On Thursday, the Caps begin their second round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a rematch of last year’s series in which the Caps fell in six games. Here are five players, besides the obvious Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, to watch who could determine who comes away victorious this year.
1. Phil Kessel
Kessel's career seemed to have grounded to a halt in Toronto, but he has thrived after a trade to Pittsburgh. He led the Penguin in points in last year’s playoff run with 22 and seems to have picked up right where he left off with eight points in five games against Columbus in the first round. Not only is he a great player, but with the team’s scoring depth head coach Mike Sullivan can utilize Kessel on the second or third line to get him more favorable matchups. It certainly worked last year as Kessel tallied six points in six games against the Caps.
2. Evgeni Malkin
After one round, it’s not Crosby who leads the Penguins in points, it’s Malkin who registered 11 points in five games this postseason. Malkin managed just two points against Washington in their series last year, both of which came in the first two games of the season. If Sidney Crosby gets the toughest matchups from the Caps, which he will, Washington will still have to account for Malkin.
3. Marc-Andre Fleury
As Matt Murray has not even returned to skating yet, it seems like it will be Fleury or bust for the Penguins this series. So far he has been up to the task with a .933 save percentage through the first round. Consistency in the postseason, has been a problem for Fleury which is not what you would expect for a goalie with two Stanley Cups to his name. His career playoff save percentage is a paltry .907. Plus there’s no Kris Letang for Pittsburgh as he will miss the entire postseason due to an injury. With Washington’s offensive firepower, if they can get to Fleury the Penguins are in trouble.
4. Nicklas Backstrom
Washington held Crosby to just two points in last year’s series and Backstrom was a major reason why. As good as he is offensively, the veteran center may be just as good as a shutdown forward. Holding Crosby to two points in six games should be good enough to win. It didn’t turn out that way last year, but it will still be important to shut down Pittsburgh’s top player again. The interesting thing to consider with Backstrom is whether Barry Trotz could split move him away from Ovechkin. If Backstrom’s top priority is to shut down Crosby, perhaps the Caps would be better off moving Ovechkin to a different line with more of an offensive role.
5. Evgeny Kuznetsov
Secondary scoring will be a major factor in this series. Last year, as good as the Caps were against Crosby and Malkin, they did not have the secondary scoring to match Pittsburgh. Kuznetsov, in particular, had a disappointing series with just one point. He must be better this year. The good news for Washington is that he already does look better. Kuznetsov had a tremendous series against Toronto although that only translated to three points in six games. Still, if he continues playing the way he did in the first round, it is going to translate to more production.