For the third time in as many years, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals meet in round two of the playoffs. It’s becoming a yearly playoff tradition as the Penguins look to take home their third Stanley Cup in a row.
For the first time in that span, the Capitals aren’t the team to beat with all the expectations in the world. They can rest a bit easier and play a bit less stressed with some weight lifted off their shoulders. Inside of this matchup is some matchups between players or units that will determine the overall series and whether or not the Capitals can finally overcome Pittsburgh or they are truly “little brother”.
In no particular order, I list some matchups to watch for as the Penguins and Capitals get started on Thursday evening.
This is personally the one for me. I am a huge believer that goaltending wins championships. Just look at the performances from the Penguins’ net the past two seasons.
Matt Murray did struggle a bit in the Flyers series and that is fair. But he also recorded two shutouts in that series so his dominant side did show up plenty enough to anoint him as a mainstay in the Penguins net.
The bigger question will be on the Capitals end. After two abysmal showings in net, the Capitals pulled Philipp Grubauer after he won the job over the latter half of the season. Braden Holtby, the Penguins’ proverbial rag doll, has regained the crease but at what cost?
We’ve all watched as the Penguins and their raucous fans have tortured Holtby in recent seasons owning a lot of real estate in his head. Holtby is going to either come into this series riding such a high confidence after the way he dominated the Blue Jackets that he can’t be beaten. Or…the inevitable happens and Holtby regresses to nothing more than a shell in front of the black and gold team.
In three regular season games against the Penguins, Holtby went 1-2 with an .897 save percentage and a 3.60 goals against average. He allowed 10 goals on 97 shots. The Penguins just tortured the Flyers’ goaltending as well. If he allows goals at that rate, it may be too much for the Capitals to handle.
Alex Ovechkin vs. Penguins penalty kill
“I can’t wait.”
That was Capitals star Alex Ovechkin after winning game six on Monday evening when asked about playing the Penguins again. He is excited mostly because he sees the “Jacques Squad as vulnerable.
Despite going 19-for-21 in the first round series, we watched the Penguins penalty kill struggle to the finish line in the regular season. There are many pieces that comprise the penalty kill but Ian Cole‘s absence will be the difference this year as he shut Ovechkin down on the penalty kill in recent years.
Ovechkin had three power play goals in those six games against Columbus and stood in his usual spot at the top of the circle. That’s not something you can stop. You can really only try and contain it. The Jacques Squad will have their hands full.
Braden Holtby vs. Penguins power play
As we chronicled earlier, Holtby’s play will be a huge factor, if not the factor, to determine the series. The Penguins will send their franchise best power play out against him.
Holtby allowed five power play goals this season against the Penguins and while a lot of goalies fell victim to the Penguins’ man advantage, the Holtby dynamic makes it that much more intriguing. When you also consider that the Caps will have to shut down Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (if healthy), Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist? That’s scary in itself.
We’ve seen Holtby and Hornqvist have their battles in the past. Hornqvist’s pesky net-front presence annoys Holtby, as it does every NHL goalie. If the past two season’s have shown anything about Holtby’s mental makeup, the Penguins might just have the upper hand here.
Advantage: Penguins PP.
The past two playoffs have shown that the Penguins’ center depth has just been too much for their opponents to handle. If Malkin is healthy, they arguably have more depth this year than the previous two.
The Penguins are four centers deep with Crosby, Malkin, Derick Brassard, and Riley Sheahan lining up down the middle. Obviously the first two are world class talents and it’s not debatable. Brassard is a noted playoff performer and has been a hug solidifier in the depth up the middle. Before the Brassard trade, Sheahan was playing like a capable third-line center. The opportunity to acquire Brassard at the price the Penguins did made it hard to pass up and Sheahan’s play allows head coach Mike Sullivan to roll four lines.
However, the Capitals don’t exactly lack center depth, though.
Nicklas Backstrom is a bonifide first-line center in the NHL. Evgeny Kuznetsov has emerged as a great player who’s only hitting his stride as far as his career goes. The Capitals made a solid acquisition at the trade deadline and acquired Lars Eller to man their third line. Jay Beagle continues to round out the center depth chart for Washington.
While the Capitals’ four centers are playoff worthy and can do damage, the four Penguins centers are a bit more notable and can do a tad but more damage.
Three of these four matchups listed are to the Penguins’ advantage. The Penguins might have the best roster left of all the playoff teams. That’s going to leave the Penguins favored in a lot of circumstances. However, we all know the series is played on the ice and not on paper. We’ll know, starting Thursday, how exactly this series could end up playing out.