For the third straight season, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will meet in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Penguins have won the previous two, needing six games in 2016 and seven games last post-season. They’ve beaten the Capitals three times in the Crosby-Ovechkin era and nine out of 10 times overall. What will some key storylines for this second-round series be?
Series Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals
The goaltending matchup will be slightly different than last year in this series. This time it’s Matt Murray who’s starting after Marc-Andre Fleury started last season. Braden Holtby has regained his net after not playing in the first two games against Columbus and he won’t be letting it go anytime soon. He won his first four games of the playoffs and posted a .932 save percentage.
For Murray, he had a .911 save percentage after the first round. He played outstanding in games one, three, and four but struggled a bit in the three other games. He also struggled against the Capitals this season, going 2-2 with a .899 save percentage. In 2016 against the Capitals, he was over .920 four out of the six games and over .940 in three of the six games. Murray is going to have to play better, maybe not at a .940 level that he played last season or that Fleury almost did a year ago, but he’s going to have to be better than he has been of late. He’s been trying to find his form ever since he came back from injury and he showed signs of it against the Flyers when he was just dominant in games three and four. He’s at his best after a loss as he’s 10-1 all-time and has a save percentage of .927 and a goals-against average of 1.82.
For Holtby, he simply needs to be better against the Penguins. The last couple years, including the regular season, he hasn’t been as good against the Penguins as he has against other teams. Last season in the playoffs, he went 3-4 with a .887 save percentage. In this years regular season, he went 1-2 with a .897 save percentage. Even in the 2016 series, he allowed 10 goals in three games in Pittsburgh. At home, only six goals in three games. Washington needs to get at least average goaltending to have a chance to take down Pittsburgh.
Special teams battle
This series will feature two of the best power plays in the league against one another. It’s been that way the two previous years as well. Washington burned Columbus in their previous series going 9/27. Having a 33.3% advantage for a power play isn’t fair and Columbus couldn’t stop them. Their set-up is just great too as they can put John Carlson on the point with Ovechkin in his normal spot, Nicklas Backstrom down low, T.J. Oshie in the slot, and Evgeny Kuznetsov on the right half-wall. It’s a great unit and Pittsburgh will have to make sure they stay out of the box as much as they can.
For Pittsburgh’s power play, assuming that Evgeni Malkin is healthy enough to go, it was the best power play in the league this season. It clicked at 26.2% and it saved the Penguins early on in the regular season. Their setup is just as good, if not better than Washington’s.
They can put Kris Letang/Justin Schultz on the point, Phil Kessel on the left half-wall, Malkin on the right half-wall, Crosby down low, and Patric Hornqvist being a Tomas Holmstrom clone right in front of the net. Even if you don’t take too many penalties against them, they can still burn the other team when they get a chance, same with Washington. Overall, Pittsburgh went 5/25 against Philadelphia which isn’t bad and this should be a great battle with two outstanding power plays.
Penalty-kill wise, both teams did an outstanding job in the first round. Pittsburgh rebounded after a shaky regular season on the penalty kill by killing 19 of the 21 Flyers power plays. Washington killed 20 of 24 power plays that Columbus had.
This is going to be a lot of fun to track to see how Mike Sullivan and Barry Trotz matchup their lines against each other. Sullivan could conceivably want his third line out against Washington’s third line for most of the series. That’s a matchup that could favor Pittsburgh. The Sheary-Brassard-Rust line has become red-hot and it would be out against the Capitals third line of Connolly-Eller-Smith-Pelly in this series. Brassard is still trying to play his best hockey with the Penguins and this could be a great opportunity for him assuming he gets this matchup.
Carlson will obviously be out against the Crosby line which was dominant against Philadelphia. Crosby feasted on the Flyers with 13 points in six games as did Jake Guentzel, who had four goals in game six. Carlson’s been the Capitals best defenseman this season and had the best season of his career to date so this will be a dandy to watch. ‘
For Washington, the Ovechkin line is likely to see a heavy load of the Letang-Dumoulin pairing. This will be a big test for Letang as he’s had an up-and-down season since returning from neck surgery a year ago. Ovechkin is still the best goal scorer in hockey and had himself quite the first round. He had five goals and eight points, two of those goals coming in game six. Overall in the playoffs, he has 51 goals and 98 points in 103 career playoff games. If he gets going again against Pittsburgh, it could turn a bit ugly for the two-time defending champions.
There’s still some uncertainty on whether Malkin and Carl Hagelin will be ready for the start of the series as both missed practice on Tuesday. If they aren’t, that would mean Riley Sheahan slides up to be the second-line centre. Trotz may just line match his second line against that line considering Malkin would be out.
Overall, some of the matchups even-strength wise will be crucial in this series as both coaches will likely have to make adjustments if some of their deployments aren’t going according to plan.
This series is going seven games, there’s no doubt about it. They’ve gone to seven games two of the three previous times they’ve met in the playoffs. Washington is weaker than they were from the past couple years and combine that with Pittsburgh’s depth and scoring, it’s hard to not pick the Penguins again in this series.
Penguins in 7