The National Hockey League and many of its fans have gotten their wish.
For the first time since the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin will do battle in the postseason. The Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins are, arguably, the best two teams left in the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Capitals might be the most complete team in the league, and the Penguins are the hottest.
It’s been seven years since we saw this rivalry in the postseason, with the Penguins taking the entertaining series in seven games.
The Capitals are under a lot of pressure to go far in this year’s playoffs. All season, they have been the best team in the Eastern Conference. Washington ran away with the Presidents Trophy and the Metropolitan Division, but everyone knows their judgement day will be based on the playoffs. It is unlucky for them that they have to play Pittsburgh in round two, when weaker teams in the Islanders and Lightning are facing off on the other side of the bracket.
The Capitals need to take care of their business, as this might be the most complete team they have ever put on the ice. Falling to Pittsburgh in the Conference Semifinals would be a very big pill to swallow.
The Penguins are also feeling the pressure, just not as much. Their pressure comes from the fact that they have not reached the Stanley Cup Final since the last time these two teams met in 2009. The Penguins are on its third head coach in as many years, and with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s prime years closing in on the end, Mike Sullivan’s leash will not be long if he cannot go deep in the playoffs. This is one chance to do that.
The Penguins’ goaltending situation will be a key story-line for this series. Marc-Andre Fleury is still dealing with concussion-like symptoms, and is calling this time “one of the toughest things of his career.” The Penguins will not rush him back, so it remains to be seen whether he could play in this series. Even if he does return, Fleury still carries the stigma of being a “choker” when the playoffs roll around.
For now, young Matt Murray will continue to start in goal. Murray played great in all three first round games against the Rangers, giving up just four goals in three games. Even in the regular season, Murray showed well in his 13 starts, posting a terrific .930 save-percentage.
Most everyone will see Braden Holtby vs. Murray as an advantage for the Caps, but people should not be so quick to see it as a major difference.
What has to happen for the Capitals to win
Holtby could be the “X-Factor” for this series. Even if the Capitals fail to show up, as they have in the past, they now have the goalie that can win them a series on his shoulders. In the past, the likes of Tomas Vokoun, Michal Neuvirth, and a young Holtby were not enough to win the Capitals a series.
Washington also needs their young talent to show up, especially forwards Evgeny Kuznetzov and Andre Burakovsky. Kuznetzov and Burakovsky did not have good performances in the first round. Kuznetzov has been one of the Capitals’ best offensive players this season, and Burakovsky has provided them with a good secondary scorer.
The defense needs to keep it up. In the first round, they were dominant over the Flyers. Philadelphia only scored six goals in six games, and were limited to an average of 25.8 shots per game. Even in their Game 5 win, the Flyers only had 11 shots on goal. The core of Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, etc. is much deeper than what the Penguins have. The defense will stay strong, just as long as they stay healthy.
As long as the defense keeps up their play, the scoring needs to pick up the pace. The Caps had two goals or less in four of their six games against the Flyers. That will not be good enough against Pittsburgh, who can score just as much as Washington. Whether they get more secondary scoring or their top line carries them, the goals need to come more often.
What has to happen for the Penguins to win
Kris Letang has to be a horse, and needs to log Duncan Keith-esque minutes on the blue line. Letang is the Penguins’ most important player in this series, even more than Crosby, Malkin, or Phil Kessel. Letang should be going head-to-head with the Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie line on a regular basis. And, unlike his forward teammates, Letang has less talent around him on the back-end. Olli Maata is a good second-pair defenseman right now, but past that, Letang has not much support. If Letang shuts down Ovechkin and puts up points himself, that will greatly increase the Penguins’ chances in this series.
If Murray can continue to play at the level he has been playing since returning from injury, we may forget who Marc-Andre Fleury is in Pittsburgh. If Murray does not slump, it is hard to see Fleury getting back between the pipes, even if healthy.
Another key factor for the Penguins is the performance of Kessel. He’s been on fire lately, and is a lethal weapon to the powerplay. Kessel had three goals and three assists in the first round against the New York Rangers, and five of those points were on the powerplay. For years, Kessel’s reputation has been that of being lazy/soft, which would lead many to believe he has not been good in the playoffs. Kessel has been proving many dead wrong. In 27 career playoff games he has 27 points, 16 of which are goals. Crosby and Malkin will get their points almost no doubt, but Kessel’s production could put Pittsburgh over the top.
Prediction: Penguins win series in 7
1.) Do not expect Murray to be significantly outplayed by Holtby in net. Murray has given no reason to think he will not play well to this point, so we may see nothing slowing him down.
2.) Pittsburgh’s offense cannot, and will not be stopped. With Kessel flying high, Letang providing loads of offense, and Crosby and Malkin giving the norm, it will be tough for Washington to slow them down. Even the secondary scoring has found its way with the likes of Conor Sheary, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, etc.
3.) It may be skeptical to think that Evgeny Kuznetov could replicate his regular season success in the series. He was phenomenal in the regular season, however he looked overwhelmed in the first round against the Flyers. The Penguins are a tougher matchup than the Flyers, so he has to worry many for Washington’s sake.
With Pittsburgh winning the series, that also means the Penguins will win a Game 7 in the nation’s capital. Pittsburgh was very good on the road this season with a 22-15-4 record away from Consol Energy Center. In the first round, they stomped the Rangers at Madison Square Garden by scores of 5-0 and 3-1.
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