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Penguins vs. Capitals: What can 2016 teach us?

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Lessons learned looking back at the 2016 playoff series between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins and what we can apply to the upcoming series in 2017

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For the tenth time overall (and third in the Sidney Crosby / Alex Ovechkin era) the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will lock horns in the NHL playoffs. History of course has smiled brightly on the Pens, but do you really think as a forechecker is barreling down on Olli Maatta that he's going to be comforted to know that Washington blew a 3-1 series lead in 1991 a few years before he was born?

Yeah, probably not. In the big picture it's fun for us fans (well, us Penguins fans) to remember Petr Nedved's 4OT goal or Martin Straka picking Sergei Gonchar's pocket in Game 7 or, well, pretty much any memory but it doesn't really mean much for the 2017 playoff series.

All except for probably the 2016 series. With much of the cast of characters the same on both sides, 2016 is the only (somewhat) relevant chapter in the Pens/Caps history. So what can we learn? Let's go back and look at the series:

Game 1: Oshie's hat trick sinks Pens in OT

Game 1 happened on Thursday 4/28 (during the NFL draft) last year...This year Game 1 is scheduled for Thursday 4/27 (during the NFL draft). Time really is a flat circle and sometimes, Ovi, I think you and I are destined to do this forever.

Anyways, here's what we said in the Pensburgh recap of last year's Game 1:

After being out-shot 15-9 in the first period, the Pens dominated shots on goal the rest of the game by a margin of 36-20. Caps goalie Braden Holtby played a strong game, but wasn't unbeatable, including a magnificent backhand goal by Evgeni Malkin in the 2nd period.

Still, there's opportunity for improvement- the Pens first line of Conor Sheary - Sidney Crosby - Patric Hornqvist were on the ice for no goals for and 3 against. The Pens first line couldn't slow Oshie and that cost them the game

What we learned: The Capitals started the game very strong with a ton of energy and the home ice advantage, but the Penguins adjusted and responded. There was 4 lead changes during this game. In the end, a losing effort for Pittsburgh after Washington's top line performed much better than the Pens' top line.

***
Game 2: Pens score in 3rd to steal home ice

After a wide-open 1st game, Game 2 settled down with a 2-1 final score. Pittsburgh again controlled possession (total SOG: 35-24) and generally "deserved" to get the win. One of those "series defining/changing moments" happened here when Brooks Orpik drilled Olli Maatta late. Orpik would be suspended for three games, Maatta would leave this game with a concussion and be out for Games 3-5 as well.

Pensburgh recap tidbit:

Penguins power play went 0 for 5 [with all chances coming] in the first two periods. Big missed opportunity. They dominated the course of play and forced the Caps to penalize themselves with all the pressure, but Pittsburgh couldn't get some breathing room thanks to all that hard work.

What we learned: The Penguins limited the Caps to 0 even strength goals, despite playing the game with only 5 defensemen. This could be an area Pittsburgh misses Kris Letang (more than normal, anyways) being as he played 35:22 in a regulation game.

This game got really physical and nasty after the Orpik hit ratcheted up tempers, with the Caps ending up getting 12 penalty minutes on the night (with the above mentioned Pittsburgh PP not able to make them pay on an 0/5 night) and Pittsburgh took 6 penalty minutes (going just 1/2 on the PK).

***
Game 3: Murray steals one

After Game 2, Caps coach Barry Trotz whined that the league was favoring Pittsburgh when it came to calling penalties- and he was rewarded with 4 power play chances on the night (to the Pens 3). The Caps, perhaps fittingly, were unable to score on any of the 4.

Still, this game was all about Matt Murray, after the Pens had shot advantages in G1+2, Washington totally reversed that shelling the Pens and Murray in shots 49-23, but Pittsburgh won Game 3 by a final score of 3-2, after jumping out to a 3-0 lead and then holding on for dear life.

Pensburgh tidbit:

  • The Caps were up on shots 28-14 through 2. But losing 3-0. Hockey's a funny game like that, sometimes. Hopefully it remains the same kind of funny for a while longer.
  • Story of the game was probably Murray. After giving up 1, maybe 2 stoppable goals in Game 1 (depending how generous you are) the youngster has just gotten better and better as each minute has gone on.

What we learned: Murray is a stud, stealing a big win in his first real playoff moment. I don't think we necessarily "learned" but we certainly saw a desperate Caps team were able to take about complete control of the game late and furiously try to erase a 3-goal deficit, something they almost did before just running out of time. The Caps also officially out-hit Pittsburgh 58-25 in this game, pretty remarkable considering how much more they possessed the puck.

We also learned Letang would be suspended for Game 4 after a late hit on Marcus Johansson (who was able to return soon after and didn't miss any time). The Pens seemed to be pressed past the point of intensity on that one after Tom Wilson scooped out Conor Sheary's knee in Game 1, then Orpik on Maatta in Game 2 and the WSH coach still had the audacity to say his team was getting picked on.

Still, after 3 white-knuckle, one-goal games it would be the Pens up in the series 2-1 but without the services of their #1D for next game.

