The Penguins and Washington Capitals will face off in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third time during the Sidney Crosby/Alex Ovechkin eras. The series matches the league’s top two finishers during the regular season.
The Capitals finished first overall to earn the Presidents’ Trophy with 118 points, while the Penguins slotted in seven points behind with 111. The matchup could have been predicted as early as Oct. 13, when the league’s schedule maker tapped the Capitals as the Penguins’ opening night opponents.
They were forced to watch the Penguins final Stanley Cup celebration and banner raising before losing 3-2 in a shootout. They’ve been looking to erase that memory, as well as that of losing to the Penguins in the postseason eight of the nine times the teams have met.
The situation isn’t all that dissimilar to that of a season ago, when these teams entered the second round in much the same way. The Penguins were coming off a five-game series win, while the Capitals needed six to dispatch their foe. The same thing happened this year, but the Penguins won’t have Kris Letang or Matt Murray, who each played big roles in beating the Capitals in six games last spring. The Capitals are largely intact.
The Penguins are dealing with injuries, but the rosters are similar to those that battled through six games last season. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are back, as are Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby. There are dynamic talents on each side, strong goaltenders and dangerous special teams units.
All of it makes for what could be another classic series between the two teams. Here is a look at some of the specifics ahead of Game 1.
Pittsburgh was 2-2-0, and Washington 2-0-2. The Capitals enjoyed a 21-14 scoring edge in the four games. That number was boosted by a 7-1 victory in November. The teams also played an entertaining goal-laden affair in which the Penguins chased Holtby and won 8-7 in overtime in January.
The teams have met nine times in the postseason, with the Penguins going 8-1. That includes series victories in 2009 and 2016. The Penguins have beaten the Capitals at some point during the playoffs en route to winning all four of their Stanley Cup Championships.
Kris Letang and T.J. Oshie (Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Penguins: Kris Letang (neck surgery), injured reserve; Carl Hagelin (lower-body injury), day-to-day; Chris Kunitz (lower-body injury), day-to-day, Chad Ruhwedel (upper-body injury), day-to-day; Matt Murray (lower-body injury), day-to-day
Capitals: Karl Alzner (upper-body injury), day-to-day
Penguins: The Penguins’ depth is still one of their greatest strengths, though it is being tested during these playoffs. They have overcome injuries all season and through one round, but the Capitals will press them harder than any team has to this point. That depth was with significant contributions from all four lines against the Columbus Blue Jackets during Round 1. Malkin, Kessel and Crosby led the way, combining for 26 points through five games, which helped them average a league-high 4.20 goals per game. They got goals from 10 players and points from 17. Jake Guentzel emerged as a bona fide scoring threat with a league-high five goals, and Bryan Rust picked up four, including the series-clincher in Game 5. Ron Hainsey, Justin Schultz and Ian Cole combined to score one goal and nine points, showing that the blue line could still be productive minus Letang. … The Penguins also have thrived on special teams, where their power play scored on 33.3 percent of their chances against the Blue Jackets. Their penalty kill ranked sixth among the 16 playoff teams after allowing only two goals on 12 chances. They also picked up a short-handed goal, though it came late in Game 4 while they were trying to claw back to tie the game. … Their speed will also be a significant factor, though the Capitals might be better prepared for it after contending with the speedy Toronto Maple Leafs.
Capitals: Braden Holtby is one of the best in the league, and he showed again this season. He finished the campaign with a 42-13-6 record, 2.07 GAA, .925 save percentage and nine shutouts. He looked a little more human against the Maple Leafs but still went 4-2 with a 2.36 GAA and a .925 save percentage. He faced more shots (213) and played more minutes (406) than any goaltender during the first round and carries a career playoff save percentage of .936. … The Capitals may be known for scoring goals in bunches -- they ranked third in the NHL (3.18) this season -- but they have been better defensively. Yes, a big part of that has been Holtby, but the Capitals allowed the fourth-least shots in the league per game (27.8). … One biggest difference between these Capitals and the group that fell to the Penguins last spring is their depth. The roster was bolstered by the acquisitions of Lars Eller, Brett Connolly and Kevin Shattenkirk. They can roll four solid lines and have gotten scoring from up and down the lineup. … The Capitals special teams are also a big strength. They finished the regular season with the third-best power play and have hold that same status in the playoffs, having scored on 29.4 percent of their chances. The Capitals’ penalty kill ranks eighth in the playoffs.
Penguins: The Penguins are allowing too many shots on goal, and that could be a problem against the Capitals. They were outshot only five times in 24 games during their run to the Stanley Cup last season, but have already been outshot in four of five games through one round. They have allowed the most shots against per game during these playoffs (38.8) and the Capitals are taking the fourth most (35.2). … This group of Penguins is also guilty of trying to force plays when they aren’t there. They need to make better decisions in terms of puck management. There needs to be quicker reads made on the break out and they need to tighten up the sloppiness that the Blue Jackets’ forecheck turned into turnovers and scoring chances.
Capitals: The Capitals occasionally let opponents hang around in games and it almost bit them against the Maple Leafs. That approach saw five of their six games to go to overtime. It worked out during the first round, but their overtime history against the Penguins isn’t as pristine. The two teams have gone to overtime nine times all-time in the playoffs, and the Penguins have won six of them. Two of those victories came last season. … The Capitals may also at times get overwhelmed by the Penguins’ speed. It happened last season and it looked to be a problem against the Maple Leafs. Speedy forwards can give players like Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik headaches. A former Penguin, Orpik is carrying an ugly minus-4 rating into the series.
Penguins: The Penguins have a number of players who could fill this role, but their biggest is Marc-Andre Fleury. No one around the league seems to be giving him the benefit of the doubt against Holtby and the Capitals, even after he was one of the big reasons that his team advanced in five games. Fleury, who beat the Capitals in the playoffs in 2009, will have to be on top of his game, especially with the series starting in Washington. His numbers definitely took a hit on the road during the regular season, where he went 4-7-5 with a 3.58 GAA and a .887 save percentage. They weren’t much better on the road in the playoffs (1-1, 4.15 GAA,.873 save percentage). The Penguins struggled in the two road games against Columbus, but Fleury’s critics are using his numbers as a major reason to pick the Capitals to win the series. While Crosby, Malkin and Kessel will need to shine in this series, Fleury needs to be the Penguins best player if they are going to beat the Capitals.
Capitals: The Capitals brought Justin Williams in to help get them over the top in the playoffs before last season. The thinking was that “Mr. Game 7” would be able to help them do what they have done only one time in their history: get to the Stanley Cup Final. It didn’t work out for them last season, but Williams did chip in three goals and five points in six games against the Penguins. Maybe if they would have forced Game 7 he would have been the difference maker. Williams ranks 16th among all NHL players in playoff scoring since 2009 with 28 goals and 67 points in 91 games. Six of those points (three goals) came against the Maple Leafs, and he picked up his first playoff game-winning goal during overtime in Game 5. Braden Holtby (Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)DAY Sports
Some might think the Capitals are due to beat the Penguins simply based on the law of averages. Other might choose them based on the deep, talented roster or that they have been rolling most of the season, but we’ve seen all of this before. The Penguins might not have Letang, but they seem to be more equipped than at any point in recent memory to offset his loss. They did it for 41 games during the regular season and a round in the playoffs, and they’ll do it again to defeat the Capitals in six games.