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Stanley Cup Playoffs 2018: The ultimate Capitals-Penguins preview

Stanley Cup Playoffs 2018: The ultimate Capitals-Penguins preview

Here we go again. For the third consecutive year, the Capitals will meet the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Caps lost each of the last two series and in fact have lost nine out of the ten postseason meetings between these two teams. Will this year be different? How can the Caps defeat the two-time defending Cup champions?

Round 2: Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Schedule

Game 1: Penguins at Capitals. Thursday, 4/26 at 7:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBCSN)
Game 2: Penguins at Capitals. Sunday, 4/29 at 3 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 3: Capitals at Penguins. Tuesday, 5/1 at 7:30 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBCSN)
Game 4: Capitals at Penguins. Thursday, 5/3 at 7 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBCSN)
Game 5: Penguins at Capitals. Saturday, 5/5 at 7 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 6 (If Necessary): Capitals at Penguins. Monday, 5/7 (Channel TBD)
Game 7 (If Necessary): Penguins at Capitals. Wednesday, 5/9 (Channel TBD)

View full detailed schedule here.

Team stats

Washington

  • 49-26-7, 105 points, first in the Metropolitan Division
  • 3.12 goals per game (9th)
  • 2.90 goals against per game (16th)
  • 22.5-percent power play percentage (7th)
  • 80.3 penalty kill percentage (15th)

Pittsburgh

  • 47-29-6, 100 points, second in the Metropolitan Division
  • 3.29 goals per game (3rd)
  • 3.02 goals against per game (20th)
  • 26.2 power play percentage (1st)
  • 80.0 penalty kill percentage (17th)

Top Performers

Washington

Goals

Regular season
  1. Alex Ovechkin – 49
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov – 27
  3. Nicklas Backstrom – 21
Playoffs
  1. Alex Ovechkin - 5
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov - 4
  3. T.J. Oshie - 3

Assists

Regular season
  1. Evgeny Kuznetsov – 56
  2. John Carlson – 53
  3. Nicklas Backstrom – 50
Playoffs
  1. John Carlson - 8
  2. Nicklas Backstrom - 6
  3. Evgeny Kuznetsov - 4

Points

Regular season
  1. Alex Ovechkin – 87
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov – 83
  3. Nicklas Backstrom – 71
Playoffs
  1. John Carlson - 9
  2. Nicklas Backstrom - 8
  3. Evgeny Kuznetsov - 8
  4. Alex Ovechkin -8

Pittsburgh

Goals

Regular season
  1. Evgeni Malkin - 42
  2. Phil Kessel - 34
  3. Sidney Crosby - 29
Playoffs
  1. Jake Guentzel - 6
  2. Sidney Crosby - 6
  3. Bryan Rust - 3
  4. Evgeni Malkin - 3

Assists

Regular season
  1. Sidney Crosby - 60
  2. Phil Kessel - 58
  3. Evgeni Malkin - 56
Playoffs
  1. Jake Guentzel - 7
  2. Sidney Crosby - 7
  3. Kris Letang - 6

Points

Regular season
  1. Evgeni Malkin - 98
  2. Phil Kessel - 92
  3. Sidney Crosby - 89
Playoffs
  1. Jake Guentzel - 13
  2. Sidney Crosby - 13
  3. Kris Letang - 7

Goaltending

Washington

Regular season

Braden Holtby: 54 GP, 34-16-4 record, .907 save percentage, 2.99 GAA, 0 shutouts
Philipp Grubauer: 35 GP, 15-10-3 record, .923 save percentage, 2.35 GAA, 3 shutouts

Playoffs

Braden Holtby: 5 GP, 4-1 record, .932 save percentage, 1.92 GAA, 0 shutouts
Philipp Grubauer: 2 GP, 0-1 record, .837 save percentage, 4.55 GAA, 0 shutouts

Pittsburgh

Regular season

Matt Murray: 49 GP, 27-16-3 record, .906 save percentage, 2.92 GAA, 1 shutout
Tristan Jarry: 26 GP, 14-6-2 record, .908 save percentage, 2.77 GAA, 2 shutouts
Casey DeSmith: 14 GP, 11-6-4 record, .921 save percentage, 2.40 GAA, 1 shutout

Playoffs

Matt Murray : 6 GP, 4-2 record, .911 save percentage, 2.20 GAA, 2 shutouts

Head-to-head record

Series split 2-2-0

Oct. 11: 3-2 Penguins win

Christian Djoos tallied a goal and a primary assist in his NHL debut, but it wasn't enough as the Caps yielded three power play goals to Pittsburgh.

Nov. 10: 4-1 Capitals win

The Caps took advantage of their six power play opportunities with two power play goals. T.J. Oshie fittingly scored the game-winner on a power play he drew from Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. Letang cross-checked Oshie so much, he was actually called for two cross-checking penalties on the same shift.

