We have reached the home stretch of the NHL season. It's time to look ahead to see who the Capitals could play in the first round of the playoffs. With a few days in between games, now's a good time for Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan to look at how Washington stacks up against potential matchups in a seven-game series.
Today's team: The Pittsburgh Penguins
Why the Penguins would be a good matchup for the Caps
Andrew: In a lot of ways, the Penguins resemble the Capitals.
They’re an older team nearing the end of its contention window with the current core of players. They’ve got a crop of players nearing the end of their careers, and they’re looking to squeeze whatever juice out of the final runs that they can. But, as I think has been the case for the last few seasons, their depth would concern me.
Undoubtedly, their top six is stellar. But their bottom six doesn’t particularly scare me as another team’s would, and I think their blue line outside of Brian Dumoulin-Kris Letang is suspect. If the Capitals could slow down their top two lines, or at least mitigate them, I think I’d take the Capitals to win the bottom six battle.
Also, and perhaps this should be higher, but goaltender Tristan Jarry would terrify me if I were in Pittsburgh. He’s been good this season and, entering Thursday night, had a .921 save percentage on the year. But no one has forgotten last year’s series against the Islanders when he got beaten badly over the six-game series — especially in the final three games. Until he proves otherwise, I don't know how there's full and absolute trust in him.
As I’ve said before, if the Capitals can turn whatever series they play into a physical, grind-it-out style of play, I would like their chances. Against the Penguins, I think this is especially true.
JJ: The Penguins would have beaten the New York Islanders last season if Jarry had been better in the postseason. Period. No deeper analysis is needed. He and his .888 save percentage was the difference in Pittsburgh's first-round exit. He has been considerably better in the regular season this year than he was last so there's reason to believe he can be better, but you are not a playoff goalie until you prove you are and this is a major question mark for Pittsburgh.
I do not like Pittsburgh's scoring depth at all. Evgeni Malkin has played in just 31 of the Penguins' 68 games this season and he still ranks sixth among the team's forwards in points. Rickard Rakell is a really good pick-up for them not just because he is a good player, but because it pushes another player down in the lineup. On paper, a third line with Jeff Carter and Kasperi Kapanen looks formidable, but Kapanen has been a disaster since he was acquired by Pittsburgh so I don't look at the third and fourth lines and think that's better than what the Caps have.
Washington also remains a more physical team. As Andrew noted, if you can devolve this series into a hard-nosed, blue-collar, hard-hitting style of play -- which is certainly possible against a hated rival -- I could see Pittsburgh getting distracted by those extracurriculars and it takes them away from their style of play.
Why the Penguins would be a bad matchup for the Caps
Andrew: The Penguins are the sneaky team for me to emerge out of the Eastern Conference, presuming they get a few good matchups to bounce their way.
They’re clearly skilled in the top six, especially after their deadline acquisition of Rickard Rakell, and they’re good enough to beat a team solely with that group of players. They’re one of the better possession teams in the league and their special teams, specifically the penalty kill, are dangerous.
As is so important for playoff hockey, the Penguins are deep down the middle with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Carter centering their top three lines. Crosby is still timeless, Malkin is still a point-per-game player and Carter is good enough to get the puck to the speedier linemates on his wing.
Pittsburgh can obviously execute when it matters in the playoffs and I wouldn’t like Washington’s chances if the series turned into a track meet.
JJ: I would view offensive depth as an advantage for Washington if the Caps can stay healthy, but that has been an issue all year. Can they really survive a seven-game series with the top-six intact? If not, that mitigates one of the main advantages Washington would have.
To me, Mike Sullivan is the best coach in the NHL and that Sidney Crosby guy is still pretty good too. He has been held without a point only three times since the All-Star break. The Penguins are also defensively formidable.
Washington can win this series, but their best hope is for Pittsburgh's .921 save percentage goalie to suddenly implode again. If not, this becomes a really hard series for the Caps to win.