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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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Morrissey avoids suspension for Oshie body slam in a decision that makes little sense

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USA Today Sports Images

Morrissey avoids suspension for Oshie body slam in a decision that makes little sense

The Department of Player Safety announced Thursday that Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey was fined $8,467.74 for his body slam of T.J. Oshie in Wednesday’s game. It is a punishment that falls well short of the standard the DPS itself set earlier this season.

Late in Wednesday’s game between the Caps and Jets, Oshie skated to the corner of the offensive zone after the puck while locked in a physical battle with Morrissey. Morrissey checked Oshie into the boards, then, as he was falling back, Morrissey slammed Oshie down to the ice. Oshie appeared to be dazed after the play which is troubling given his history of concussions.

There is nothing wrong with the initial hit. Both players were battling for the puck making Oshie eligible to be hit. The problem is after the hit when Morrissey slams him to the ice afterward, which is unnecessary and dangerous.

Oh, c’mon, you may be saying, Morrissey was just finishing his check! That’s not an argument anymore considering the DPS already suspended a player for doing the exact same thing earlier this season when Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson slammed Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson to the ice. Matheson was suspended two games for the play.

Matheson’s suspension was a matter of some debate within the hockey community not just because some argued Matheson was finishing his check on a hockey play, but because it was made to look worse by the fact that Pettersson is only 176 pounds, nearly 20 pounds lighter than Matheson. The DPS didn’t buy it and Matheson was suspended.

If you compare the Morrissey and the Matheson hits, they are very similar. Matheson hits Pettersson with a legal check, just as Morrissey did with Oshie. Matheson then slammed Pettersson to the ice after the initial check, just as Morrissey did with Oshie. One can quibble somewhat with the fact that Petterrsson’s skates came off the ice making the throw down more violent, but the two plays are similar enough that, in my opinion, it is fair to compare them and the corresponding punishment. In fact, one could easily argue that the Morrissey hit is worse considering he and Oshie are both listed as 195 pounds. Oshie didn’t go down to the ice because of a size disparity, Morrissey had to physically slam him down.

In addition, Morrissey is considered a repeat offender after getting suspended in the 2018 playoffs for a crosscheck to Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal. To be fair, being a repeat offender is not supposed to affect the DPS’s decision on whether a play is worthy of a suspension or not, it is only meant to be taken into consideration when determining the length of a suspension.

But the remains that the DPS was presented with two very similar plays within one month of each other and came up with two completely different punishments. That is more than a little head scratching.

The DPS has one of the toughest jobs in hockey. No matter what they do, most people are going to be unhappy with the decisions they make. It’s the nature of the job when it comes to determining supplemental discipline. Having said that, the one thing people should be able to expect from the DPS is consistency. The Morrissey hit on Oshie seemed like a slam-dunk considering a very similar play happened a month before and resulted in a two-game suspension.

But hey, Caps fans can at least take comfort in the fact that Morrissey was issued the maximum fine allowed by the CBA. So there’s that.

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Capitals prospect report: Axel Jonsson-Fjallby goes home

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Capitals prospect report: Axel Jonsson-Fjallby goes home

Early in October, reports began popping up saying Axel Jonsson-Fjallby was headed back to his native Sweden to play for Djurgardens IF in the SHL. Those reports were refuted by the team which said that he remained in Hershey and had no plans to return to Sweden at that time.

Just over a month later and Jonsson-Fjallby’s move back to Sweden is official. On Tuesday, the Capitals announced he had been loaned to Djurgardens IF.

Jonsson-Fjallby scored two goals and three points in 15 games with the Bears.

While Jonsson-Fjallby was technically loaned by the Caps, it seems clear going back to Sweden was his decision. Capitals Outsider quotes a Bears spokesperson saying, “We are obviously disappointed, but it was Axel’s contractual right.”

To be fair, Jonsson-Fjallby was adjusting to a new country. That’s difficult. You do not know what a player’s specific situation is when it comes to family or how he is adjusting to living in a new place. Having said that, this was not a good move in terms of his NHL career.

Adjusting to the North American game takes time. Going back to Sweden to play the European game obviously delays that transition.

Not every player has to go to the AHL to adjust. Evgeny Kuznetsov was talented enough that the Caps were willing to bring him along straight from the KHL to the bottom six in the NHL as he adjusted and developed. Jonsson-Fjallby, however, is not Kuznetsov.

When Jonsson-Fjallby is finally ready to return to North America, he will now have to start the process of adjusting to the North American game again, putting him behind all the players in the system that are there now.

He may feel like it is the right move to return home personally, but in terms of his hockey career, this was a step in the wrong direction.

Other prospect notes:

  • Jonas Siegenthaler made his NHL debut on Friday with both Brooks Orpik and John Carlson out with injuries. He was impressive in his first game playing alongside Madison Bowey. He played in his second game on Wednesday which ties him for the franchise lead in games played by a Swiss-born player. He remains with the Caps on their current road trip.
  • llya Samsonov started in both of Hershey’s games over the weekend with Vitek Vanecek still out with an upper-body injury. Samsonov won one of those two games bringing his record for the season to 3-5.
  • Nathan Walker returned to Hershey after the Caps placed him on waivers. He scored in his very first game back on Saturday against Springfield. He also got into a fight in his second game back on Sunday.
  • Riley Barber had no goals in the first six games of the season. Now he has five in the past seven. Over the weekend, Barber recorded a goal and an assist in both of Hershey’s games. He now leads the team in points with 11 and sits third in goals behind Liam O’Brien (7) and Mike Sgarbossa (6).
  • Tyler Lewington has racked up 454 career penalty minutes with Hershey, passing Don Cherry who had 424 while with the Bears. He currently sits second in the AHL in penalty minutes with 54. A lot of fans like Lewington because he is not afraid to drop the gloves, but not all of those minutes are from fighting. Lewington also leads the league in minor penalties with 12.
  • With his goal Friday in a win over Rensselaer, Chase Priskie became Quinnipiac’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen with 29 goals. “It’s great to be in the record books, but at the same time it’s the players that I’ve been able to play with for the last four years,” Priskie said. “Without them, a lot of those goals don’t happen and I can’t give enough praise to the guys I’ve been able to play with that have been able to get me the puck in the right situations. I’ve been able to do the easy part. I just try to come in and do whatever I can to help the team win.”

 

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