The Capitals wrapped up their season series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday with a 3-0 loss to their archrival. It was Washington's sixth loss to Pittsburgh in eight games.
With the playoffs looming, if the Caps hope to make a deep playoff run, they may well have to face Pittsburgh in the first or second round of the playoffs. Would a playoff series be as one-sided as the regular season was? The Caps certainly don't see it that way.
Overall, Washington thought most of the games against Pittsburgh, both the wins and the losses, played out similarly.
"Almost every game was identical," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "The team that capitalized won the game. Even just going back to the last game, we took our look in overtime, it didn’t go. They took theirs, it went. And so that’s the difference in the game. Tonight, it was definitely not volume. It was a couple things that happened and they got a couple really good looks and they put it in. That’s pretty much the way it’s been for me. Every game’s looked the same. If we see them in the playoffs, it will look the same.”
"They took care of their opportunities, their bounces and we didn't," Nicklas Backstrom said.
While the last two losses may leave a bad taste in Washington's mouth, the series was actually fairly even. The Caps lost six out of eight, but their actual record was 2-2-4. Four games went into overtime and Washington lost all four, but that does not mean anything for the playoffs where 3-on-3 overtime or shootouts do not exist. Pittsburgh only outscored the Caps 28-24 in total.
Yes, the Penguins were able to win the last two games with Evgeni Malkin out injured, but Washington did not have Alex Ovechkin or John Carlson. That's...kind of significant.
Plus, this time Washington would not bring with it the same mental baggage it has carried into each series with Pittsburgh in the past. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, after all, it was the Caps who were victorious.
In that series, however, Washington knew who its starting goalie was.
Goaltending was a question mark for both teams heading into the season -- the Capitals with two young netminders and Pittsburgh turning the crease over to Tristan Jarry after trading away Matt Murray. But while Jarry seems to have cemented himself as a quality starter, the Caps are still rotating between Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek.
Jarry seems to be rounding into form with two shutouts in his past four games. It remains unclear who Washington's starter will be heading into the postseason.
"That's the impact that Tristan can have on the game for us is he makes some key saves at key times that give us an opportunity to win games," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said.
Pittsburgh's defensive structure has been formidable as well, despite the team giving up three goals per game to Washington.
"They have always been good defensively," Backstorm said. "If you look at their records, it just proves that if you have a record like that you have to be good in the defensive zone. I feel like they've always been like that. When they have their A-game, they are good."
If a series would be both teams just trading chances and the winner just being able to cash in on more of those opportunities, right now you would have to give the advantage to Pittsburgh.
Another thing to keep in mind is Sidney Crosby. He recorded two goals and four assists in eight games against Washington, but was held without a point in four out of eight meetings. This could be a sign that the Caps have contained him well, but chances are Washington is not going to keep him off the score sheet 50% of the time in a playoff series.
Overall, based on what we have seen between these two teams a playoff series between them would look very even, but you would have to give the slight edge to Pittsburgh based on what they were able to do in the regular season.
Having said that, the Caps look much more suited to the physical, grinding style of playoff hockey. If they could use that advantage to limit Pittsburgh's offensive opportunities, then Washington would close that gap very quickly.
Said Backstrom, "They're a good team, we're a good team and I feel like we should see it as a challenge if that opportunity shows up."