Tonight in Consol Energy Center, two of the fastest teams in the NHL will go head-to-head when the Pittsburgh Penguins take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Which brings us to this burning question: Were the Capitals fast enough to beat the Penguins, who knocked them out of the playoffs with four one-goal victories, two of them in overtime.
Several Capitals were asked on Thursday what they thought separated them from the Penguins, who have won 22 of their last 27 games, including 8-3 in the playoffs.
“I think they were a little faster team than we were,” Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said.
“That’s something that we’re really going to talk about,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s been, not an issue, but it’s been brought up. (The Penguins) played fast.
“They do things a little differently, very similar to the Rangers. They throw pucks to space and use some of that speed to create that. It makes you look a lot faster sometimes. There’s a little more risk to that, and there’s some reward. We’ll look at that and we’ll look at personnel, no question.”
Two of the Capitals’ three unrestricted free agents – center Mike Richards and defenseman Mike Weber – lack the foot speed the Capitals will seek to improve next season. The other, Jason Chimera, is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL and is coming off a 20-goal regular season. But he’s also 37 and scored just one goal in 12 post-season games.
One of the fastest forwards in the organization might be 20-year-old left wing Jakub Vrana, who had 34 points in 36 games for the Bears this season and has nine points in 10 playoff games. If the Caps believe Vrana can improve their speed on the left side, they could add him to the roster next season.
Before the playoffs began, defenseman Karl Alzner said the Caps had difficulty changing gears in last year’s playoffs, when they won a hard-hitting, seven-game war with the New York Islanders in the first round, then lost a fast-paced second-round series against the Rangers.
This year, the Caps were faced with a similar transition. After beating the Flyers in a physical six-game series in Round 1, the Caps again had to adapt to speed team in the Penguins.
“It was a bit of an issue, I guess, because we didn’t completely figure it out,” Alzner said. “But in my opinion I thought we played good enough to win some of the games we lost.
“I don’t think we necessarily deserved that first game (when T.J. Oshie scored in overtime to complete a hat trick), it could have gone either way. But other than that I thought we played good hockey.
“We changed what we were able to change. We were able to knock down a lot of pucks in the neutral zone that they were just airmailing out of the zone. But they got the bounces when they needed them and got the big goals when they needed them.”
Justin Williams said he thought the Penguins’ speed challenged the Capitals throughout the series.
“We showed throughout the year that we can adapt to any style, but, more importantly, you want the (opponent) to have to adapt to you and you want to play your game,” he said. “Pittsburgh, they played well. They swarmed us. They didn’t give us much space. They flipped pucks to a lot of speed. They deserved to win, I guess.”
The Capitals’ best game of the series came in Game 3 in Pittsburgh when they outshot the Penguins 49-23 but lost 3-2 because of a spectacular 47-save performance from rookie goalie Matt Murray. But the series turned in Game 4 when the Penguins managed to pull out a 3-2 win in overtime without the services of top defenseman Kris Letang.
That, more than any other game, was the one the Capitals absolutely needed to win.
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who managed two goals and five assists for a team-high seven points in the series, said he thought goaltending, not speed, was the difference in the series.
“Speed? No speed,” Ovechkin said. “I think the goalie played unbelievable in both series. Neuvy (Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth) came back and won two games and almost won the third one (in Game 6).
“Murray played unbelievable, I think. He saved them in Game 3 and Game 4 it was 2-2 and we lose in overtime again. That’s what I’m saying: When we have momentum on our side I think we have to make a push and don’t sit back and wait like, ‘OK, we have to take a break and wait for our chance.’ We have to go and get it.”
Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik agreed, saying the Caps lacked the killer instinct needed to put away their opponents. But there were also a few bounces that went the Penguins’ way.
Niskanen noted the lucky long-distance goal Jason Chimera scored against Steve Mason in Round 1 and compared it to a few of the unfortunate bounces that occurred in Round 2, like a puck that went off the back of Tom Kuhnhackl in Game 3 and Mike Weber’s errant pokecheck onto the stick of Patric Hornqvist in overtime of Game 4.
“If a few things went different we could have won that series,” Niskanen said. “But if you talk to guys that have had deep runs and won, you get a few lucky breaks along the way.
“We didn’t get those kinds of breaks in the second round. That sounds like an excuse and you don’t want to use excuses, but that’s just reality. Those breaks happen and can be a difference and that kind of sucks. But it’s a hockey game and things can happen. Could we have played better? Yes, we could have done things much better. But there are breaks. I think we have the potential to overcome those things and we sure tried. It didn’t happen.”
“The margin of error is tiny, it’s small, and when it’s that small it’s about scoring big goals and owning the big moments, he said. “They owned more of them than we did and, in turn, won a couple overtime games that could have changed the series. It is what it is. There’s moments in playoff series where you need to rise up and we didn’t get it done.”