***

Game 4: Pens hang tough without Letang, win in Overtime

After taking maybe the Caps best shot in Game 3 and still winning, the Pens stayed in survival mode, sans Letang and found a way to pull out an overtime win, giving three straight wins in the series that's been tight on the scoreboard but suddenly is on the brink of ending.

What we learned: Mike Weber stinks, pretty much gifting Hornqvist the OT winner. Last year they scratched Nate Schmidt for Weber, this year Schmidt has wound up the odd-man out when Karl Alzner was healthy, so hopefully history of the Caps will repeat itself to bench a better puck mover, for a slower player who might be more susceptible to making mistakes.

Speaking of depth, with Maatta injured the Pens had to turn to Derrick Pouliot as their #7D at the time. This year Pittsburgh should be in much better standing if they need to put in an extra defenseman with Mark Streit waiting in the wings.

The Pens had a chance not to go to OT but the PP failed them yet again, the Pittsburgh power play has been dreadful up to this point in the series and definitely will need to be better in 2017.

***

Game 5: Caps stay alive on strong night from Holtby

Pittsburgh got Letang back, and controlled play again too, out-shooting the Caps on the night 31-19. But it was Washington's turn to get outshot but hold on for the win, big night by Braden Holtby.

Pensburgh tidbit:

tonight's game was more about the Caps. They weren't just going to go down without a fight, and a goalie like Holtby was going to make his presence felt sooner or later. The Pens can't give so many PP opportunities to Backstrom and Ovechkin before they get burned. That in a nutshell was Game 5.

What we learned: For the 5th time in 5 games the road team outshoots (and probably outplays) the home team, yet the road team is just 1-4 overall in the series.

***

Game 6: Bonino clinches it in OT

Pittsburgh jumps out to a 3-0 lead in the game but then Washington digs deep again to make a furious comeback. The Pens aid them with a remarkable THREE delay of game penalties in a hellish 2 minute stretch and the Caps tie the game, sending it to OT. Nick Bonino pushes the Pens past the Caps in the overtime.

Pensburgh tidbit:

  • Hagelin and Kessel (the two goal scorers in the second) were the Pens best forwards in the 2nd period and not just for the goals. Both had great jumps and each had a glorious scoring chance aside from their goal that didn't end up in the net.
  • Pens couldn't stay out of the box lately and that hurt them big time. They're lucky to advance giving the Caps potent PP so many chances, especially late when they were going to make a push anyways.

What we learned: This was an "HBK" night, with all 4 Pittsburgh goals coming from members of the line (though Kessel and Hagelin each scored a PPG as well, while not purely on as the HBK line)

Regardless, the penalties were out of control; Orpik returned to the series for the first time since Game 2 and promptly drew blood with a high-stick in the second period. The Pens (who only had 1 PPG in the first 5 games) scored 2 quick goals on each of the double minors and instantly turned a 1-0 lead into a huge 3-0 edge -- for a series that was played so close.

It wouldn't last as the Penguins parade to the penalty box evened up late, and the Caps beasted up and wouldn't be denied to climb all the way out of the hole. Luckily, though, Bonino was there to end the series, because if the Caps score one goal and take momentum back for a Game 7 who knows what would have happened.

*****

Final Takeaways:

  • The Caps defense was really bad. Orpik made huge, glaring mistakes. Weber was a trainwreck. Even Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt made costly gaffes and were benched. Some of that will be different this year - Orlov is a lot better and more trusted, Weber is gone. But as mentioned with the Alzner situation (and of course Orpik) the speedy Pens do have some areas to exploit, but certainly not as many with the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk.
  • The Pens defense wasn't pretty, but effective. Trevor Daley played almost 29 minutes (and scored a goal!) the game Letang was suspended. Brian Dumoulin was great that game too with 2 assists and 22 minutes. Pittsburgh is going to need those guys to be studs since Letang will be gone this whole series. That's a big loss and difference for the Pens right now.
  • Murray and Holtby each stole a game. Murray almost single-handedly won Game 3 for the Pens, as did Holtby in Game 5 for the Caps. Can Marc-Andre Fleury stand as strong? Also Holtby wasn't exactly super-sharp in the first round against Toronto, will he find his top level again?
  • Generally speaking, Pens early, Caps late. Ironic, since the Pens had such bad starts against Columbus this year, but the 2016 Pens/Caps series was usually all Pittsburgh early in games, followed by the Caps turning the tables late. Can Pittsburgh start a lot better?
  • Penguins power play wasn't good. It'll have to be a lot better than the 1 PPG in the first 5 games of the series. In G6 the Pens PP got hot with the 2 quick goals on Orpik's double-minor and that was huge. Pittsburgh will need more of that.
  • Road team was 1-5 in the series. Despite often carrying play within the games, the home team stood supreme. Both Washington and Pittsburgh had among the best home records in the league this season, so right from the get-go it will be of huge importance for the Pens to try and find a way to split the first two games in DC, before returning to home in G3+4 and hopefully holding on for dear life again