This is not 2017, or 2016, or even 2009. This is 2018 and history matters not.
The Pittsburgh Penguins may not be able to beat the Washington Capitals this time. The Penguins second line has been taken out by injury. On Wednesday, Evgeni Malkin was seen limping around the dressing room, which was actually an improvement from Tuesday. Malkin’s left wing, ultra-fast Carl Hagelin, has not been seen. The Penguins undisciplined play in Round 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers combined with those injuries gives the advantage firmly to the Capitals.
But, what the heck, Penguins in 7. In comeback fashion.
The Penguins will trail in the series, then win Games 6 and 7, with Malkin and Hagelin back in the lineup. Perhaps the Penguins need their back to the wall, but we will see the Penguins team which gleefully dismantled Philadelphia 7-0 in Game 1, Round 1.
The Penguins are a team which finds ways to win. The Capitals have not proven that ability. When Sidney Crosby was knocked out of the series last year, the Penguins did not falter.
This year, Derick Brassard is the great wild card as he has not yet found his stride as a Penguin. He is a legitimate second-line center and his skill set is well above what previous third-line center Nick Bonino. What better time for Brassard to show off his newfound chemistry with Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust? The Penguins coaches would do well to leave that line intact.
The Penguins third line, or perhaps second line, depending on how head coach Mike Sullivan deploys them, will have one job in Round 2: Stop Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
The Capitals second line has been deadly against the Penguins. Oshie is a playoff performer and one player who has been anxiously awaiting a rematch with the Penguins. He spoke up following last year’s Game 7 loss to the Penguins. Oshie challenged his team’s mindset, among other things.
The American born power forward had 12 points (4g, 8a) in 13 playoff games, last season. Oshie had four points (3g, 1a) in this year’s Round 1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In four regular-season games against the Penguins this season, Oshie had two goals. Last season in four regular-season games, he had 10 points (3g, 7a).
Backstrom is also dangerous. This season, Backstrom had only two assists in four regular-season games against the Penguins, but he had 12 points (4g, 8a) in four games the previous year. Backstrom had eight points in the Round 1 win over CBJ.
How the Penguins Win
A) Don’t Be Stupid
The Penguins took ill-advised penalties against the Flyers. They were sloppy, overconfident and nearly gave the series away as a result. Penguins fans can spin the Letang sequence which decided Game 6 any way you want, but it should have gone against the Penguins. You’re not allowed to kneecap an opponent, even if your stick is aimed towards the puck.
Letang did tell Pittsburgh Hockey Now the referees were correct, at least on the cross-check (Available to PHN Extra members). Malkin also took a couple of bad penalties.
Any more slapstick goofiness like taking a cross-checking penalty then racing from the box and tripping a player so wildly even the officials couldn’t believe it, and the Penguins will lose. They MUST stay out of the box unless they want to see John Carlson putting the puck on a tee for Alex Ovechkin in the right-wing circle.
B) Get the good Kris Letang
Letang was reserved, smart and judicious in the first 40 minutes of Game 6, after a nightmare Game 5.
In the third period of the clincher, though, he lost his composure with giveaways and penalties.
C) Power Play
The Penguins must convert on their power play chances. Pittsburgh Hockey Now spoke with one of the power play members after Game 6. While the conversation was on the record, this writer is about to twist the answer slightly.
The player admitted the team focuses on the power play as a source of offense. The twist, or extrapolation, is that sometimes the team waits for power plays or banks on them.
The Penguins power play was 14th of 16 teams in Round 1 in terms of scoring chances created. If the Penguins are going to rely on the man advantage for goals, they need to score.
We put the Caps penalty kill on Pens Chalkboard, also for PHN Extra members. The Capitals blue line wrinkle confounded the Penguins on April 1.
D) Penalty Kill
Stop Ovechkin. Nothing charges up Ovechkin’s battery like a blast from the circle and a red light.
The Penguins added a few wrinkles to slow the Flyers power play, and dropped into a diamond shape, rather than a box. On April 1, Penguins penalty killer Tom Kunhhackl cheated towards Ovechkin, with lukewarm results.
E) Withstand the Storm
The “red wave” of pressure which the Capitals apply is scary. The crowd reaches a fever pitch and the team just keeps charging … and charging. The Capitals are typically good for one several-minute wave per game. It’s intense and suffocating. It’s also impressive to watch.
However, when the wave subsides, the Capitals can be spent, and then they make mistakes.
Go to the Video Tape!
For more on what Matt Gajtka and I think about the upcoming series, including our predictions for the series and other fun stuff, take a look at our Round 2 preview video on Facebook Live: