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PHN Extra: Playoff Breakdown, The Washington Capitals

We begin our breakdown of potential Penguins playoff opponents with a familiar foe: the Washington Capitals.

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Patric Hornqvist (72) and Sidney Crosby (87): Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

The Pittsburgh Penguins have won back-to-back games and have claimed their spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 12th consecutive year. Now, the Penguins await their first round opponent but if history is any indication, one of their opponents on the way to the Stanley Cup will be the Washington Capitals.

There are few secrets left between the teams. Two bruising playoff battles over the past two years have propelled the Penguins and soured the Capitals. After last year’s Game 7 defeat, despite Capitals head coach Barry Trotz’ best attempts to downplay the Capitals mental deficit, a few team leaders including T.J. Oshie called it out.

Players also indirectly called out Alex Ovechkin for trying to do too much which hurt the Capitals’ game.

Penguins Keys:

Strong Forecheck:

If a team can establish an effective forecheck, that squad will win the majority of the time. Hence why Pittsburgh has been so successful in two consecutive years against the Washington Capitals.

The Capitals have a big-time top six forward crew. The Penguins must maintain pressure in the offensive zone. It is absolutely crucial the Penguins be on their toes not their heels because the Penguins defense is not built to protect. And, the forecheck is the best way to keep the puck away from T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin.

The Penguins need to crash Capitals’ defensemen. Don’t let them comfortably play the puck. The Capitals blue line is solid, but not elite. If the Penguins can impede their ability to generate clears and errant passes, positive results will come. Remember this gem?

 

Key Player: Carl Hagelin / Bryan Rust

Speedy Transition:

Speed was the mantra of these recent Cup runs but against the Capitals, the Penguins’ offense stems from the rush.

In the pair of Second Round victories over the Caps, Pittsburgh forwards played extraordinary defense, created turnovers in the defensive zone then took advantage in the middle of the ice. The Capitals like to crash the offensive zone which allows the Penguins wingers–if they’ve provided defensive support–to create speed out of the defensive zone and get a step on the slower Capitals defensemen.

This was the case in the team’s most recent meeting on Feb. 2 in Pittsburgh.

 

Key Player: Phil Kessel / Conor Sheary 

Contain Ovechkin:

Like it or not, left winger Alexander Ovechkin is the greatest goal scorer of this generation. Over the past two full regular seasons, Ovechkin has drained 83 goals in 161 games. However, in playoff games against Pittsburgh, he’s only scored four goals in 13 outings.

Almost a third of Ovechkin’s goals come with the man advantage. Pittsburgh’s penalty kill will have to be exponentially better than it recently has been if the Penguins are to beat the Capitals.

The right side of the Penguins defense must withstand an onslaught of the rushing bull. When Ovechkin gains momentum defenders typically back in, yielding the space he needs to unleash his wicked wrist shot from the left wing circle. Curiously, Matt Hunwick was especially good at confronting Ovechkin at the blue line for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2017 First Round.

Key Player: Kris Letang / Jamie Oleksiak (if he plays the right side)

Capitals Keys:

Strong Play at Wing:

In the 2017 Second Round matchup against the Penguins, almost half of Washington’s goals came from their defense. The Capitals have elite talent on the wings, and it is the wingers who must produce more. And, that could happen against the Penguins thin blue line.

Currently, the sixth defenseman is up in the hair. If the Penguins stay with Matt Hunwick, it is imperative the Capitals right wing is strong.

Key Player: T.J. Oshie. 

Limit Penalties:

For once, it isn’t the Penguins penalty kill which is under the microscope. In three games this season, Pittsburgh is six-for-14 on the power play against the Capitals. That number must improve for the Capitals PK which is ranked 17th in the league. Especially since the Capitals commit the sixth most in the NHL. Physicality is one thing, selfish penalties are another. Ahem, Mr. Tom Wilson.

The Capitals penalty kill isn’t good enough to be center stage at inopportune times.

Key Player: Tom Wilson

Blueline:

Washington’s D-corps is average in many ways. John Carlson has played very well against the Penguins, and Carlson is having a good year offensively. Carlson is tied for third on the team in points with 65, but also holds a -5 rating. After he, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen, Washington defensemen are either inexperienced or a 37-year old Brooks Orpik. Someone needs to step up to create at least two solid pairings.

Key Player: Christian Djoos

7 Game Series

The Penguins have a clear edge with speed, depth and most importantly, a mental edge over the Capitals. As the seedings take shape, the Capitals will likely need to beat the speedy, Penguins-like New Jersey Devils. That could be a tall order for all of the reasons above.

If another playoff series comes to pass, the Penguins will be challenged but should win…again.

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The PHN Playoff Preview is a new series from Pittsburgh Hockey Now. Dan Kingersi and Jake Holmes will breakdown the potential playoff opponents and how they matchup against the Penguins. The entire series will be moved to PHN Extra (members only). We hope you’ll subscribe.

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