the Capitals big scoring threats for the most part of the series. The Capitals often had trouble containing the counter-attack of the Penguins. Despite being outscored 18-17, the Penguins were able to push and win the close games. Their counter-attack approach, in the end, won the series. The Capitals offense came from their top players on most nights, while the Penguins offense was more spread throughout the lineup. When it came down to it, the Penguins team depth is what helped get them through to Round 3.
While it was originally expected to be a battle between Crosby and Ovechkin in this series. It was Crosby’s sidekick Evgeni Malkin who led all players in points during the series with seven. Malkin’s scoring is evidence of the forward depth on the Penguins team.
Although both teams had their ups and downs, the Penguins ultimately won this series on depth and goaltending. They will start the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday against the Ottawa Senators. It remains to be seen what is next for the Capitals, who have many pending unrestricted free agents on their roster.