The special teams battle looms large in most playoff meetings, and it figures to be absolutely huge in the Pittsburgh-Washington series, particularly when the Penguins are on the power play.
“They have very good personnel with high hockey I.Q. and high skill level,” Coach Barry Trotz said Wednesday. “When they do get moving around, they just sort of replace each other in a lot of areas but still get the job done [while] they give you a little bit of a different look.”
“And,” he added, “obviously they have great execution with some great pieces. And they have net front [presence] with [Patric] Hornqvist whom I know very well. They are hungry around the net.”
Indeed, the Pens have been outstanding with the man advantage thus far in the postseason. Against Columbus, the Evgeni Malkin-and Phil Kessel-fueled unit struck at least once in four of the five games, connecting at a robust 33.3-percent rate (5 for 15), the best mark among teams still in the playoffs. (The Caps’ power play ranks second at 29.4-percent).
“They've got some good shooters in Kessel and [Sidney] Crosby on the flanks that can finish,” Lars Eller said. “And [Justin] Schultz on top, too. They have a lot of weapons but we are going to be well-prepared.”
Here are a few more numbers you should know about this critical matchup:
- The Caps were no slouches on the penalty kill in the opening round. In fact, Jay Beagle, Eller and Co. killed off 83.3-percent of the shorthanded situations they faced, including five in a row in Games 5 and 6 against Toronto as they eked out consecutive 2-1 OT.
- Two of the top three and three of the top 11-power play producers in the playoffs are Pens—Malkin (4 assists), Kessel (2 goals, 2 assists) and Schultz (3 assists).
- In the teams’ four regular season meetings, the Pens' power play went 2-for-3 in their two wins but just 2-for-9 in their two losses.
Beagle, the Caps’ top penalty killing forward, says he always looks forward to the challenge of facing skilled, versatile power plays like the Pens’ unit.
“They have an unreal power play,” Beagle said. “It’s been great for years. The thing with them is they always seem to have new looks. It’s always something different. They’re not going in with the one thing. They have their basic setups and stuff but they always have their different looks. That makes it a pretty special power play. It’s pretty cool actually to kill against that.”
But Xs and Os aren’t all the Caps will need to come out on top in this matchup. They’ll also need to do a better job of staying out of the penalty box. Among teams still in the playoffs, the Caps taken more minor penalties (25) than anyone else.
“We are capable of playing games without taking many penalties,” Eller said. “In Game 6 [vs. Toronto] we took [two]. That’s the kind of game that we have to be prepared to play. I think the more you have the puck during five-on-five, the less you’re going to be chasing and the less chances you are going to have to take penalties. So it really starts with a good five-on-five game and then you’re really stacking the deck in your favor.”
Trotz added: “You got to play with edge but you can’t go over the edge. I thought our discipline was good and got better as the [Toronto] series went on. It doesn’t mean you can’t hit, but you have to stay disciplined.”
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