When the calendar turns to April, Pittsburgh hockey fans delight in the frenetic exercise that is the Stanley Cup playoffs, when the rest of their world stops every other day to accommodate three hours of emotion wherein every lost faceoff has the potential to ruin their evening and every innocent 40-foot wrister into traffic might leave them smiling into morning.
But when the Penguins and Capitals drop into each other’s Stanley Cup path, as has happened for the second straight spring and the 10th time in 26 years, they also get a front-row seat to one of the NHL’s best psychological playoff dramas. One team trying desperately to escape a reputation for underachievement. The other seeking to reaffirm its status among the league’s elite.
Welcome to the second round, 2017, where these storylines have never been more clearly drawn.
The Capitals are used to having their past playoff failures reanimated by the media every spring, although the current team doesn’t have to answer for series inexplicably lost when they were toddlers. A good portion of this group does, however, have to live with legitimate questions about how perennially promising regular seasons evaporate into playoff disasters; since 2008 they’ve earned seven division titles but only six playoff series victories.
Because he was the draft choice who was going to finally bring the team success, and then doubly so because he turned out to be the greatest goal-scorer of his generation, Alexander Ovechkin is the focal point of the annual inquiries. He’s been a good playoff performer but not a regular difference-maker when it matters most; witness the Capitals’ first-round victory over the plucky Leafs, where Washington broke a surprising 2-2 series tie by winning the next two games without a single point from its captain.
With every passing spring there is mounting pressure on Ovechkin and his teammates to deliver the playoff success they always suggest is right around the corner. But that pressure has never been greater than it is today for two reasons: GM Brian MacLellan went out at the deadline and acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, adding the shiniest object available at the time to a team that was already heading for a second straight Presidents Trophy; and MacLellan is faced this summer with making meaningful changes to his roster when Shattenkirk, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner become unrestricted free agents while Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt seek new contracts as restricted free agents.
They have Vezina Trophy finalist Braden Holtby in goal, a scary power play, not only Ovechkin but a steely-nerved scorer in Oshie and a playmaking wizard in Nicklas Backstrom. But the Capitals looked nervous early in the Leafs series and spent most of it being reactive, not proactive. Now they face the defending champions, a Pittsburgh team that succeeds by forcing the play and has in the past 12 months won almost as many playoff series as the Capitals have in the past nine years.
If there is a now-or-never vibe in Washington these days, it won’ be lost on the Penguins that they, too, are facing a special opportunity that seems more elusive with every additional breath of the NHL salary cap. No one has won back-to-back titles since the Red Wings in 1998, almost a decade before the cap set the stage for the parity that today makes winning even a single Cup so much more difficult. But this Pittsburgh team – even without its best defenseman in Kris Letang for the rest of the season and its No. 1 goaltender in Matt Murray for an undetermined amount of time – looks capable of doing it.
There was more proof in the Penguins’ opening round win over Columbus, when they were routinely outplayed for large stretches of the opening period of all five games. Pittsburgh never lost its confidence, reasserted itself, got some terrific goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and some big goals from Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel against the presumptive Vezina Trophy winner in Sergei Bobrovsky. That’s a function not only of their skill but of coach Mike Sullivan‘s connection to his team, the leadership Crosby has provided and the confidence that comes with winning.
Malkin, who emerged from the first round with a league-best 11 points, looms as a major factor in this series. If we’ve learned anything after years of Crosby vs. Ovechkin hype, it’s that neither one can do it by himself. But Malkin, who was nowhere near healthy during the Penguins’ 2016 Cup run, is all of that this time around and playing like he wants to be the difference-maker his fellow Russian in Washington has not often been at this time of year.
That’s an outgrowth of Malkin’s confidence but also of the environment in which the Penguins operate. The Capitals probably need to beat the Penguins to really start believing they can win it all. The Penguins? They’re already there.