The Washington Capitals survived the First Round. Five overtime games in a six-game series against the spunky Toronto Maple Leafs took the 2017 Capitals to the edge of extinction. The Capitals reward for surviving the young, fast and relentless Maple Leafs? The relentless, fast, and experienced Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Sid vs. Ovi, Part 3. Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, the best players of their generation, have met twice before in the playoffs. The Penguins won in seven games en route to a Stanley Cup championship in 2009 and dispatched the lumbering Capitals again last season, also en route to a Stanley Cup win.
If the Capitals are able to keep their wits, able to breathe when the game goes sideways, this is finally their year. Alex Ovechkin would play in his first Conference Final. However, Round 1 showed the Capitals are not a seasoned team able to avoid getting tight in big moments.
The Penguins, battered and bruised from nearly two straight years of hockey, would distance themselves from the Capitals… if Kris Letang were healthy. But, the Penguins won’t go to war with the army they want, only the army they have.
There are many would-be’s. In the end, the Penguins will win, in six games.
In 2017, the Capitals are not as lumbering, the Penguins not as fast. The Penguins do have something which will bedevil the Capitals: A resolute counter-punch. The Penguins were outplayed by the Columbus Blue Jackets during important stretches in the First Round. Yet, the Penguins won in five games.
The Penguins can take the Capitals best punch. Can the Capitals take the Penguins right hook? Therein lies the series. When the Maple Leafs pushed the Capitals, the Capitals struggled. Their offense suffered. Goaltender Braden Holtby didn’t look like a Vezina Trophy nominee. And most importantly, the Capitals gripped their sticks so tightly, their white knuckles were visible through their gloves.
The Capitals clutch players Justin Williams (Mr. Game 7) and Evgeny Kuznetsov saved the Capitals season, with overtime goals in Games 5 and 6. It will take more than a couple players who thrive under pressure to beat the Penguins.
The Penguins, conversely, took a beating from the Blue Jackets yet won four of five games. The Penguins did it without Kris Letang or a defense which played well.
The Penguins may also see injured stalwarts Carl Hagelin and Matt Murray return, soon. Hagelin’s speed would be an important forecheck weapon.
X’s and O’s
The Washington Capitals do not possess a suffocating forecheck, which the Blue Jackets used to great advantage against the Penguins. Nor do the Capitals play a possession game.
The Capitals roster was intact for the entire season. While the Penguins amassed 278 man games lost to injury, the Capitals lost only 49 games. Despite a healthy roster, the Capitals ranked only 21st in team Corsi percentage (48.7%). That lack of puck possession, more so than speed, was the Capitals undoing in the 2016 playoff loss.
The Maple Leafs speed and puck possession was a primer for the Capitals. Further, the Capitals did not have a great answer for the Leafs, when the blue-and-white activated their defense.
The Penguins biggest weakness is currently their ability to break out of their own zone, cleanly. The Capitals lack of great forecheck will allow the Penguins to breath and create offense off the rush. The Penguins defense will be able to join the play more often, as well.
The importance of space for the Penguins defense, the resulting offense from the rush, and the ability of the Penguins defense to join the rush cannot be understated.
The Capitals movement within the offensive zone will be a problem, as will Washington pushing the pace with offensive rushes. Penguins defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta were victimized by the Blue Jackets rush, too often.
The Capitals improved defense (see: Kevin Shattenkirk) reduces the Penguins speed advantage and increases the Capitals ability to play on the rush. However, the Capitals defense should have been more prominent against the Maple Leafs. So, the ice figures to tilt towards the Penguins, as well.
The Penguins forwards will not only need to play 200 feet, but they will need to dominate puck possession, as well. If the Penguins do not dominate the puck, they will be dominated on the scoreboard. Simple.
Braden Holtby learned he is Vezina Trophy nominee, Thursday. Holtby is not a goalie prone to being rattled or bombed. He is easily a top five goalie. He was good against Toronto, but not great. A few softies kept Toronto within striking distance.
The Penguins goal is a somewhat clouded situation. Marc-Andre Fleury was essential in the series win over Columbus, but Matt Murray’s return looms. Since Murray is not yet skating, and Tristan Jarry remains on the roster, Fleury figures to play at least Game 1 and likely Game 2. However, the situation could change any day.
Fleury was fantastic against Columbus. He played a nuanced game and directed rebounds, even if his defensemen were not able to play them forward. Fleury withstood the offensive onslaught without cracking. In fact, Fleury played his best game in the series clinching Game 5.
We’ll debate the Fleury-Murray thing as the week goes on…
Pens in 6
Goaltending could be as important deciding factor as which team plays on the rush. If either Penguins goalie is not at least good, the Capitals will win the series. The Penguins cannot afford any facet of their game to be less than solid.
If the Penguins stumble, or the defense does not improve, the Capitals will finally get over the Penguins hump.
The bet here is the Penguins will solidify their backside, goaltending will hold up, and the forwards will continue converting chances.
Pens in 6.