For the NHL’s marketing department and NBC’s television executives, it’s a playoff matchup made in heaven as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin renew acquaintances in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 in a showdown of two teams with no love lost for each other. For both hardcore and casual fans, the second-round series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals has a chance to be an absolute classic between the two teams that had the two highest point totals in the Eastern Conference. This will be the ninth postseason meeting between these two longtime rivals, with the Penguins having won seven of the previous eight series, including that seven-game classic from the second round of the 2009 playoffs. Pittsburgh also won three of their five regular season contests against the Capitals. In the past, this is a series that probably might not have happened until the Eastern Conference Finals, but because of the NHL’s bracket format for the postseason, hockey fans get to see what should be an entertaining series that features more star power than just Crosby and Ovechkin. Although those two aren’t too shabby themselves.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Pittsburgh: They easily dispatched an over-matched New York Rangers squad in five games in the first round. Pittsburgh’s speed, skill, and their ability to quickly transition from defense to offense was too much for New York to overcome, as they chased Rangers star goalie Henrik Lundqvist out of the net three times in that series. Despite missing Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes due to his second concussion of the season, the Penguins managed just fine with rookie Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff picking up the slack. Pittsburgh’s special teams were also dominant in this series.
Washington: The Capitals roared out to a 3-0 series lead on the Philadelphia Flyers, and it looked like they would have no trouble breaking out the brooms in what looked to be an easy sweep. But then Philly made the switch from the struggling Steve Mason to Michal Neuvirth in net, allowing them to win the next two games, including a 44-save shutout by Neuvirth in Game 5. However, Braden Holtby picked up his second shutout of the series in Game 6’s 1-0 victory as the Caps only allowed only six goals in the entire series, with one of them into an empty net. Washington’s power play and penalty kill units were crucial in the series victory.
KEYS TO THE SERIES
Special Teams: Both teams’ power play and penalty killing units were absurdly successful in the opening round of the playoffs. Washington’s power play operated at a success rate of 29.6% against Philly in the first round, including an astronomical 5-for-9 rate in Game 3. Their penalty killing unit successfully killed off an astonishing 95.8% of the power plays they faced in the opening round. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s penalty killing unit was successful 89.5% of the time in the first round, including a shorthanded goal. But even more impressive was the Penguins’ power play, which buried the Rangers to the tune of an NHL-best 38.1% success rate in that series. Whichever team can get their power play going will make their lives a whole lot easier in this series.
Goaltending: Throughout much of the season, Holtby has been considered a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy despite some struggles in the second half of the regular season. He was fantastic in the opening round, as he leads all goalies remaining in the playoffs with a 0.84 goals-against average and .968 save percentage. This year’s Capitals have been dominant defensively in large part to Holtby’s efforts, and it’s hard to envision much changing in this sereies. As for the Penguins, they’ll still be without the services of Fleury, who has been out of the lineup since March 31 and is still considered day-to-day. Murray has been very stout in his absence despite missing the first two games of the opening round with an upper-body injury. He started the last three games against the Rangers, finishing with a 1.33 GAA and .955 save percentage. He made 31 saves in a 5-0 shutout win in Game 4 in New York and made 38 saves in a series-clinching 6-3 win in Game 5. Zatkoff will be Murray’s backup, and he was impressive in making 35 saves in a Game 1 victory over the Rangers. Pittsburgh’s goaltending was stout in the first round, but they face a much tougher test in the form of the offensive firepower that Washington brings to the table.
Star Players Not Named Crosby or Ovechkin: We’ll get the no-brainer portion of this preview out of the way: stopping Ovechkin and Crosby will be each team’s top priority in this series, as Ovechkin had three goals and two assists and Crosby continued his hot hand with three goals and five assists. With that being said, there’s a lot more star power on these two teams besides those two. Nicklas Backstrom led Washington with seven points (two goals, five assists), and his outstanding two-way play helped keep the Flyers’ top players in check. Marcus Johansson had six points in the first round (1 goal and 5 assists), including the primary assist on a beautiful pass to Backstrom for the series-clinching goal. Defenseman John Carlson was dangerous on the power play in the opening round, scoring all three of his goals with the man-advantage while also chipping in three assists. Washington will need more from Evgeni Kuznetsov, their leading point scorer in the regular season, who had just one goal in the first round. On Pittsburgh’s side, they had five players besides average a point-per-game in the first round. Besides Crosby, Evgeni Malkin finished the series with seven points, four of them coming in Game 4’s 5-0 win over New York in the form of two goals and two assists. A healthy Malkin makes this team that much more dangerous. Patric Hornqvist had a hat trick in Game 1 of the opening round, but did not score any goals after that despite also contributing two assists. Any more contributions the Pens could get from him would be vital. Phil Kessel had an impressive first round with three goals and three assists, while on the back end, Kris Letang’s stellar play from the regular season continued, leading the team with 27:17 of ice time per game while also adding five points. He and his defense partner Olli Maatta had an excellent series in the first round, and the Penguins will need their high level of play to continue.
Both of these teams have the star power to score goals in bunches, top-notch power play units that are downright lethal when they get into a groove, and extremely successful penalty killing units. These two teams were the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, with the Capitals earning the Presidents’ Trophy for their efforts. This series has the feel of “irresistible force meeting immovable object”, and with that in mind, I feel that this series will come down to goaltending and whichever team can get their power play going. Holtby elevated his game in the first round despite his late-season lull, and I think that will be just enough to put the Capitals over the top. However, it won’t be easy. Expect a long, back-and-forth, and taxing series between two rivals that will entertain from start to finish.
PREDICTION: Capitals in 7
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