The news spread like an electric current throughout the NHL on Sunday afternoon when it became clear that he Washington Capitals would beat the Philadelphia Flyers. That victory secured a berth in the second round and a matchup with the Penguins.
That in and of itself would have been exciting for all involved, but it became even more so after considering all of the individual matchups or more specifically, the matchup — Sidney Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin.
Two of the NHL’s brightest stars locking horns in a Stanley Cup Playoff series for just the second time in their storied careers is exciting stuff. NBC is probably salivating as it devises a plan for marketing and spinning the entire thing.
It is the perfect way to reinvigorate a rivalry that had grown a bit cold in recent years. You could say it reached a fever pitch when they met in 2009, the Penguins won that one en route to winning the Stanley Cup that season, and it hasn’t been the same since.
The storylines never faded, but the heat between the duo seemed to. There were ups and downs on both sides since then, including injuries, coaching changes and plenty of playoff failures. Stir in the fact that the Penguins and Capitals hadn’t met in a game that carried anything heavier than the weight of two points in seven years and the matchup started to lack sizzle.
The interesting thing about this series is that it is so much more than Crosby and Ovechkin. There are a number of dynamic talents on each side, strong goaltenders and dangerous special teams units.
All of it makes for what might be the crown jewel of the second round. Here is a look at Crosby, Ovechkin and some other specifics ahead of Game 1.
2015-16 Head-to-Head Record:
Penguins won season series 3-2-0.
All-Time Head-to-Head Record – Playoffs
The teams have met eight times in the postseason, with the Penguins going 7-1 over that span. That includes an epic battle in 2009.
The Penguins won in seven games, saw six of them decided by one goal and three that needed overtime. Ovechkin had 14 points in the series and Crosby 13 and each player picked up eight goals. They each scored hat tricks during Game 2, and the series still is lauded as one of the best over the last decade.
Penguins: Kevin Porter – Injured Reserve – Ankle Surgery, Scott Wilson – Injured Reserve – Lower-body-injury, Marc-Andre Fleury – day-to-day – Concussion, Beau Bennett – day-to-day – Undisclosed.
The Penguins’ depth may be their best asset in the series. They used it to dispatch the Rangers far easier than anyone might have expected, and it will play a huge role if they end up beating the Washington Capitals.
That depth was no more evident than in the fact that they got significant contributions from all four lines. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin led the way, combining for five goals and 20 points against the Rangers, which helped them average a league-high 4.2 goals per game.
They got goals from 11 different players and points from 16. The third line of Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin rolled up four goals and 12 points, while the fourth line featuring Matt Cullen, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl combined for four goals and nine points.
These Penguins also have thrived on special teams, scoring at least one power-play goal in all five of their opening round games against the Rangers, while their penalty kill allowed just two goals against. That unit also scored one short-handed goal.
Their speed also is a significant factor and it seemed to give the Capitals fits during their final two regular season meetings, both Penguins victories.
Goaltender Braden Holtby is capable of single-handedly winning a game for his team, and he showed that by posting a 0.84 goals-against average and .968 save percentage in Round 1. He's the kind of masked man who can bail his team out of a jam if they're getting outplayed and make them look even better when their at their best.
Then there are the Capitals’ special teams, which shined during their first-round victory over the Flyers.
They scored eight power-play goals against the Flyers, but got zero over the final three games of the series. That doesn’t make it any less dangerous. It is capable of changing the dynamic of any game, as it did in Game 3 against the Flyers, where it scored on 5 of 9 chances.
Their penalty kill limited the Flyers to just one goal on 23 opportunities, including a big kill on a 1:55 minutes long two-man-advantage during the clinching game on Sunday.
The Capitals also have something they didn’t have in 2009, a deep stable of blue liners to mesh with Alex Ovechkin and company. Even with former Penguin Brooks Orpik, who has shouldered a large leadership role, out dealing with an injury, they still have former Penguin Matt Niskanen and John Carlson who are capable of logging big minutes. Youngsters Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt will have to show they can handle the tenacious forecheck of the Penguins, but they have fared well through one round.
The Penguins are relying on a number of young players. Forward Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and goaltender Matt Murray shined down the stretch and through the first round, but could they falter?
It could happen. The bright lights of the Stanley Cup Playoffs get even brighter the further along you go in the bracket, and everything ramps up. The hitting, the speed, and the media attention increase exponentially and so does the pressure.
Can the kids continue to pull their weight? Time will tell. A fall off would allow the Capitals to focus on Crosby and Malkin, limiting their offensive output. If they break Matt Murray, the Penguins would be forced to turn back to Jeff Zatkoff, whose lateral ability could be exploited.
The Capitals scored just twice over their final three games against the Flyers. A key strength for them, the power play, also was held without a goal over that span. Though they were the highest scoring team in the league, it wouldn’t be unprecedented to see a team’s offense dry up at the absolute worst time of the season.
It has happened to them before. They, like the Penguins, were beaten by a hot goaltender named Jaroslav Halak in 2010.
Also, the Capitals' ability to score at even strength could be an issue. They scored just six 5-on-5 goals during the first round, second only to the Flyers, who scored three. That is tough to fathom, considering that they scored the second most regular season even strength goals (166). That could be their undoing if the Penguins penalty kill limits their power play production.
This space was occupied by Matt Cullen heading into Round 1, and he proved to be just that, scoring two game-winning goals. That is the kind of thing players like Cullen do. Even at 39 years old, he again is the Penguins’ wild card heading into this series with the Capitals. He uncharacteristically won just 48.4 percent of his faceoffs against the Rangers but was still effective in limiting chances against. He’ll likely spend time matched up against one of Nick Backstrom or Evgeni Kuznetsov and how he fares will key winning or losing.
Kuznetsov broke out during his second full NHL season and finished ninth in the leagues’ scoring race with 20 goals, 57 assists and 77 points. He picked up 18 points on the power play and ranked among the Capitals most valuable players. Those numbers had many raising and eyebrow when he scored just once in the first round and failed to register an assist after rolling up the most at even-strength (44) and fourth most overall. He’s a very talented offensive player and will have to shine if the Capitals are to get by the Penguins.
The Penguins depth and speed proved to be too much for the Capitals in their final two regular season meetings. That will be the case here and the Penguins again will keep the Capitals (last appearance 1998) from advancing to the Eastern Conference Final, winning the series in six games.