The storylines behind the action as the Washington Capitals face the Pittsburgh Penguins are by now familiar. The Capitals are looking for redemption after the Penguins bounced them from the playoffs last season. Then there is the Sidney Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin matchup. And the battle of netminders, with Washington’s Braden Holtby tangling with Marc-Andre Fleury.
In truth, those storylines matter for a reason. The Capitals and Penguins are behind one of hockey’s most heated modern day rivalries. Both teams boast upper echelon skill and both teams belong in the dance. Both teams have enough roster depth to shine beyond the key matchups. And both teams have unsung heroes capable of making a difference.
There are also question marks and problems. The Penguins are without defenceman Kris Letang and goalie Matt Murray. Carl Hagelin is also likely to miss at least Game One. The Capitals will make do without defenceman Karl Alzner, although he did practice.
But depth players have been picking up slack, like in the case of T.J. Oshie for Washington and Bryan Rust for the Penguins. When the spotlight invariably falls on the superstars, the grinders and scorers of the lower lines will get the job done. And that’s why this series will be interesting.
Ovechkin will earn the lion’s share of attention from Pittsburgh’s defence and rightly so. He’s a consistent threat to score and he moves play with his momentum. He can crack games open with a big hit. The 31-year-old had three goals in the first round and averaged 19:43 of ice time a game, but he’ll be in for more against the Penguins and will attempt to outdo himself against his rival.
Oshie led the Capitals in scoring against the Toronto Maple Leafs, coming up with seven points in six games. He averaged 21:25 of ice time a game and was more instrumental than Ovechkin when it came to overturning the opposition. He had 14 shots on goal and earned a lot of attention for his tenacity, plus he plays a two-way game that means he can activate on the transition.
Centre Nicklas Backstrom had six points against Toronto and averaged 21:08 of ice time a game. He had a dozen shots on goal and worked a slick, playmaking game that opened his linemates up for chances. 24-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov had three points, including a goal and two assists, and skated for 21:07 of ice time a game. He had 19 shots on goal against the Leafs.
Crosby had seven points in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets and put in for over 20 minutes of ice time a game. He was a threat at both ends of the ice, even if he did finish a minus-2. He had 16 shots on goal and found that extra gear when it counted. Crosby is a consummate playoff performer and he’ll be in top form against the Capitals.
Evgeni Malkin had 11 points in the first round and led the Penguins in points against the Blue Jackets. He’ll look to do the same against Washington, where he can fade into the background a little against the Crosby coverage. The 30-year-old had nine assists and 14 shots on goal, plus he averaged 19:40 of ice time a game.
Rookie Jake Guentzel came up with five goals against the Jackets and added an assist for a total of six points. He averaged 18:32 of ice time a game and has benefitted from playing with Pittsburgh’s big guns. He had 16 shots on goal and knows how to find space, so he’s a sure bet for points against the Capitals. The same goes for Rust, who came up with four goals against Columbus.
The series against Toronto was closer than the Capitals wanted it to be, but they got the job done in large part because their defence made it happen. John Carlson has the versatility to do it all. The 27-year-old defenceman had two points and averaged 23:24 of ice time a game. He can play shutdown hockey, plus he owns the speed to burst out of his own zone. Carlson also has a top-tier shot.
Matt Niskanen averaged 26:05 against the Maple Leafs and was everywhere. He posted an assist and registered seven shots on goal, but it was his tenacity in his own end that kept Toronto looking for openings. The 30-year-old won’t find the scoreboard often, but he will see plenty of ice time against the Penguins.
New addition Kevin Shattenkirk has filled in nicely for the Capitals. He averaged 19:33 of ice time in the first round and had three assists, plus 20 shots on goal. But it was Dmitry Orlov who really found big minutes, with an average of 25 a game against Toronto. He had a dozen shots on goal and two assists.
The Penguins will have to find some jump without Letang, but so far that hasn’t been much of a problem. Ron Hainsey had three points against the Blue Jackets, averaging 19:44 of ice time a game. The veteran blueliner has stepped up when he’s had to and that’s been good for mounting an adaptable attack, as Hainsey can line up at either side.
Justin Schultz averaged 21:17 of ice time against Columbus and registered three helpers, with eight shots on goal. The Penguins like to use his mobility when it comes to putting together a rush and that’s led to two points in his last two games. Schultz isn’t the best stay-at-home player, however.
Trevor Daley kept things simple with 20:22 of ice time a game against the Blue Jackets. He put together an assist and had six shots on goal. He’s a consistent, durable and mobile defenceman. 28-year-old Ian Cole averaged 19:56 of ice time a game and had three assists, with five shots on goal. He can play a shutdown role if necessary.
Holtby has tightened things up for the Capitals and given them a chance to play wide-open hockey. He entered the post-season with the best playoff save percentage in recent memory, but early struggles against the Maple Leafs revealed something resembling a weakness. Luckily, he pulled together the wins and posted a 2.36 goals against average when the dust settled.
Philipp Grubauer will be the backup if things go south. The25-year-old hasn’t seen much action behind Holtby, especially in the post-season, but he is a solid athlete in his own right and can stop the puck. He went 13-6-2 in the regular season.
Fleury didn’t expect to see much, if any, action in the playoffs. But the injury to Matt Murray created an opening and Fleury was more than ready for redemption. He’ll be even more ready for redemption against Washington and that’s a good thing for the Penguins. He’s better than he was and posted a .933 save percentage in the first round.
It’s hard to chart a backup for Pittsburgh, but a lot of people like Tristan Jarry for the role. The 21-year-old hasn’t seen much NHL action, but he’s been taking notes behind Fleury and could develop nicely from the experience. He had a good run in junior and is a confident netminder, but stamina can be an issue.
Who Will Win
This is a tough call. The Capitals will be angry going into this series and their quest for redemption accounts for a lot of intangibles. The Penguins, on the other hand, are one of the most prepared teams in the NHL and they’ll be ready for just about anything.
Both teams have top-tier forwards and both teams are missing a few pieces, but they’ve got the grit to get over it. That could bring things down to the wire, with goaltending the final factor to push the decision.
My call: Pittsburgh in seven.