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Capitals vs. Penguins 2017 Playoff Preview: The rematch

Capitals vs. Penguins 2017 Playoff Preview: The rematch

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

Series schedule

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

Offensive preview

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.

RELATED: Power Rankings: On to Round two

Defensive preview

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.

Goaltending preview

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.

Coaching preview

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.

Injury concerns

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.

Pittsburgh is also dealing with injuries to Chris Kunitz and Chad Ruhwedel. Sullivan said Monday both players were “game-time decisions” for Game 1.

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.

MORE CAPITALS: Prediction recap: Caps survive Toronto's best shot

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan began tackling the items on his very long to-do list with the signing of prospect forward Shane Gersich. The team announced Monday that Gersich was re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract that carries a cap hit of $700,000.

Gersich will remain a restricted free agent at the end of the deal but will still be one year away from becoming arbitration eligible.

Gersich, who will turn 23 in July, just finished his first full professional season with the Hershey Bears, recording eight goals and 16 assists in 66 games.

“I learned a ton,” Gersich told NBC Sports Washington about his first AHL season. “I think our staff here is unbelievable. They've taught me so much, whether it's [showing] me video or doing skills or whatever. Can't say enough good things about them. And just my overall game, playing 200 feet and being aware of little details in the game. I think my game's grown a ton.”

Gersich’s original contract was for two seasons, but the first year was burned at the end of the 2017-18 season when he signed out of college at the end of the season and joined the Caps’ roster.

That transition from Stanley Cup champion to AHL the following season was a tough one for Gersich initially.

“Obviously, you were making your NHL debut and stuff like that, then it's kind of back to work and square one,” Gersich said. “For me, I know [I'm] definitely not the kid that's going to shy away from working or anything like that. So obviously, you've got to earn everything you get, and then that's how it is at every level.”

The speedy forward played in five games for Washington, three in the regular season and two in the playoffs during the Stanley Cup run. His speed was evident and has led many fans to wonder if the future is now for the young forward. His first year in Hershey showed, however, he still has a lot to learn before he reaches the NHL.

Gersich is still very much learning the game at the professional level. There was a little too much reaction in his game as opposed to action, which mitigated his speed. That is something he knows he needs to refine.

“I think just always being aware out there,” he said when talking about aspects of his game he wants to improve on. “Keeping my head on a swivel and making little plays. Just using my strengths too, I think. I've got to realize that I can use my speed out there a lot.”

The Caps will have a few roster spots open next season and not much money under the cap to fill those spots. Using young prospects is always an intriguing option. Gersich’s new contract, however, seems to indicate the Caps anticipate him spending the season in the AHL.

Gersich’s new contract carries an NHL salary of $700,000, which is actually lower than his first contract with a $925,000 salary. His minor-league salary, however, went up from $70,000 to $115,000. It may look like Gerisch is getting a pay cut based on the NHL numbers, but he actually is getting a raise because, barring a dazzling training camp, he will be spending most if not all of next season in Hershey. And if he does surprise, well now he has a lower NHL cap hit which is very important for a Washington team that will likely be very close to the salary cap.

While the implications of the contract seem clear, Gersich is excited for the opportunity to show he belongs in the NHL at training camp in the fall.

“Obviously, I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “It's been my goal my whole life, and that's the reason I left North Dakota. I think I'm ready for it, but you've got to wait and see until the time comes.”

The Caps also announced Monday the re-signing of forward Brian Pinho to a one-year, two-way contract. His contract carries a $700,000 NHL salary and a $100,000 AHL salary.

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In an offseason full of questions, Jonas Siegenthaler isn’t one of them

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In an offseason full of questions, Jonas Siegenthaler isn’t one of them

The Capitals will have a lot of roster spots open and not much money to fill them with this offseason. Adding a young, cheap defensive prospect to the NHL roster will certainly help and that appears to be the plan for Jonas Siegenthaler.

Siegenthaler’s first NHL season began with him in the AHL, but it finished with him playing on the top defensive pairing of the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The season did not get off to a great start for Siegenthaler as he became a cap casualty despite a strong training camp. Heading into the start of the NHL season, he looked poised to make the Caps roster.

“I came to camp here with the mindset to make the team and come to camp in good shape and everything,” Siegenthaler said at the team’s breakdown day.

The suspension to Tom Wilson and subsequent acquisition of Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers forced Washington to shuffle money to get under the salary cap. Siegenthaler, who was waiver exempt, was sent to the Hershey Bears as a result.

Siegenthaler would have to wait until Nov. 9 to finally make his NHL debut. He would go on to play 26 games his rookie season.

“I think a guy like Siegenthaler came up and played really well,” Lars Eller said.

““I tried to play my best game,” Siegenthaler said. “Of course it wasn’t always easy but I think like I did my best and tried to help the team.”

With a deep blue line, Siegenthaler was sent back to Hershey in February, but was recalled late in the season after Michal Kempny suffered a season-ending injury. The call-up, however, was just to have an extra body. As Todd Reirden experimented with the defensive pairs heading into the playoffs, it did not appear he viewed the rookie defenseman as a real option for the playoffs. Despite all the shuffling, Siegenthaler did not get into the lineup until the season finale after Washington had already wrapped up the division crown.

The Caps struggled in the first round against the Carolina Hurricanes, however, prompting changes to the lineup. The defense still struggled with the constant in-game adjustments and a change was clearly needed. Siegenthaler got into the lineup for Game 4. By Game 5, he was playing in Kempny’s spot on the top pair alongside John Carlson.

“He really just seemed very poised,” Eller said. “There wasn't any panic in his game. It's hard to be thrown into a series like that where the stakes are high and I thought he did that really well.”

Still just 22 years old and with a contract that remains waiver exempt for another year, Siegenthaler could enter the 2019-20 season in a position to again have to compete just to make the NHL roster. The possible retirement of Brooks Orpik and speculation over whether Matt Niskanen could be traded, however, leaves the team with spots open on the blue line.

The fact that Siegenthaler was able to go from the AHL to the top pair of the Caps during the playoffs reflects his growth as a player over the course of the year. To expect him to come into next season in a top-pair role would be unfair. Even a top-four role seems unlikely with Kempny likely returning and Nick Jensen taking Niskanen’s spot if he does in fact get traded.

But if the coaches trusted Siegenthaler as a rookie when it mattered most and with him still on an entry-level deal at a time when the team will need to pinch every penny, Siegenthaler will almost certainly be in Washington and not in Hershey for the 2019-20 campaign.

“Next season’s going to be huge,” he said. “I’ll do my best in the summer to keep myself in shape, in even better shape. My goal is to be here a long time and for rest of my career and yeah, just got to work for it.”

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