Capitals and Penguins Set to Collide in Conference Semi-Final for Third Consecutive Year
Capitals and Penguins in the Second Round. A notion of familiarity. For the third consecutive season, Washington and Pittsburgh are set to face off in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Unlike the prior two seasons, in which Washington secured the President’s Trophy and was labeled as the favorite against their arch rival, differing circumstances surround both teams heading into their third postseason clash in as many years.
The Capitals, despite the exits of many depth players last offseason, managed to finish first in the Metropolitan Division once again at 49-26-7. Nonetheless, expectations were lowered on the part of Washington both at the start of the 2018 regular season and postseason. After losing the first two games of their first round series against Columbus at home, the iterating narrative of disappointment was prevalent. In both contests, Washington held a two-goal lead and ultimately lost each game. Philipp Grubauer made the start in net in both losses amidst a bold decision by Barry Trotz. Even with two gut-wrenching losses heavily predicated on untimely lapses in discipline (primarily on the part of Tom Wilson), Braden Holtby started the next four games in which Washington stormed through to secure a 4-2 series win. From Alex Ovechkin’s guarantee of returning to Capital One Arena for Game 5 with the series evened at two, to the utter brilliance of Holtby, Washington displayed a measure of playoff character incomparable to years past. It is that very same character and resilience to adversity that will more than likely play the most pivotal of roles if they hope to finally best Pittsburgh and extend their season beyond the second round.
Pittsburgh was strong for the majority of this NHL season, boasting 100 points and a 47-26-9 regular season mark. At the beginning of the postseason, the version of the Penguins that the rest of the league had become accustomed to seeing in recent years once again wasted no time in establishing itself on the heels of a 7-0 thrashing over their interstate rival, Philadelphia in Game 1 of their respective series. Despite a fair amount of resistance on the part of the Flyers, Pittsburgh won consecutive games on the road and closed out the series in six games at Wells Fargo Center with an 8-5 victory.
Buckle up, we are in for yet another ride.
Washington and Pittsburgh both boast elite offenses. Each squad finished in the top ten in terms of goals for during the course of the regular season. Washington finished ninth with 256, while Pittsburgh tied Toronto at third with 270 goals, respectively. Both scored at least four goals in each win of their first round series. Pittsburgh currently leads the postseason scoring average with 4.76 goals per game. With two high-scoring offenses, we may be in for a shootout of a series.
Washington does not have the offensive depth it had the previous two years. The departure of Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson left a noticeable void to fill on the second and third line. However, Washington’s newcomers delivered during the regular season and produced in their series win over Columbus. Chandler Stephenson notched a short-handed goal to ice Game 6, and Devante Smith-Pelly netted two goals in those six games. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, contributions from the lower lines are critical. Should the Capitals continue to receive production from their depth players, they may very well be able to match the Penguins’ forward lines shift for shift.
Pittsburgh ran roughshod over the Flyers’ blue line and terrorized all three of the goaltenders they faced. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel led the offensive charge with thirteen points respectively accumulated over the first round. At several junctures, they pressured Philadelphia immensely on the forecheck and sustained considerable time in the offensive zone. Unless those facets of their play somehow dissipate leading up to their series against Washington, there is little to no reason to believe that their offensive production will not continue.
Both the Capitals and Penguins have been susceptible on defense this year.
Against Philadelphia, the play of Matt Murray negated the intermittent mistakes committed by Pittsburgh’s back end. At times, the over aggressiveness of Pittsburgh’s defensemen resulted in the Flyers scoring and receiving tremendous chances. When Philadelphia was able to maintain zone time on the Penguins’ end, it was because of Pittsburgh’s inability to clear the zone along the boards and through the neutral zone. If indeed the Penguins have any weakness at the present moment, it is the inconsistent play of their blue liners. Washington may not have the same offensive depth, but they are still very talented in that regard. Pittsburgh’s defense may have its hands full if they become too overzealous.
