The first-place Caps survived a first-round scare. Now they get a chance to slay their personal Minotaur, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Is Washington finally ready?
THE PENGUINS WIN IF…
The Penguins are the NHL’s best team at sticking to a system. They play endlessly fast under coach Mike Sullivan, relying on their forwards’ superb wheels. Doing so means quick puck movement from the Pens’ defensemen, and that makes the team effective despite having no go-to blueliner right now. Kris Letang is out for the playoffs, yet the Pens ousted the NHL’s No. 6 offensive club in five games. As long as they follow their style, they can get by without Letang and rely on the veteran group of Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey. Every one of those blueliners except Hainsey played on the Pens’ 2015-16 championship squad, which eliminated the Capitals in Round 2.
And let’s face it: the Pens’ defense corps only has to be adequate. It’s the forwards pushing the play. Pittsburgh led the NHL regular season and the first round of the playoffs in goals per game. Not even probable Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky could handle the Pens’ blitz in Round 1, which included 11 points from Evgeni Malkin and the usual heroics from Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, but also some surprising contributions. The Pens just keep unearthing speedy, effective scoring wingers from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust have duplicated last year’s success and then some – and Jake Guentzel enjoyed a coming-out party this season. After racking up 16 goals and 33 points in 40 games, he led the first round of the playoffs with five goals in five games. He became the first rookie since Rocket Richard to score five in his first four post-season contests.
The Penguins overwhelm their opponents with speed, and that’s scary news for the Washington Capitals. The Toronto Maple Leafs gave Washington quite a scare in Round 1, forcing a crazy-close series that included five overtime games and six one-goal games. How did Toronto do it? Wheels. The Leafs were at their best when moving their young, fleet feet and causing chaos. Toronto faltered when the jitters kicked in and caused the young group to stop skating and start watching Washington dominate down low. The Penguins are like a better, more mature, more experienced version of the Leafs. The Penguins play a similar style but won’t be intimidated by the Caps. They’re in Washington’s head, not the other way around. If the Leafs turned out to be a surprisingly dangerous matchup for the Caps, the Penguins are the Leafs on steroids.
THE CAPITALS WIN IF…
Do we view the Capitals through an optimistic or pessimistic lens? If we choose the former, we see a team that got pushed to the brink in six consecutive nail-biter games, spent very few minutes of the series leading and still ground out four victories. Washington could’ve choked and instead delivered in the clutch more often than not, with three overtime wins, including a series-ender from Marcus Johansson after he tied the game in the latter half of the third period. Washington showed mental toughness.
The Caps also won the Presidents’ Trophy for a reason. They are hockey’s deepest, most complete all-around team. They have a clear advantage in goal with icy-nerved Braden Holtby. They have a powerhouse top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, plus great secondary scoring options in Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and, of course, Justin Williams, ‘Mr. Game 7.’ The bottom-six forward group boasts some big, heavy players, from Tom Wilson to Jay Beagle to shutdown center Lars Eller. The Caps forecheck as well as any team in the game, and that’s the one thing Columbus did pretty effectively against Pittsburgh in Round 1. Washington can hem a team in for many minutes at a time, as Toronto learned the hard way.
The Caps also enjoy a deep defense corps, even if Karl Alzner isn’t healthy enough to return yet. Matt Niskanen was particularly effective in Round 1, and speedy Nate Schmidt held his own replacing Alzner. Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk struggled at times but are still an experienced pair that should iron out their game in time. All that and we haven’t mentioned John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov. This is a loaded group.
Penguins: It doesn’t look like Matt Murray, who sustained a lower-body injury in the Game 1 warmup against Columbus, will return to the Penguins’ crease anytime soon. He hasn’t even resumed skating. That puts Pittsburgh’s fate in Marc-Andre Fleury’s hands again. ‘Flower’ flashed his early-career playoff form in Round 1, with a .933 save percentage against the Jackets, but what if the ugly recent-career playoff Fleury returns against Washington? Holtby gives Washington the edge in goal no matter what, but Fleury has to be at least average to keep the series competitive. If his game goes in the tank, it will change the series dramatically.
Capitals: Justin Williams is so universally revered as an X-Factor that he hardly qualifies as one anymore. He’s not a sleeper. Instead, watch out for Tom Wilson. Because he’s such a brute, 6-foot-4, 217 pounds and known for devastating hits on the forecheck, it’s easy to forget he was a first-round pick in 2012. Wilson can play. He showed that in Round 1 with three goals against the Leafs, earning himself a promotion to the third line from coach Barry Trotz. If Wilson can chip in some offense while putting licks on an already-weakened Penguins D-corps, look out.
The Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry gets all the headlines, but the story of this series might come on the “second” line and that’s in name only as both teams pretty much have two first lines. That’s mostly because of the star centers on both sides, Evgeni Malkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who’d be No. 1 guys on any other team. It’s an Evgeni(y) battle for the ages here, though Kuznetsov is really going to have to step up if he wants to match up to Malkin. He’s been a bit lacklustre in the playoffs during his career and had just three points in the first round – nothing compared to Malkin’s 11. Neither is all that great at possessing the puck (though they’re unfairly penalized by being compared to superstar top lines), so it all comes down to production here where there’s a sizeable chasm between the two players. With deficiencies elsewhere throughout the lineups, this is one battle the Pens have to win as their forward depth is the only thing they’ve got on Washington. It starts here with Geno. Let’s see if he’s got some more playoff magic up his sleeve. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
PENGUINS in six games.
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