With the Capitals and Penguins set to drop the puck on their second-round series, he’s a look at how they match up:
The Capitals outscored the Flyers 14-6 in the first round, with six of those goals coming in a 6-2 blowout win in Game 3. Eleven of those 14 goals came from seven Capitals forwards (defenseman John Carlson provided the other three). If Alex Ovechkin (3 goals, 2 assists) is the straw that stirs the Capitals’ offense, Nicklas Backstrom (2 goals, 5 assists), Marcus Johansson (1 goal, 5 assists) and T.J. Oshie (1 goal. 3 assists) have been the ice. The Capitals will need far more offense from their second line than they received in Round 1 and that’s a big reason Johansson will replace Andre Burakovsky on that second unit alongside center Evgeny Kuznetsov (1 goal, minus-2) and Justin Williams (2 assists, minus-4).
The Penguins outscored the Rangers 21-10 in their five-game series, receiving goals from 10 different forwards and just one defenseman (Kris Letang). With Sidney Crosby (3 goals, 5 assists) and Patric Hornqvist (3 goals, 2 assists) on the top line, Evgeni Malkin (2 goals, 5 assists) on the second line and Phil Kessel (3 goals, 3 assists) on the third line, the Pens come at you in offensive waves. They would like to see more offense from Chris Kunitz (0 points) and Carl Hagelin (1 goal) but their fourth line of veteran Matt Cullen (2 goals, 1 assist) between rookies Tom Kuhnhackl (1 goal, 2 assists) and Bryan Rust (2 goals, 1 assist) has been tremendous. Another rookie, left wing Conor Sheary, established good chemistry with Crosby and Hornqvist with one goal and two assists, but Sheary missed both Penguins practices leading up to Game 1 because of “maintenance days.”
The Capitals’ blue line had a quietly efficient series against the Flyers in Round 1, holding the top line of Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds to just one goal. John Carlson opened the series with goals in three consecutive games and is tied for second among NHL defensemen with six playoff points, two behind San Jose’s Brent Burns. The Caps lost two of their three games without Brooks Orpik, who appears to be nearing a return to the lineup, if not in Game 1 than almost certainly in Game 2. Karl Alzner took a physical beating in Round 1 with 13 blocked shots and 10 hits, but is expected to play in Game 1 after missing two days of practice. His defense partner, Matt Niskanen, delivered 19 hits and blocked 15 shots in the first round and that pair will need to stay on top of its game if the Caps hope to slow the Penguins’ speed. The series could be decided by the two teams’ third pairings, where the Caps are expected to start with Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt, while the Pens turn to Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy.
The Penguins’ top pairing of Olli Maatta (18:27) and Kris Letang (27:17) is a blend of speed and finesse, so expect the Capitals forwards to be playing a lot of dump and chase hockey. The Pens upgraded their second pairing with the addition of Trevor Daley (22:41), who plays alongside Brian Dumoulin (17:41). Dumoulin felt the frustrations of Alex Ovechkin when the two teams met in March. With the Caps on their way to a 6-2 loss, Ovechkin took a run at Dumoulin behind the Pens net and Dumoulin was slow to get to his feet. Simply put, if Pittsburgh’s defense corps commits more turnovers than the Caps’ blue liners, the Capitals will win the series. And vice versa.
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, 26, has been better in the playoffs (0.84 GAA, .968 SP) than he was in the regular season (2.20 GAA, .922 SP) and that’s saying something considering he’s a favorite to win the Vezina Trophy. Holtby even picked up an assist in Round 1, matching Claude Giroux’s point total. Holtby went 2-2-1 against the Penguins this season with a 2.79 GAA and .914 SP. In fact, the Penguins (5-7-1), Rangers (6-8-1) and Stars (0-3-0) are the only three NHL teams that Holtby has a career losing record against.
Penguins goalie Matt Murray, 21, has been a revelation since taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion). Murray went 9-2-1 down the stretch for the Pens and has allowed just four goals in three playoff starts (3-0) for the Penguins. At 6-foot-4, Murray does an excellent job of covering the bottom half of the net but is expected to be challenged far more against the Capitals than he was against the Rangers, who threw 89 shots at him in three games. The Caps have vowed to flood the crease against Murray, who last season set an AHL record with a shutout streak of more than 304 minutes and was voted the league’s top goalie.
The Capitals went 8-for-27 on the man-advantage in Round 1, but five of those power-play goals came in that 6-2 rout in Game 3. John Carlson (3) and Alex Ovechkin (2) were the Caps’ biggest threats on the power play in Round 1, with Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and even Jay Beagle getting into the act. With the Penguins likely to isolate Ovechkin, the Caps will need to get some production from T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Kuznetsov to keep the Penguins’ penalty killers honest.
The Penguins went 8-for-21 against the Rangers in Round 1, getting three power-play goals from Phil Kessel and two each by Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin, and another by Patric Hornqvist. Letang (2 power-play assists) and Daley (1) operate the power play from the point.
One of the biggest reasons the Capitals are in the second round is their dominance over the Flyers in special teams. Led by the forward tandems of Daniel Winnik and Jay Beagle, and Mike Richards and Tom Wilson, along with the defensive pairs of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, and John Carlson and Brooks Orpik, the Caps killed 23 of 24 Philadelphia power plays, second only to Tampa, which killed off 24 of 25 in its Round 1 series victory over Detroit.
The Penguins allowed just two power-play goals on 19 attempts to rank fourth among playoff teams. Pittsburgh’s killers are led by forwards Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin and Eric Fehr and defensemen Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy and Kris Letang and Trevor Daley. With two lethal power plays, the key for both teams will be staying out of the penalty box.
Barry Trotz, 53, has a career coaching record 658-523-60-119, but his teams are 26-38 in the playoffs and, like his captain, he’s never gotten out of the second round of the playoffs. Trotz is considered one of the better tacticians in the NHL and his ability to get the right forward lines and defense pairings on the ice against a well-balanced Penguins lineup will be crucial to the Caps’ success.
Mike Sullivan, 48, has done a masterful job of turning the Penguins into a powerhouse. The Pens went 33-16-5 following his hiring on Dec. 12. Several Capitals said the Penguins became a more tenacious team under the no-nonsense Sullivan, who spent most of his NHL coaching career as an assistant to John Tortorella.
Alex Ovechkin, 30, and Sidney Crosby, 28, seem to be on a mission to lead their teams to a championship this season but only will move on to the conference final. The Capitals are close to 100 percent healthy going into the series, while the Penguins are counting on a rookie goalie to carry them to the next round.
The Capitals will need to play much better at even strength and stay more disciplined in Round 2 than they were in Round 1, but they are destined to take that “big step” that Alex Ovechkin keeps alluding to.
Capitals in 7.