Feb. 2: 7-4 Penguins win

This game marked the beginning of Braden Holtby's lengthy mid-season slump. Washington battled back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game at 3-3 and again at 4-4, but they could not match Pittsburgh's four-goal third period.

April 1: 3-1 Capitals win

The Capitals clinched their third straight Metropolitan Division championship in Alex Ovechkin's 1,000th career game. It was a mistake-filled game as Washington gave Pittsburgh five power plays, but Philipp Grubauer was brilliant in net with 36 saves in the win. This game may well have been the deciding factor in Grubauer winning the starting job heading into the playoffs.

3 keys of the series for Washington

1. Discipline: In the two games the Caps beat Pittsburgh this season, the Capitals did not give up a power play goal. No team had a better power play in the regular season than the Penguins and we already saw how dumb penalties cost the Caps in the first round. Washington took 24 penalties in six games against the Blue Jackets and that is far too many. They cannot win that way against the Penguins.

The problem is that in the second round with a heated rival, tempers can flare a bit. Just look at the last time these two teams played when Malkin was shooting Oshie's stick off the ice and tried to fight Kuznetsov for speaking Russian to him. Still, the Caps are going to have to keep their emotions in check.

2. Getting the goaltending advantage: The scoring depth of Pittsburgh is unmatched. The fact that a team can have Crosby, Malkin and Kessel all on the same team in the salary cap era is mind-boggling. Oh, and by the way, Jake Guentzel scores every time he touches the puck in the playoffs. Washington cannot win this series if they do not get better goaltending than Pittsburgh.

The good news is that Murray was not lights out in the first round. Yes, he had two shutouts, but there were also three games in which he let in at least four goals. A .911 save percentage is not where the Penguins really need him to be. The bad news is that while Holtby is statistically one of the best playoff netminders in NHL history, he struggles against Pittsburgh. In last year's series, Holtby managed only a .887 save percentage and 2.57 GAA.

One thing to keep in mind, on April 1 Grubauer started a critical game in Pittsburgh and was phenomenal. Could Trotz possibly think of going back to Grubauer if Holtby struggles against the Penguins?

3. Head games: Let's face it, there is a mental aspect to the Capitals' postseason struggles. When it comes to beating Pittsburgh or getting past the second round, this has become a mental hurdle. They have to come into this series with confidence they can win and maintain that confidence throughout, regardless of whether they get down in a game or in the series, regardless of whether there is a bad penalty call, regardless of whether Murray stands on his head again, regardless of any of the struggles they may face, they have to stay mentally confident.

When the Caps went down 0-2 against Columbus, Ovechkin said that the series would return to Washington tied at 2. The way he said it, it wasn't a guarantee or some massive proclamation, it was a statement of fact. Both he and the rest of the team believed they were going to come back and win the series. They need that level of confidence against Pittsburgh as well.

What are people saying about this series?

From ESPN: “The Capitals fought through an early goalie controversy to shake the pesky Columbus Blue Jackets in six games in Round 1. Washington will need to perform much better at home to have a chance of knocking off the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Sidney Crosby's crew had a seesaw first-round series of their own against another Metropolitan Division rival, the Philadelphia Flyers. Although nearly every game of that series was a blowout, the Penguins outlasted the depleted Flyers in six games -- leaving us wondering if Pittsburgh has enough gas left itself. After all, there's a reason no team has three-peated in more than three decades.”

From Sportsnet: “Holtby’s .907 save percentage this season was by far the worst of his NHL career and in January and February his save rate dropped below .900. This led to more starts for Grubauer, but since wrestling the job back from him against Columbus, Holtby’s playoff save percentage is a very respectable .932 — the second-best mark of all advancing Eastern Conference goalies, behind only Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. If Holtby is back on top of his game as one of the world’s elite, he will be the key for Washington to exorcise their demons."

From the Pittsburgh Penguins: “See you soon, Capitals.”

Expert picks

Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals Insider: Capitals in 7
JJ Regan, Capitals Correspondent: Penguins in 7 (prove me wrong, Caps!)
Joe Beninati, Capitals play-by-play announcer: Capitals in 6
Craig Laughlin, Capitals color commentator: Capitals in 6
Al Koken, Capitals on-ice reporter: Capitals in 6
Alan May, Capitals analyst: Capitals in 6
Rob Carlin, host of Capitals GameTIme and Capitals Extra: Capitals in 7
Ryan Billie, Capitals producer: Capitals in 7
Grant Paulsen, host of Capitals FaceOff and Capitals Overtime: Capitals in 7
Courtney Laughlin, Capitals FaceOff and Capitals Overtime panelist: Capitals in 6

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Braden Holtby’s save in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup wasn’t even nominated for an ESPY

Braden Holtby’s save in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup wasn’t even nominated for an ESPY

On Wednesday night ESPN hosts their yearly sports award show, the ESPYs, to celebrate the best of the last 365 days in sport. 

