Second round: Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Caps record vs. Pittsburgh this season: 2-0-2
3-2 shootout loss at Pittsburgh on Oct. 13
7-1 win vs. Pittsburgh on Nov. 16
5-2 win vs. Pittsburgh on Jan. 11
8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Jan. 16
Game 1: April 27 in Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 2: April 29 in Washington, 8 p.m. on NBC
Game 3: May 1 in Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 4: May 3 in Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 5 (if necessary): May 6 in Washington, TBD
Game 6 (if necessary): May 8 in Pittsburgh, TBD
Game 7 (if necessary): May 10 in Washington, TBD
Sidney Crosby showed this season that he is not just a setup man as he won the Rocket Richard Trophy with 44 goals. He also finished second in the NHL with 89 points. But the first round was about much more than just Crosby. The Penguins again flexed the offensive depth that gave the Caps fits last year as they scored 4.20 goals per game in the first round, easily the highest scoring rate in the playoffs thus far. Evgeni Malkin leads all skaters in the league with 11 points while Phil Kessel is close behind him with eight. The fact that Crosby is third on the Penguins with seven points speaks to their depth. And let’s also not forget about Jake Guentzel. The 22-year-old rookie who had 33 points in the regular season netted five goals against Sergei Bobrovsky and currently leads the NHL in playoff goals. The Penguins have tons of options when it comes to scoring, enough that they can survive if Crosby or Malkin struggle in this series. Few teams can boast that level of depth.
Alex Ovechkin currently ranks third among active players in goals per game in the playoffs and showed no signs of slowing down in the first round with three goals. T.J. Oshie also had a big series with at least a point in five of their six games in the opening round, but this series will likely not be determined by the superstars. The scoring depth is the key. The Capitals did not enough of it to beat Pittsburgh last season. Do they now? The addition of Lars Eller in the offseason gives Washington four dependable centers and allowed Barry Trotz to roll four lines all season long…until the playoffs. Stagnant production from the bottom six led to a change with Tom Wilson moving to the third line and Brett Connolly moving to the fourth. The fourth line was used sparingly after that. If Trotz does not trust the fourth line against Toronto, he won’t against Pittsburgh. Can Washington then get enough production from three offensive lines to match the Penguins? Perhaps, but they will need more production from players like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Lars Eller.
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Pittsburgh will be without Kris Letang who is out for the remainder of the season with an injury. He is by far their best defenseman and his loss is a major, major blow considering the Penguins are facing a much better offensive team in Washington than they did in the first round. Pittsburgh's defense was average in the regular season (17th in the NHL with 2.79 goals allowed per game) and, despite the fact that they dispatched Columbus in just five games, they have remained average in the playoffs allowing 2.60 goals per game to the Blue Jackets. They still boast some notable players in Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley, but there is no question this team’s defensive stability is a question mark without Letang.
Washington boasted the NHL’s top defense in the regular season, but they sure didn’t look like it the first round. There’s no question that the Maple Leafs boast a lot of offensive talent, but not so much that the top defense in the league should be allowing 2.67 goals per game like they did against Toronto. That was good for 12th in the NHL in the first round. The team’s third pair of Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk seemed to really struggle as the series went along and the Penguins could look to exploit that pair early to see if they are in fact a weakness. Nate Schmidt came into the series in place of an injured Karl Alzner and his speed really seemed to boost the team. Against a Pittsburgh squad that also likes to push the tempo, it’s hard to see him coming out of the lineup anytime soon, but is he ready for top-four minutes against the defending champs? Something interesting to look for is if Barry Trotz elects to go with a lineup of seven defensemen at some point. Brett Connolly has played less than seven minutes in each of the last three games and could be replaced in the lineup when Alzner is ready to return.
Marc-Andre Fleury had led Pittsburgh through the first round when an injury to Matt Murray forced him to miss the entire series against Columbus. If you need to go to your backup, however, you can’t get much better than Fleury who previously led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009. He played extremely well in the first round with a .933 save percentage and a 2.52 GAA.
It took Braden Holtby time to get going, but he rebounded towards the end of the first round and put together his two best performances of the series in Games 5 and 6 in which he allowed just two goals total in 63 shots for a .968 save percentage. Washington needs that goalie to show this series and they need him right away. The Caps can’t afford for him to warm-up for four games.
Special teams preview
The power play for both teams is a work of art. Both finished tied for third in the NHL with a 23.1-percent success rate with the extra man. Where Washington holds the edge, however, is on the penalty kill. The Caps killed of 83.8-percent of the power plays they faced while the Penguins struggled at just 79.8-percent. Both teams’ penalty kills were at 83.3 percent in the first round, however, so both teams know they will have to be better.
It is too simple to say that Mike Sullivan is the better coach because he has won a Stanley Cup. Let’s not forget, Dan Bylsma also led the Penguins to a Cup as a midseason hire and there are few who would claim today that the now former coach of the Buffalo Sabres is a better coach than Trotz. Sullivan, however, has done a masterful job of leading the Penguins to success even with all their injuries. He took a chance last season of spreading out his offensive talent, but that talent distribution proved to be the difference in the playoffs as the Penguins rode their depth to a Stanley Cup.
This year, however, Trotz is ready. Through three games in the first round, one of the story lines was the fact that Toronto head coach Mike Babcock seemed to be getting the better of Trotz. Trotz, however, adjusted to the matchups, switched up his lines and made the necessary adjustments to put the Maple Leafs away. If Trotz can match wits with Babcock, he can match wits with any coach in the league.
For the Penguins, just about everyone is an injury concern. Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. The major injury is Letang who is out for the season. Goalie Matt Murray has not skated since suffering a lower-body injury. There seems to be no indication on when he could be ready to return and, even if he does return, it’s hard to imagine him taking over for Fleury considering how well Fluery has played. Carl Hagelin has been out with a lower-body injury since March 10, but he seems to be progressing rapidly and could be back at some point for this series.
Coach Sullivan on Hagelin's status: "We're hopeful that we're going to have him. He skated today. He skated yesterday on his own."— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 24, 2017
Pittsburgh is also dealing with injuries to Chris Kunitz and Chad Ruhwedel. Sullivan said Monday both players were “game-time decisions” for Game 1.
Coach Sullivan on Kunitz and Ruhwedel: "They will be game-time decisions."— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 24, 2017
Alzner has been out of the lineup since Game 2 against Toronto on April 15 with an upper-body injury. He is skating and is considered day-to-day. With Schmidt playing so well in Alzner’s place, it is unclear just who would come out of the lineup for Alzner when he is ready to return or if it would even be a defenseman.
Who has the edge?
Washington has not lost to Pittsburgh in regulation this season and really built its roster around beating the Penguins. But it is hard to argue with the defending champs who marched over the Caps on their way to the Cup. These teams are the two best teams remaining in the playoffs and there is little to separate them on paper. This is going to be a very close, very competitive series between two teams that look like the two frontrunners left in the playoffs.
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