PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – For the second consecutive year, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will meet in the second round of the playoffs.
Like last year, this will be a battle of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. For reference, they are also the top two teams in the entire league.
I won’t go into why this is a horrible playoff format. You can read my thoughts on that here.
By now, you know the storylines: Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin, will the Caps finally make it to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in Ovechkin’s career, will the Penguins extend their playoff dominance over the Caps, etc.
So, let’s just get right into what the Penguins will need to do in order to get one step closer to their ultimate goal of repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
- Play For 60 Minutes
It’s no secret that the Penguins were utterly outplayed in the first period of all five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. If it were one or two games, this wouldn’t be as big of a concern. At this point, it’s a pattern and it needs to be broken.
Marc-Andre Fleury’s overall body of work in their first round series was exemplary. He held the fort long enough for his teammates to take over and get to what makes them successful.
[graphiq id=”8E589koFMuF” title=”Marc-Andre Fleury 2016-17 Postseason Profile” width=”600″ height=”900″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/8E589koFMuF” ]
While the top-end talent of the Penguins gave them an edge over Columbus, the gap isn’t nearly as big when it comes to the Capitals.
Simply put, the Penguins can’t expect to show up for 40 minutes a night to beat the Capitals four times.
- Limit Shots
Fleury stopped 181 of the 194 (.933 save percentage) shots he faced in five games against the Blue Jackets. If you’re doing the math, Columbus averaged 38.8 shots a game in that series.
They’re now facing a Capitals team that averaged 35.2 shots per game against the Maple Leafs.
The Penguins would be wise to get those numbers down a bit against a team with the likes of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. Just about all of them are significant upgrades over what Columbus brought to the table.
[graphiq id=”gcvi4gTR49v” title=”Washington Capitals Roster” width=”600″ height=”470″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/gcvi4gTR49v” ]
All on that list topped the 20-goal mark this season except for Kuznetzov (19).
Additionally, Oshie, Williams, Ovechkin and Tom Wilson recorded three goals apiece in the series. So, they are getting production throughout the lineup.
The Penguins cannot rely on their goaltender to make 40 saves a night in order to win the series. That’s not a knock on Fleury. That’s just reality.
I’m not worried about Fleury’s game or ability in this series. He’s more than capable of getting the job done. All I’m saying is the Penguins can make his job – and by default, their job – a little easier by reducing the volume of shots, especially early in games.
- Special Teams
Again, these are the top two teams in the league and the series will be won or lost in the fine margins. It could very well come down to special teams play.
The Penguins were 5-15 (33.3 percent) on the power play against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Meanwhile, the Capitals were 5-17 (16.7 percent) against Toronto.
For the Penguins, they need to resist the urge to get too pass happy on the power play. I’m not saying they should just blindly shoot the puck like some fans will be calling for in the stands.
Just get set up in the zone, open up a lane and fire the puck. It sounds simple, but it’s effective. When the Penguins get in trouble on the power play, they are usually overpassing or trying to force pucks through the box.
They did a great job against the Blue Jackets and will need to stick to that approach going forward.
[graphiq id=”bJI0VZeSQTP” title=”Pittsburgh Penguins Goals by Period in 2016-17 NHL Season” width=”600″ height=”871″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/bJI0VZeSQTP” ]
On the flip side, the Penguins were 10-12 (80 percent) on the penalty kill, while Washington was 15-18 (75 percent).
By now, the cat should be out of the bag that Ovechkin is dangerous from the left circle in general, but especially on the power play. What makes it a little difficult to defend is the other personnel Washington uses on the power play. Specifically, Backstrom and Oshie.
Much like the Penguins, the Capitals’ power play presents a sort of “pick your poison” scenario.
Quick sticks, getting in lanes and keeping their defensive shape will go a long way toward keeping the Capitals on the perimeter, which will help limit their chances.
- Exploit Speed & Depth Advantage
The Toronto Maple Leafs hung in with the Capitals for a couple of reasons, but the biggest one was their speed.
Let’s also not forget the young Leafs took the Capitals to overtime five times in six games. When Toronto was able to get their legs churning, they gave the Capitals fits.
We already know the Penguins are a fast team with a relentless forecheck. We’ve seen that even without Carl Hagelin, who appears close to returning.
Last year, the Penguins were able to roll four lines against the Capitals, but it was the HBK line that put them over the top.
[graphiq id=”jO4jZ2y6jCR” title=”Pittsburgh Penguins Roster” width=”600″ height=”470″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/jO4jZ2y6jCR” ]
While the Capitals have upgraded their forward depth, it’s hard to argue that their bottom six is better than that of the Penguins.
Where the Capitals probably have an edge is on defense and that’s largely due to the absence of Kris Letang.
But, Washington is not without defensive injuries of their own.
They could be without Karl Alzner, who has been out since Game 2 of their first round series with an upper-body injury. There is some debate as to whether or not the Capitals would go with seven defenseman when he’s healthy due to the emergence of Nate Schmidt in Alzner’s absence.
I’m not sure if seven defenseman benefits or hurts the Capitals. One of their forwards would have to double shift if Barry Trotz wants to roll four lines. That could create some interesting matchups at both ends of the ice.
This will be the 10th playoff meeting between the Penguins and Capitals. To date, the Penguins have only lost once.
Also of note and worth repeating, the Capitals have never made it out of the second round in the Ovechkin era.
While these are two entirely different teams than the ones in the history books, those two things are worth noting.
To me, the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the Capitals. Once again, they are the President’s Trophy winners and many are picking them to win their first Stanley Cup. They are playing under the weight of expectations both internally and externally.
There’s also that “curse” of winning the President’s Trophy. Since the 2000-01 season, only four teams that have won the President’s Trophy have gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Chicago was the last team to do it back in 2012-13.
[graphiq id=”hKjJsBjXBm5″ title=”Pittsburgh Penguins 2016-17 Playoff Tracker” width=”600″ height=”669″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/hKjJsBjXBm5″ ]
But, an upstart Toronto team gave Washington all they could handle in the opening round.
To their credit, the Capitals finally proved their superiority after falling behind 2-1 in the series.
Did that scare wake them up? Did it better prepare them for what’s to come in this matchup with Pittsburgh? Will they finally get over the hump and exorcise their playoff demons?
Who knows? That’s why they play the games.
But, judging from that first round series, the fans are generating a lot of nervous energy in their building. It will be interesting to see what the vibe is like, especially if the Pens take Game 1.
There’s taking the crowd out of it and there’s turning the crowd on the home team. With all the playoff frustrations the Capitals’ fans have endured over the years, it may not take much to turn the crowd.
Last year’s series lived up the hype and I can’t see this one not doing the same. It shouldn’t take long for tensions to rise and for post-whistle scrums to ensue.
It’s going to be an emotional roller coaster, but the team that handles the swings the best will win it. I think the Penguins are better prepared to handle the adversity as it comes along. They’ve dealt with and overcome adversity all year long. When they faced it during last year’s run, they took it in stride and just continued to play the game.
I’ve said it before, but Mike Sullivan has an uncanny way of getting his team to tune out the noise and just play hockey.
If the Penguins can get at least a split on the road before the series shifts back to Pittsburgh, they could be well on their way to advancing.
I didn’t think the last series would be short, but they proved me wrong. Once again, I can’t see this being a quick series.
However, I do think their experience and firepower up front will be enough to get them four wins against the Capitals.
It’s just going to take seven games to get there.