Come Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will embark on one of the most intriguing and exciting second round playoff journeys of the cap era. There was no doubt that dedicated hockey fans across the country all saw this coming after the original playoff seeding and series were scheduled, and even though the young Leafs put on a tough showing and the rugged Blue Jackets were the fourth ranked team to emerge from the regular season, this matchup was damn near inevitable.
The two top-ranked teams in the league, and noted heated rivals, are going to give us the best playoff series this season, and it isn’t even close. So it seems fitting to point out that each year the Penguins and Capitals make a run at the Stanley Cup, a tenacious series of postseason games stands in the way of each club. For Pittsburgh, every successful trip to the Cup featured our nation’s capital. It’s just that this year seems to be the most compelling.
We’ve already given you the Penguins keys to success in conquering the three-time (and two in a row) winners of the President’s Trophy. The delicate and intricate strategies of each team will obviously be crucial in which of them comes out on top. But I’m here to remind you all that the Capitals, even with their high intensity roster that’s riddled with offensive, defensive, and special teams superstars, en route to the Stanley Cup Final, have always lost to the Penguins in the playoffs.
The constant pressing of “This Is Our Year” slogan that the local Washington media created around the Capitals 2016-17 season has only seemed to put more pressure on them. If you had the chance to watch Toronto push Washington around a bit in the first round, the Leafs managed to force five of the six games of the series into overtime; one even needed double OT. The average age of the Caps is about 28 years old, and many of their best players are 30 or above. Toronto’s young guys skated circles around the veterans and hopefully exhausted a lot of their energy. It’s the perfect setup for Pittsburgh, coming off a week’s worth of rest, to lead the Capitals to their typical playoff implosion.
The Champs vs. Chumps debate will finally get an answer. Alex Ovechkin, one of the most lethal scorers in the NHL, is facing this massive myth of a test yet again. Will he become a champion, or will his team falter another time to its more accomplished rival. Ovi has no excuses this year. No big names on the Washington roster are injured or suspended. Just about everyone in the hockey world picked the Caps to win it all this year, whether it be early in preseason predictions or after the trade deadline. The talent spread across this Capitals team is basically unrivaled – especially in the defensive department. Pittsburgh is Washington’s biggest threat to losing the Cup, and with how hot the Penguins have been this postseason, as well as how flirtatious they are about the idea of adding back-to-back pieces of hardware to their collection, Head Coach Barry Trotz and Co. should be sweating bullets.
That point alone should have Penguins fans breathing a little easier coming into this matchup. Pittsburgh just won the Cup. It has no real pressure to win again. If the team repeats, that’d be an incredible feat, mainly because no team has won two years in a row during the salary cap era. In fact, the only active player in the NHL that did it last is our good friend Jaromir Jagr, and that was almost a quarter of a century ago. Without the colossal pressure of winning it all, the Penguins are relaxed, healthy, and playing some of their best hockey, and it’s showing. The targets on their backs from last season found new homes on the backs of every Washington Capitals superstar.
Though the Western Conference has a couple really impressive teams and big names that will work hard to deservedly get to the championship series, this storied Pens/Caps matchup won’t just be a regular second round knockout. It’s going to be this year’s Stanley Cup Final that never was. The only awful thing about it is that we won’t get a better series after it’s over.