How will the series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals play out? Well, a lot of fun for a neutral observer, I'm sure, but very stressful for partisan fans. That aside, here are 10 big keys that will determine the winner.
Health always matters in the NHL playoffs, and both the Pens and Caps are in reasonably good shape this time of year. Marc-Andre Fleury remains in concussion limbo, but his absence has been erased by the capable Matt Murray.
The Caps biggest absence hasn't been as easily replaceable. Former Penguin Brooks Orpik got dropped with a heavy hit in Game 3 and missed the rest of the series after skating off (with a lot of help) and looking pretty rough. We in Pittsburgh have seen Orpik take concussions before (most notably getting stretchered off after a cheap-shot, sucker punch by Shawn Thornton in December of 2013). Orpik traveled with the Caps to Philly for Game 6, but did not play.
Orpik's status will loom large, without him the Caps have to play one of Taylor Chorney / Mike Weber and also have to slot up Nate Schmidt a pair.
#2: Which goalie plays better?
Besides health, the man in the net is always one of the next factors to consider in a series.
A fun national refrain has been to compare Murray to Washington's Braden Holtby , but aside from success and strong stats early in their respective careers, the two don't match each other style-wise much to me aside from both having a great technical base and positioning ability, which is a trait that almost every great NHL goalie shares.
Holtby has great stats across the board this year, tying Martin Brodeur's season win record, and only gave up 5 goals in 6 games to a most nonthreatening Flyers team. He of course is in for a big change when he plays a Penguins team that will be deeper, faster and differentiate themselves by throwing the occasional puck (or 30) on the net.
The Pens have traditionally played well against Holtby - this year he was just 2-2-1 with a .913 save % and 2.90 GAA against them, rather average numbers in what was a historically great year. Pittsburgh is probably very happy if they can score 3 goals a game this series like they did in the regular season on Holtby. For his career Holtby's only been a winner 5 out of 13 games against the Pens (5-7-1) and has a .914 save % with 2 shutouts.
Murray is still more of an unknown with only 16 career NHL starts, but has played 2 games against Washington. He split a loss with a win, but his (short sample) numbers vs. the Caps are remarkably similar to Holtby vs. the Pens with a .910 save % and 2.93 GAA.
The battle in the net should be about even, with both teams feeling confident about the guy they have in the cage and able to expect the goalie to hold up his end of the bargain. I do expect this series to be more high-scoring on both sides than most of Washington's previous defensive battle series, it remains to be seen if that will energize the Caps forwards or possibly shell-shock their goalie to see more of an open game than they've been used to.
#3: Keeping Ovechkin quiet
Also worth mentioning that over the last two years, Ovechkin has not registered an even-strength point against Letang. Held to just 9 shots.— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) April 25, 2016
Kris Letang (and also Brian Dumoulin) have done some work on Alex Ovechkin . In the 5 games this season series, the NHL's best goal scorer ended up scoring 0 goals and 0 assist against the Pens.
However, he also had 22 shots on goal (and many more attempts blocked/missing net) so let's not act like Pittsburgh can keep Ovechkin silent. They can't, because no one can. However, his spot on the power play is predictable, which means it can be game-planned. It's tough to actually successfully execute that plan, which is fine he's a great player. However the Pens will know what they have to do, the question just becomes whether or not they can slow him or if he can beat them.
Because, make no mistake Ovechkin is going to have his chances to make his mark on this series, just as all the greats have that moment. Sidney Crosby will have a chance at some point to do the same. So too will Evgeni Malkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin had that chance early in Game 7 back in 2009, let's not ever forget.
It's going to take a determined defensive effort, great goaltending and maybe some luck, but the Pens have to try and keep Ovechkin as quiet as possible. Easier said than done, but if they can do it, that represents a huge swing in the series.
#4: Which team's bottom 6 wins?
The Caps have an impressive 4th line that controls Corsi. (Of course, they are employing Daniel Winnik so we know they won't actually be scoring, but hey that's a horse of a different color).
Here's the bottom 2 lines for each team:
Tom Kuhnhackl - Matt Cullen - Bryan Rust
Chris Kunitz - Malkin - Eric Fehr
Jason Chimera - Mike Richards - Marcus Johansson
Winnik - Jay Beagle - Tom Wilson
The biggest difference maker, if they still use Malkin's line to get bottom-6 ES TOI, would be Malkin. But Johansson is capable and Chimera (19 regular season goals) always seems to find the net more than a player of his caliber/skill really ought to.
#5: Which team's "2nd tier stars" wins?
Get past the initial Crosby/Ovechkin/Malkin/Backstrom/Letang star-power and there's still a lot of skill.
Phil Kessel , Carl Hagelin, Patric Hornqvist vs. T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Andre Burakovsky
Will make for a very interesting matchup, especially if the Kessel and Oshie line go head-to-head.
#5: Pens speed vs. Capitals defense
The Rangers with an injured Ryan McDonagh, and the slow Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and old-man Dan Boyle didn't stand a chance to offer much resistance to the high-octane Penguins, who were able to put pucks by them and use speed all series. The Capitals should fare better there, but it would be difficult to be worse.
John Carlson is a good skating defenseman and we all remember Matt Niskanen is above-average as well. Karl Alzner is more than serviceable too, but then the Caps have questions. Orpik, if he can play, is slowing an prone to getting beat in the zone, especially laterally or on quick movement. Schmidt and Orlov are young and can skate well, but prone to mistakes positionally and also might cough up pucks in the face of a forecheck. Weber or Chorney are in big trouble if they have to play, but their minutes will be managed and limited.
The Penguins 3rd and 4th lines have proven to be productive and capable and keeping that up will be a major key to which way the series breaks.
#6: Which power play comes through?
The Caps traditionally have a strong power play and that was evident in their series against Philly. Carlson was able to get shots from the back in on net for deflections, if not goals. For teams that just want to take Ovechkin away, Washington is capable of still scoring.
Pittsburgh's power play seems more up-and-down, from season to season and game to game. Luckily, with Malkin back and healthy and Phil Kessel suddenly productive on the PP after a dull regular season there, the Pens look to at least come into this series on the upswing.
#7: The dreaded "Enigmatic" Russian factor
Hate to use that word, really should have used "wildcard" but the battle between a pair of Evgeni's (Evgeny Kuznetsov and Malkin) could be the difference maker.
It was Kuznetsov, not Ovechkin or Backstrom who led the Caps in points this season with 77. However, since scoring his 20th goal of the season March 1 against the Pens, the talented youngster only has 1 goal in the 26 games since (in Game 3 vs PHI) and did not record an assist in the Philly series. Quite a departure for him to his strong playoff last season (5g, 2a in 14 games).
Malkin, as Pens fans know, has come along slowly since his March arm injury and hasn't been much of a factor at 5v5, though on the PP his play has been a big boost and he's been able to rack up his typical amount of points.
If one, or both, of these guys step it up to the way they're capable, it could well be the difference in breaking games and tipping the series.