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Apr 27

Capitals Look for Redemption Against Penguins

It almost feels like yesterday that the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins began their series in the second round of the 2015-16 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The surging President’s Trophy winners against a team that became red hot at the end of the regular season. The Penguins prevailed in six games, shattering the Washington Capitals hopes for a Stanley Cup for the second time in the Alex Ovechkin era. It was all the more disheartening to have what the majority of hockey fans were believing to finally be the year in which Washington broke out of the shadow of their prior postseason demons come to an end at the hands of their most bitter rival.

A year later, though it seems as though only a day has passed, the Washington Capitals will have a chance at redemption. The rematch is a time-honored tradition in sports. When the puck drops Thursday night at the Verizon Center, all eyes will be on the Capitals and Penguins in an unfathomably long-awaited rematch.

Offense

Prepare for the possibility of a shootout. Pittsburgh boasted the top scoring offense in the regular season with 3.39 goals per game. Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals finished with the third-best at 3.18. The Caps had 11 forwards finish the season with 10+ goals for the first time in franchise history, which was highlighted by T.J. Oshie‘s career-high in goals at 33. Pittsburgh had 10 forwards finish with double-digit goal totals as well. If both teams are able to finish an acceptable amount of their chances, odds are the series won’t be offensively stagnant at any point.

Should the regular season be any indication, the stars of each team will be the offensive difference makers. Sidney Crosby had a career-year in terms of goals scored with 44, and a total of 89 points. Alex Ovechkin lit the lamp 33 times. Despite Ovechkin’s inability to reach 50 goals, he tallied his highest assist total since the 2010-11 season with 36. He finished the regular season with 69 points. Both teams possess the ability to score at any moment. With two premier offenses, expect no lead to be insurmountable.

The Washington Capitals offense was predicated on high-quality scoring chances all season long. Many goals came from shots in the slot and the forward lines’ ability to create opportunities with skating and puck-handling. For Washington, if that same offense shows up against Pittsburgh, very good things will happen.

For Pittsburgh, as was the case last postseason, a transitional offense is the X-factor. Their swift play in the neutral and defensive zone often resulted in odd-man rushes towards the opposition’s net. It is a formula that has continued to work for them due in large part to the tremendous speed they possess. Speed is what will once again make Pittsburgh successful down the road offensively.

Defense

Conversely, prepare for the possibility of an all-out slugfest. The Capitals finished the regular season with the best statistical defense in the league in terms of goals against at 2.16. Pittsburgh ranked sixteenth with 2.79 goals against per game. Both defenses are talented, fast, and want nothing more than to knock each other’s lights out. Washington’s stingy team forecheck combined with Pittsburgh’s ability to clog up shooting lanes and blocks shots present a high likelihood for a defensively spear-headed series.

At the conclusion of Washington’s playoff run last year, Capital’s owner, Ted Leonis, made it clear that defensive depth and speed were what ultimately resulted in Washington losing to Pittsburgh. On the final day of the trade deadline this season, Washington pushed all chips to the center of the table with the acquisition of elite ex-Blues defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk.

Despite the Capitals attaining the blueline depth they so desperately needed, one factor still presents a sizable issue heading into their rematch against Pittsburgh – speed. This was perhaps the largest reason the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to take the Capitals to six games before finally conceding defeat on the heels of Marcus Johansson’s overtime winner Sunday night. That won’t disappear against the Penguins.

For the Capitals to be successful in this series, their defensemen must fly to the puck whilst maintaining their aggressiveness. Nate Schmidt is perhaps the one defenseman that can match any forward on the Penguins for pure speed. For the rest of Washington’s back end, smart and quick defensive play will prove to be the most crucial component in mitigating the high-velocity offense of the Penguins.

When it was announced on March 4th that defensive juggernaut, Kris Letang, would potentially miss the remainder of the 2016-17 NHL season, there was considerable cause for concern among the Pittsburgh faithful. Those fears were confirmed when it was ruled that Letang would have to undergo season-ending surgery prior to the start of the playoffs. Letang was among the main contributors to the Penguins’ successful Stanley Cup run last year. It looked as though Columbus was primed for a massive series upset over the defending Stanley Cup champions. That was until the Penguins eliminated Vezina Trophy finalist, Sergei Bobrovsky, and the Blue Jackets soundly in five games.

Through sheer depth on the back end and fundamentally sound defensive play, the Penguins have not only negated the loss of their best defenseman but carried over the same prowess they amassed last postseason. Who is Kris Letang anyway?

Goaltending

Braden Holtby hasn’t lost an edge since winning the Vezina Trophy last season. Additionally, Holtby compiled an impressive 42-13 record this year along with a .925 save percentage to boot. His timely saves arguably attributed the most to many of Washington’s wins in the regular season.

After noticeably struggling for the first four games against Toronto, Holtby returned to true form for the final two games, only allowing a single goal in each contest en route to a 4-2 series victory over the Maple Leafs. That’s the Holtby that not only needs to show up against the Penguins but also the Holtby that must remain consistent throughout the series.

Marc-Andre Fleury has answered the call for Pittsburgh. Fleury finished the regular season with an 18-10 record and a .909 save percentage. He has stepped into the cage for the foreseeable future amidst an injury sustained by Matt Murray during Game 1 warmups against Columbus. Despite facing a barrage of shots all series long against the Blue Jackets, Fleury helped lift the Pens to a 4-1 decision over Columbus.

There will be no shortage of quality netminding in this series.

Special Teams

As is the case in any playoff series, special teams play a critical role in ultimately deciding the outcome. Washington and Pittsburgh finished the regular season deadlocked in power play efficiency at third in the league with a 23.1 percentage.

With this in mind, the Capitals can ill-afford to take penalties at inconvenient stages of this series if they want to move on. In Game 3 against Toronto, Lars Eller took a very costly high-sticking penalty in the waning seconds of regulation. After a little under a minute and a half into overtime, Tyler Bozak deflected a point shot past Holtby to seal a Maple Leaf’s win.

In multiple instances against Columbus, the Penguins were able to chip away at early Blue Jacket leads thanks to blatant penalties. Pittsburgh has shown early on that taking penalties against their power play almost never ends well for their opponent. If the Capitals fail to stay disciplined in this series, this series could very short.

The Penguins, however, have been inconsistent on the penalty kill all season. At 78.1 percent, they were ranked in the bottom third of the league at twentieth overall. Washington’s power play has the chance to do considerable damage should they force the Penguins to make enough mistakes. It’s the same story for Pittsburgh; fail to stay out of the sin-bin, and the Capitals’ power play will light them up.

Importance of Home-Ice Advantage

The Capitals and Penguins split the regular season series 2-2. There was a trend during those four games that may very well play the most pivotal role in determining who wins this series.

Washington won decisively at the Verizon Center during the regular season. A 7-1 thrashing and 5-2 victory came at home against Pittsburgh. However, the Penguins won both games at PPG Paints Arena. These came via a 3-2 win in a shootout on opening night, and 8-7 in overtime in January.

For both teams, winning on home ice will be exponentially vital. Whichever team manages to steal a game on the road could very well end up coming out on top.

Prediction

This will be an unforgettable series no matter the outcome. Each team has their own unique skill set and intangibles. For Washington, it simply boils down to sticking to the formula that won them the President’s Trophy this season. As for Pittsburgh, their speed and superb netminding are the keys to moving on. Washington finally erases its past postseason demons in a seven-game classic.

Capitals: 4-3

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