PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will write the next chapter in their long and storied rivalry over the next couple of weeks.
At stake – a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.
This will be a battle of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. Personally, I’ve loathed this new playoff format since it was rolled out. This exact scenario is why.
The top two teams in both conferences are meeting in the second round this year. That’s some reward for doing well in the regular season.
There should be some sort of provision in place that takes this scenario off the board until the conference finals. What sense does it make to reward teams with worse records in the regular season?
I understand you have to beat the best to be the best, but why waste the matchup in the second round? Wouldn’t this Pens-Caps matchup mean so much more with a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals on the line?
Anyway, I’m sure the NHL has bigger fish to fry at the moment – concussions, consistent referees, supplemental discipline…You get the picture.
In the end, the NHL got its prized playoff matchup for the first time since 2009.
The puck drops on Game 1 tonight and the excitement is already building.
Here are five keys for the Penguins as they look to eliminate the Washington Capitals.
1. Get After Holtby
Much like in the last series, the Penguins will need to get bodies to the net against the Capitals.
Holtby had an incredible regular season and played very well against the Flyers in the first round. For the year, Holtby went 48-9-7 with a 2.20 GAA and a .922 save percentage.
In the first round, he allowed just five goals on 154 shots. Granted, the Capitals overwhelmed the Flyers in every aspect, but those numbers are hard to ignore.
Last year, he posted a 1.71 GAA and a .944 save percentage in 13 playoff games. In 40 career playoff games, he’s 20-20 with a 1.76 GAA and a .940 save percentage.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Holtby is a very good goaltender, but he can be beaten.
Even the best goalies can’t stop what they don’t see. Patric Hornqvist will need to continue to lead the charge of crashing the net, setting up screens, etc.
Holtby doesn’t give up many second chances and the Capitals’ defense usually bails him out when he does. But, the Penguins will need to make life difficult on the young netminder to give them the best odds of advancing.
It didn’t take long for the Penguins to break the crown of King Henrik in round one. They are certainly capable of doing it again in round two.
2. Turn The Other Cheek
The Capitals’ first round series against the Flyers was emotional, physical and escalated quickly. I would assume tensions will be high the moment the puck drops for Game 1 tonight.
Part of Philly’s undoing in that series was their inability to just skate away from the nonsense and keep a cool head. It’s been Pittsburgh’s Achilles’ heel in recent history too.
The Capitals’ power play has been lethal this season (21.9 percent) and was clicking at almost 30 percent against Philadelphia.
Let’s not kid ourselves here. The Capitals will get opportunities on the power play. I’m simply saying that the Penguins don’t need to gift them any unnecessary chances – even with their 89.5 percent PK rate against the Rangers.
If the Penguins get sucked into trying to settle scores, it will play right into the Capitals’ hands.
Based on previous history, expect Alex Ovechkin to try and get under Evgeni Malkin’s skin early and often. It will be up to Malkin to not retaliate and take his chances when they come. The same goes for Kris Letang.
The Penguins did a very good job of this against the Rangers and did their retaliating on the scoreboard – where it makes the biggest impression.
3. Limit Ovechkin’s Impact
Since Ovechkin and Crosby came into the NHL, the league has pumped up this rivalry. Both are all-world players, but one has fared better than the other.
Crosby has won a Stanley Cup, while Ovechkin hasn’t ever made it out of the second round. If you don’t think Ovechkin will have some extra motivation in this series, think again.
In six games against the Flyers, Ovechkin racked up three goals and two assists. He’s going to get his chances, but the Penguins have shut him down this season.
In fact, Ovechkin did not record a point and was a minus-1 in five games against the Penguins this season. It’s probably unrealistic to expect the Penguins to keep him off the scoresheet in the series, but they must limit the damage.
It’s no secret that Ovechkin rather enjoys shooting from the left faceoff circle, whether on the power play or off the rush. In my ultra-scientific opinion, he takes about 95 percent of his shots from that location.
The power play runs through Nicklas Backstrom, but Ovechkin is the trigger man. He’s good at roaming around the left point area on the power play and has never been afraid to fire the puck. Why would he? He possesses one of the best shots in history and is still one of the most prolific goal scorers in the league.
4. Murray Or Fleury?
In the first round, the big question was whether or not Matt Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury would be ready for Game 1.
As it turned out, they were both unavailable.
Jeff Zatkoff did an admirable job in the first two games of the series before Murray took over in Game 3.
As for this series with the Capitals, there are still question marks about Fleury’s status. However, Murray is good to go and should be between the pipes for Game 1.
The biggest question in goal for the Pens now is what they will do when/if Fleury is cleared to return.
To me, Murray has earned the right to see this through. This is not a criticism of Fleury one bit. I’ve defended him at great lengths many times, but this is a very good problem for the Penguins to have.
Murray is certainly showing he can play at this level and is not intimidated on the biggest stage. He’s so calm and collected in net that you forget he’s only 21.
As for Fleury, he has erased any doubts about his game over the past couple of seasons. He rarely gets the credit he deserves too.
This year, he was almost solely responsible for keeping the Penguins afloat in the early stages of the season.
If Murray wobbles, the Pens have an incredible insurance plan with Fleury and vice versa.
To me, you ride the hot goalie knowing you’ve got a stud in Fleury to turn to if needed.
5. Secondary Scoring
The Penguins’ stars shined bright against the Rangers in the opening round. Crosby led the way with eight points, while Malkin (seven) and Kessel (six) were right behind.
But, one of the keys to that quick five-game win was the play of the “other” guys.
I’m talking about Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Bryan Rust and even Conor Sheary.
Cullen scored the game-winning goals in Games 3 and 5. Sheary also added two big goals at key moments. Bonino had five assists and Rust scored two goals in Game 5.
This is a team that can get contributions from anywhere on the roster and that will need to continue against the Capitals.
It’s worth noting that Chris Kunitz was held without a point and Carl Hagelin only had one goal in the opening round. However, their contributions were key on the penalty kill, forecheck, etc.
This should be one heck of a series. Both teams can skate, score in bunches and have dangerous power play units.
I really feel that the team that wins this series will move on to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Again, it’s a shame that these two aren’t meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Something has to give between these two titans and it will come down to the slimmest of margins.
I think this will be a back and forth, emotional roller coaster of a series. In the end, I like the Penguins to come out on top in seven games.