I know history says Alex Ovechkin and the President Trophy winning Caps will stub their toe against Sidney Crosby and the defending champion Penguins. But I’m here to tell you that this is the year things will unfold differently.
1. Bottom-six depth
A big story all season has been the Caps’ third and fourth lines and how they provided the scoring depth the team had lacked, particularly in last year’s postseason matchup against the Penguins. So far in these playoffs, Tom Wilson has three goals, including the OT winner in Game 1 vs. Toronto and two goals in Game 4, while Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky each have a pair of helpers. The fourth line, however, has yet to chip in offensively. Soooo…it's been a little hit or miss, to be sure. But this much is not up for debate: the bottom six is a lot better than it was a year ago. And I suspect this is the series where they'll flex their collective muscle and pop a couple of big goals, just as they did throughout the regular season.
2. How the Caps responded when challenged in the first round
The Caps feel they are hardened mentally and emotionally after enduring a difficult first round series that saw them play five OT games and rally from a 2-1 series deficit in the Toronto-pressure cooker. Remember the third period and overtime of Game 6, after the fortuitous bounce that led to Auston Matthews’ go-ahead goal? The Caps’ response felt different than what we might have seen in previous years. There’s also reason to believe Ovechkin and Co. are better prepared from an Xs and Os standpoint because of the similarities between Toronto and Pittsburgh. “It was a good warmup because they play an up-tempo game,” Coach Barry Trotz saidWednesday. “They’ve got some dynamic forwards. They’re quick. They play that pressure game which the Penguins do.”
Braden Holtby is ready to steal a game (or three) after an uneven first round. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner returned to form in Games 5 and 6 of the Toronto series, stopping 61 of 63 shots to help the Caps eke out a pair of 2-1 OT wins. He he’ll need to be a difference maker against the Pens, whose offense is tops in the playoffs at 4.20 goals per game. Holtby will also need to be the Caps’ best penalty killer against a versatile Pittsburgh unit that has goals in four of its five postseason games and is clicking along at 33.3-percent. It’s a huge task. But Holtby's playoff history—and strong finish against the Leafs—suggests to me that he’s ready for it.
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