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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The Pittsburgh Penguins have moved one step closer to winning their third straight Stanley Cup.
So, it’s only fitting that for a third straight season they will meet the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs.
This is really testing the popularity and practicality of the NHL’s revamped playoff format isn’t it? Especially considering these two teams wouldn’t have met this early under the old format. Each of the last two seasons, the Penguins and Capitals were the top two teams in the conference. It makes total sense to have them meet before the Eastern Conference Final doesn’t it?
Sure, it’s worked out for the Penguins, but that’s not the point. The fatal flaw of this format is that it allows for the top two teams in the conference to meet earlier than they should. In fact, this exact scenario will play out once again in BOTH conferences.
Anyway, if there’s one bit of good news to come out of seeing the Caps again it’s this: The Penguins have eliminated the Capitals en route to all five of their Stanley Cup titles.
So, how can the Penguins send the Caps packing for a third straight year? Here are five keys:
1. Match Their Hunger
It’s hard to imagine a team with something more to prove than the Capitals. Each of the last two years, the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy and were unceremoniously dumped in the second round by their nemesis.
It’s hard to imagine a player with something more to prove than Alex Ovechkin. You know the jokes by now, but the core of that ridicule bears repeating. Ovechkin has never led his team beyond the second round of the playoffs. He’s seen the Penguins win two Game 7s in his own building. He’s seen Sidney Crosby hoist the Stanley Cup three times at his own expense.
If you don’t think this Capitals team is hungry and eager to get some revenge on the Penguins, I don’t know what to tell you.
With that in mind, the Penguins will know what’s coming because they have had a giant target on their backs for two years now.
Simply put, the Penguins will need to be ready to go when the puck drops on Game 1.
2. Overcome Injuries
The Penguins have announced that they will be without Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin for Game 1 of the series. While Malkin will make the trip to Washington, D.C., Hagelin will not.
Obviously, that suggests that Hagelin will miss at least the first two games of the series.
Missing both of those players for any amount of time presents a bit of a problem. Without Malkin, the Caps will surely load up to shutdown the Crosby line. The Flyers tried this in Game 6 and kept Crosby off the board for exactly 6:30.
There’s also a guy named Jake Guentzel, who scored four goals in that game.
However, without Malkin and Hagelin the Penguins will need to get scoring from elsewhere in the lineup.
Namely, I’m looking at Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard to step up in this series. Kessel had 1 goal and 4 assists against the Flyers, while Brassard had 1 goal and 2 assists.
If Wednesday’s practice is any indication, Kessel will be on a line with Riley Sheahan and Dominik Simon for Game 1.
Meanwhile, the line of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Brassard was a game-changer against Philadelphia. They were effective on the forecheck and helped regain momentum on multiple occasions. There’s a lot to like about that line and there appears to be a pretty good chemistry forming. If that continues, it can only mean good things going forward.
3. Murray vs. Holtby
A year ago, there was some debate about which Penguins goalie would get the nod. This time around, there is no such debate for the Penguins.
The crease belongs to Matt Murray. With that being said, Murray was not at his best in the first round against the Flyers. But, he didn’t need to be. With the Penguins scoring a goal every six seconds, his average play was enough to get the job done.
The two shutouts were nice, but he also allowed at least four goals on three occasions.
This isn’t meant to be a hit job on a young goaltender who already has two Stanley Cups on his resume.
He made several key stops at key moments, but he knows he can be better. He will need to be better in this series.
Now, there is a bit of a goalie debate on Washington’s end of the ice.
Braden Holtby struggled down the stretch and was left on the bench for the start of the first round. Philipp Grubauer started the first two games of the series and it did not go well. After losing Game 1 in overtime, he was pulled after allowing four goals on 22 shots in Game 2. Holtby came on in relief and took the loss in overtime.
When the Capitals went on the road for Game 3, they turned to Holtby again and he led them to four straight wins. In fact, Holtby was stellar as he posted a 1.92 GAA and a .932 save percentage.
So, it looks like it’s Holtby’s job to lose in this second round matchup with the Penguins – a team he has struggled against.
This year, Holtby was 1-2 with a 3.60 GAA and a .897 save percentage against the Penguins. Let’s also not forget that he posted a 2.57 GAA and an .887 save percentage against the Penguins in the playoffs last year.
For whatever reason, the Penguins have had Holtby’s number over the years and that will need to continue if they want to make a return trip to the Eastern Conference Final.
4. Does Home-Ice Matter?
Normally, having home-ice advantage is a good thing in the playoffs. However, it appeared to be anything but advantageous for both of these teams in the first round.
In a bizarre twist, both the Penguins and Capitals were 1-2 at home and 3-0 on the road in the first round.
PPG Paints Arena had been a fortress for the Penguins this season. Their 30-9-2 regular season record at home would suggest as much.
Meanwhile, the Capitals weren’t far behind with a 28-11-2 record at home.
It really goes to show that anything can happen in the playoffs, I guess.
Further complicating matters, these teams not only split the four-game regular season series, but each won a game on the road.
All things considered, this series may just come down to which team can actually win at home.
5. Special Teams
This series will feature the league’s best regular season power play. It will also feature the best power play in the playoffs to date.
Pittsburgh led the way in the regular season at 26.2 percent. That number dropped to 20 percent in the first round against the Flyers.
Meanwhile, the Capitals were clicking at 22.5 percent in the regular season. But, they turned it on in their series with the Blue Jackets and converted at an absurd 33 percent pace.
At home, the Capitals were 6 for 17 (35.3 percent). They were a mere 3 for 10 (30 percent) on the road.
Meanwhile, the Penguins were just 1 for 13 (7.7 percent) at home, but went 4 for 12 (33.3 percent) on the road against Philadelphia.
As for the penalty kill, the Penguins sit third in the playoffs at 90.5 percent. However, they killed all 13 power plays on the road in the first round.
The Capitals are currently seventh on the penalty kill at 83.3 percent. At home, they killed only 9 of 13 (69.2 percent) power plays in the first round. They have also not allowed a power play goal on the road.
This is a pretty evenly-matched series and should live up to all the hype once again. Should the Penguins be able to get out to a fast start in the series, it could plant that seed of doubt once again.
Without Malkin in the lineup, it’s going to be a tough road. Hopefully, he only misses Game 1 and can be back for the remainder of the series.
The sooner Hagelin gets back into the lineup, the better as well.
I think we’re in for another long emotional roller coaster of a series. At some point, the Capitals are going to get one up on the Penguins, but I’m not sure that this is the year.
It bears repeating, but the Penguins know how to win at this stage. I think they advance, but it takes seven games to do so.
You can follow Casey Shea on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sheavedice