One thing they will not be celebrating, or did not even consider celebrating, was Braden Holtby’s save in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final

This year there were 16 plays nominated to be the “Best Play” and were seeded into a bracket. For the past month fans have been voting in each head-to-head matchup culminating in four pretty outstanding plays:

All of those plays can be viewed here

Three of those four were in a championship game, the other was a just a once in a lifetime play from a teenager. 

But the ESPYs are saying that there are 16 plays from this past year that were better than Holtby’s save… Can we really believe that? Everyone loves buzzer beaters, but they accounted for six of the 16 plays. One of them could have easily gotten bumped. 

And aside from the three listed above there were only two that were in the championship event for each sport. Holtby could have rounded it out for six.

We’re not saying that Holtby’s play was the best in the past year, or even in the top four. Heck, there should be no one that tops Ogunbowale’s incredible heroics. But arguably the best play in D.C. sports history not making the top-16 for best plays in a 365 day period? 

It must have been one heck of a sports year.  

For those that are nominated, Alex Ovechkin is a finalist for Best Male Athlete and Best NHL Player. The Capitals are in the running for Best Team.

RELATED: 

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Key Caps questions: Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?

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USA TODAY Sports

Key Caps questions: Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: At 33 years old, can Alex Ovechkin challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top-goalscorer?

Tarik: By scoring 49 goals last season, Alex Ovechkin didn’t just defy Father Time, he also did something historic: at 32 years old, the Caps’ captain became the oldest player to lead the league in scoring since Phil Esposito did it at 33 in 1974-75.

Which brings me to today’s question.

I see more reasons Ovechkin will challenge for a record eighth goal-scoring title rather than reasons he won't. (By the way, he’s currently tied with Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, who led the league in goals seven times).

Consider:

  • No. 1—Ovechkin, who turns 33 on Sept. 17, has shown no signs of breaking down physically, despite logging some hard miles over the course of 13 seasons. And if you’re going to lead the league in goals, you’ve got to play, and play a lot. Last season, in fact, he averaged nearly two minutes MORE per game (20:09) than he did the previous year.
  • No. 2—Something tells me that now Ovi has done a keg stand from the Stanley Cup, he’s more determined than ever to take another swig next summer. I don’t have any stats to back up this bullet point. It’s just a hunch from someone who’s covered a lot of his career.
  • No. 3—From an Xs and Os standpoint, not much is expected to change in 2018-19. His line will be centered by Evgeny Kuznetsov. If things go stale, new head coach Todd Reirden will have the ace-up-the-sleeve option of reuniting Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom. Meanwhile, the power play—where No. 8 does so much of his damage—will have the same structure and pieces.

To me, the only thing that could prevent Ovechkin from challenging Patrik Laine, Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid and Co. for another goal scoring title will be complacency. And I just don’t foresee that being an issue.

Ovechkin has an opportunity to help the Caps make up for some lost time. But there’s no way they’ll be contenders if their best player isn’t at, or near, the top of the league in goals once again.

And he knows it.

JJ: Ovechkin has shown people throughout his incredible career that you should never doubt him. He only scored 32 and 38 goals in 2010-2012. Think he's not going to reach 50 again? Well, he did it three times. Think Ovechkin's 33-goal season in 2016-17 shows he's on the decline? Well, he just led the NHL in goals for the seventh time in his career. Think Ovechkin can't lead his team to a Stanley Cup? Well, we all know how that turned out.

Ovechkin was challenged at the end of the 2016-17 season by Brian MacLellan who noted Ovechkin would have to change the way he trained in order to keep up with the quicker NHL. He took those words to heart and showed up for training camp a little earlier and little lighter than usual.

After his day with the Stanley Cup, Ovechkin sent it off with the words, "See you next year." He knows what it takes to be successful and he will be extra motivated to once again come into camp ready for a big season.

Having said all of that, Father Time will always be undefeated.

As Tarik noted above, the 32-year-old Ovechkin was the oldest player to lead the league in scoring since Esposito in 1974-75. It's hard to do. Plus, there are a lot of young players like Laine and McDavid who are only getting better. While they're hitting thier prime, Ovechkin is fighting a losing battle with time.

That does not mean I expect Ovechkin's production to fall off a cliff. I still think he can surpass 40 goals, but the league's offense is trending up with the league average for goals per game per team climbing all the way up to 2.97 last season. That's the highest it has been since 2005-06. I am of the opinion that the offense is going to continue trending upward and it is going to take more than 49 goals to win the Rocket Richard this year.

Can Ovechkin score 40+ goals this season? Absolutely. Can he score more than that? I'm not so sure.

The Great 8 will remain a great goal-scorer and the Capitals' best offensive weapon, but I do not foresee him earning his eighth Rocket Richard Trophy or even finishing in the top three among the league's goal scorers.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?