Well, well, well, if it ain’t Groundhog Day all over again. Pens, Caps Round III. Or the pre-Stanley Cup Final as I like to call it since that title seems a little more appropriate for this type of occasion. There’s no doubt the team that makes it out alive this series will be the definitive Stanley Cup favorite. The loser (most likely Washington), on the other hand, will bitch and complain about how it’s unfair for the two best teams in hockey to meet up in the second round. But hey, maybe win one of these series for once, and you won’t be making excuses about why you didn’t show up in the playoffs for like the tenth consecutive time. It’s pretty simple actually.
The Penguins are 8-1 all-time in the postseason against the Capitals, with their only loss coming 23 years ago (that would be 1994 for all you mathletes out there). And for those of you with bad short-term memory, the Penguins are 2-0 against the Capitals in the Crosby, Ovechkin era of postseason hockey. Two extremely thrilling series that both ended up like this (eventually):
Another interesting tidbit: the Penguins have beaten Washington all four times they’ve gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Yeah, that still means there were four times the Penguins were eventually eliminated from the playoffs after beating the Capitals, but it’s always nice to rub a Caps fan’s face in the dirt when the opportunity presents itself (i.e. all the time).
Now, let’s get to it.
Head to Head/Round 1
The 2016-2017 regular season series was split 2-2 between the Pens and Caps. Although it would be necessary to point out that both Penguins victories came in overtime, while both Capitals victories came in the form of good ol’ fashioned ass-whoopings. If we’re judging strictly by goal-differential (21-14), advantage Capitals. However, these two teams haven’t played against each other since Nam, so it wouldn’t be fair to assess this playoff matchup simply by the outcome of this year’s regular season series.
A lot of hockey analysts are already coming out of the woodwork to chime in about how the Capitals are better suited to take down the Penguins this postseason, but the reality is, they didn’t look great in the first round. While it took the Caps 6 games to finish off the Leafs in Round 1, 5 of those games went to overtime. Not necessarily the way you want to see your team play against the lowest-seeded opponent in the east. On the other hand, the Penguins basically demolished the higher-seeded Blue Jackets in 5 games. Judging by the eyeball test and sheer quantity of rest, advantage Penguins.
Forwards To Watch
If I didn’t write about Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin here, I’d punch my own self in the dick. We all know the history between these two guys. On one hand, you have the best player in the world (there’s no debating that, by the way), and on the other hand, you have the best goal scorer in probably the past 20 years or so (even though Sid won the Rocket Richard this year,*cough cough*). In Round 1, Sid ranked third on the Penguins with 7 points (2 goals, 5 assists), while Ovi contributed 3 goals and zero apples. These two have a knack for raising their game when they face off against each other, so don’t be surprised for the usual theatrics.
Other than the big dogs, look out for Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel for the Pens, as well as T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams for the Caps. Geno (2 goals, 9 assists) and Playoff Phil (2 goals, 6 assists) tore it up in the first round for the Pens. I’d expect these two to continue putting up pretty solid numbers even after they inevitably shift lines due to Carl Hagelin’s imminent return.
As for T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, I expect more big-time playoff production from these guys. Oshie’s been a mere point per game player (.944) in his first two postseasons with the Caps, while “Mr. Game 7,” Justin Williams, seems to find the back of the net every time his team needs a big goal (that’s including an OT game-winner in game 5 against the Leafs).
Defensemen To Watch
With Letang out for the rest of the year, Mike Sullivan made the conscious decision to allocate equal ice-time among his defensemen in Round 1 (roughly 19-21 minutes per player). No particular player really stood out; however, the defense looked relatively solid in Round 1 even considering the fact that they allowed Columbus to average 38.8 shots per game (although the majority of those shots came from low percentage scoring areas).
For the Capitals, the talk of the trade deadline was the addition of elite blue-liner Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues. However, Shattenkirk was rather pedestrian in Round 1 as he only tallied 3 assists and was a minus-four. With skating being the real advantage for the Penguins, the Capitals’ defense will need to slow down Pittsburgh’s speedy forwards if they want to have any success in this series. Look for a guy with wheels like Nate Schmidt to receive more ice-time in this match up.
Penguins fans can kiss Jim Rutherford’s ass again this year for being such a tremendous GM. Without GMJR and his gigantic hog-sized balls, the Penguins are probably at a huge disadvantage at goaltender this series. Instead of dealing Marc Andre Fleury at the trade deadline like most GM’s would’ve done, Rutherford elected to keep Fleury. And boy does that decision look marvelous right now. With Matt Murray sidelined for the foreseeable future with a likely groin injury, the Penguins #1B starter will command the net. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m more than a little worried about the prospect of riding Marc Andre Fluery throughout the rest of the postseason (assuming Murray doesn’t return). However, he did help unclench a few yinzers’ buttholes (including mine) by putting on a stellar performance against the Blue Jackets in Round 1. Fleury dazzled with a .933 save percentage, which included stopping 49 of 51 shots from the Blue Jackets in the Game 5 series’ clincher.
At the other end of the ice, the Capitals will be relying on Braden Holtby to continue standing on his head as he always does in the postseason. I know I’ve talked a ton of shit about how the Capitals can’t make it out of the second round of the playoffs, but I feel like none of that blame should be placed on Holtby. Holtby faced more shots (213) and more minutes (406) than any other goalie in Round 1, yet he still finished the series with a .925 save percentage. With a career .936 save percentage in the playoffs, don’t expect Holtby to lay an egg against the Penguins’ offense like Sergei Bbbrovsky did.
Pens in 6.
Also, Neil Greenberg of the Washingon Post will write a hot-steaming pile of bullshit like this the moment something doesn’t go the Capitals way.
^ The look Neil makes when he realizes moneyball doesn’t win you playoff games.
Pump Up Time
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Let’s Go Pens!