The same can be said for the Capitals. Struggles on defense are not exclusive to just the postseason for Washington. Throughout the regular season, Washington’s defense gave up many chances to opposing teams. Brooks Orpik is deteriorating in terms of net-front presence and physicality given his age. Michael Kempny and Christain Djoos have also struggled from time to time. The speed of Columbus’ first line is very close to what they will encounter with every forward line for Pittsburgh. Over-aggressiveness and lack of discipline needs to be mitigated as much as possible if the Caps want to keep pace with the Penguins.
The special teams for both squads will play a massive role in determining the outcome of the series.
Washington currently lead’s all remaining teams in power play percentage at 33.3%. Yet as it seems to be the case every year, Pittsburgh has an aptitude for defending the Capitals’ power play in a way that is unmatched by any other team. Sticking to the same blueprint will not work for long. Washington may have a lethal power play, but if they reach stagnancy in terms of the looks they give the Penguins’ penalty kill, they will not net many goals on the man advantage. With the depth they have on the power play, Washington needs to become creative and unpredictable if they want to have success against a very strong Pittsburgh penalty kill.
The Capitals penalty kill had oscillated for much of the season and at the beginning of their series against the Blue Jackets. Washington currently ranks seventh among remaining playoff teams in penalty kill at 83.3%. As the series progressed against Columbus, the Capitals applied more pressure and were able to clog shooting lanes more effectively once they eliminated their propensity to puck-watch. Their penalty kill will need to be even stronger against a Pittsburgh power play that is just as elite.
The Penguins’ power play has struggled recently. With a 20% success rate this postseason, Pittsburgh’s power play did not produce to the expected extent against Philadelphia. But because the majority of their goals came at even strength, they did not have to rely on the man advantage too much. Pittsburgh, just like Washington, will need to become more variant in regards to their power play.
Pittsburgh’s penalty kill remained solid throughout the first round. They currently rank third among playoff teams in penalty kill at 90.5%. As mentioned before, Pittsburgh knows how to defend the Washington power play better than any other team. Should that trend continue, they will take away a huge part of the Capitals’ offensive game.
You cannot win in the postseason without great goaltending. Both teams are no strangers to this.
Matt Murray continues to assert himself as an elite playoff goaltender. With a .911 goals against average, Murray made several clutch saves against Philadelphia and saved Pittsburgh from paying for their defensive miscues at pivotal moments of the series. In the past two postseason meetings, goaltending was the among the driving forces behind Pittsburgh’s triumphs over Washington. For the third straight year, it may very well end up being the case once again.
Braden Holtby began the playoffs on the Washington bench. Since his initial start in Game 3 against Columbus, he holds a .932 goals against average. His best outing was Game 5, in which he stopped sixteen Blue Jacket shots against Washington’s one in the third period to force overtime where Nicklas Backstrom deflected the eventual game-winning goal past Sergei Bobrovsky’s five-hole. However, Holtby struggled in the previous two postseason meetings against Pittsburgh. He will need to carry over his first round performance if the Capitals are to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.
Some aspects of hockey remain uncoachable. Grit, effort, and manner of response to adversity. The team who displays the highest quality of these factors are the club that ultimately ends up winning the Stanley Cup.
It took a 2-0 series hole catalyze these traits, but Washington displayed them in spades against Columbus in the four straight games they won. Perhaps it is the lowered expectations. Perhaps it is the recurring notion of disappointment. Whatever the case, Washington’s showcase of playoff heart is an idiosyncrasy that Capital’s fans have not seen for awhile. In a series not many are expecting them to win, against a team that has always been there to eradicate their Stanley Cup aspirations, the unteachable parts of the game will be the most significant factor in determining Washington’s success.
Mike Sullivan has a seemingly uncanny ability to spark his lineup at the most opportune instances. Pittsburgh’s toughness, attention to detail and capacity to weather the storm has propelled them to two consecutive titles. This too will ultimately decide if they secure a third straight title.
The Capitals cannot erase a past riddled with severe disappointment and heartbreak. All they can do is respond. In their forthcoming matchup against the Penguins, we will see just how well they respond to the chronicle that has plagued them for twenty years.