Here we go again, folks. The Penguins’ next obstacle blocking the pathway of their miraculous three-peat effort is, naturally, a second round clash with the Washington Capitals. Considering how superstitious this Pittsburgh team is, it’s kind of fitting that a third-consecutive Stanley Cup try is following the exact same footsteps of its previous championship victories. What would a salary cap era Penguins’ Cup be without ripping out the hearts of every single Capital player and fan, and then banishing them to the golf links after Round 2?
Well...let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
Much like my breakdown from the Penguins-Flyers series, I’m going to delve into the intricate parts of this Washington team, including a look back at previous regular season matchups between the Penguins, combing over the Capitals’ performance during their Round 1 series with the Blue Jackets, some brief systems talk, coaching style, how the Penguins can exploit them, and, of course, pertinent advanced stats.
If you need some assistance with all the references to advanced metrics used in this article, use Charlie O’Connor’s (from The Athletic Philadelphia) brilliant and easy explanation of them all.
The regular season head-to-head results between Pittsburgh and Washington were a dead-lock at 2-2. There were instances where the Penguins blew out the Capitals by more than three goals (like the 7-4 victory from back in the beginning of February), and times when the game was decided by just a couple tallies. It’s no secret this rivalry has harvested a lot of bad blood over the past two years, and that’s caused their tilts with each other to be a bit rough.
Per the head-to-head, regular season statistics recorded by Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins didn’t fair too well against Washington in regard to puck possession, even in their two wins. Their average Corsi For over the four total games was an underwhelming 48.58% and their Fenwick For percentage, though a tad better at 49.76%, was also nothing fantastic. Pittsburgh’s wins came solely thanks to its high number of shot conversions in high-danger areas — in the two victories, the Penguins had an average HDCF% of 59.79%. That’s very good.
The Capitals took the Metro division crown for a second year in a row, but when you look closer at their underlying numbers, they don’t exactly sing the same sweet, commanding tune. Their struggle to convert on both sides of the ice were evident on a nightly basis, and they were significantly outplayed by their opponents more often than not. That being said, Washington tends to rely on its sharp-shooters, deadly power play, and brilliant play by its goalies to close out games with a win, and it can survive this way because it has Alex Ovechkin on its roster.
When it comes to how the Capitals faired in puck possession, goal differential, and shot differential against the Penguins though, things were not on Pittsburgh’s side. Washington tilted the ice in their favor, recording an average 51.40% Corsi For, 50.24% Fenwick For, and a 52.40 shots for percent.
Ultimately, this is just a bunch of numbers proving that Pittsburgh will need to regularly control the play at even-strength if it wants to make it to the Eastern Conference Final.
Above we have the line combination matchups from the most recent Penguins-Capitals game from the beginning of April. It comes as no surprise that Sidney Crosby’s top line was matched up mainly against Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom the majority of the time, but another infamous name on the Capitals’ roster that popped up was Tom Wilson. Matt Niskanen’s face also came up as logging minutes against the Captain. Knowing both of their histories against Crosby, that’s unnerving, but I fully expect those matchups to continue in this series.
The sore spot for the Penguins right now though is their issues with the defensive corps and Mike Sullivan’s distribution of minutes (detailed both here and here), and that’s extremely concerning given how electric defenseman John Carlson has been for the Capitals. In these playoffs, Carlson, not Ovechkin, leads his team in points with nine (one goal, eight assists). He's been a juggernaut for them so far this postseason, and I suspect he’ll take top pairing duties come puck drop in Game 1. Another notable Washington scoring defenseman is Dmitry Orlov, who, again, often sees minutes against Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
However, the Capitals will be with without left-winger Andre Burakovsky, as he’s out with an upper-body injury. Washington placed him on injury reserve and he’ll miss 6-8 weeks. Burakovsky is a notable scoring threat, so this is good news for the Penguins and their depth. Once you get passed the Capitals top two lines, the Penguins have them out-gunned, though Lars Eller and Devante Smith-Pelly showed their use on offense in Round 1. However, if Malkin can go, these two shouldn’t cause too much stress for the bottom-six, but the Penguins would be remiss to ignore them.
Here are the lines Trotz will probably roll with at the start of the series, courtesy of Left Wing Lock.
Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Wilson
Stephenson – Backstrom – Oshie
Connolly – Eller – Smith-Pelly
Vrana – Beagle – Chiasson
Kempny – Carlson
Orlov – Niskanen
Orpik – Djoos
Team Stats/Advanced Data
It goes without saying that the Penguins’ regular season PDO figures weren’t great, so after digging themselves out the massive, unlucky hole they were stuck in at the beginning of the 2017-18 season, their final numbers ended up being just a bit lower than the Capitals’. That’s fine. But as you can see, the problems lie more so in shooting percentage and save percentage.
Where Washington truly shadowed the Penguins was, unsurprisingly, in in the goaltender department, and it doesn’t bode well for Pittsburgh that Braden Holtby is standing on his head coming out of the first round. For those of you who don’t know, Holtby didn’t start the series with Columbus, Philipp Grubauer did, but it seemed that was enough to piss of the former Vezina winner to the point of earning his starting role back. According to Corsica.Hockey, Holtby put up a 93.7% save percentage and a 92.1% expected save percentage, equaling a 1.56 SV% differential whenever he returned between the pipes in Round 1. Those numbers blew Grubauer right out of the water.
Though, a lot of my focus was drawn to how Pittsburgh owned the Capitals in a couple important even-strength advanced metrics from the regular season — higher Corsi For and higher Expected Goals percentages. As you can see, the only eventh-strength stat Washington beats the Penguins in is Goals For percentage, which can be remedied.
Considering the forward depth the Capitals have, these numbers are kind of startling. Sure, the Penguins possess probably the deepest team in the playoffs (save for maybe the Nashville Predators), but being ranked 24th, 25th, and 26th in the NHL respectively for the first three aforementioned metrics isn’t a good look for this Washington team. That being said, the Capitals do have a top-ten ranked power play (7th, to be exact), which is kind of a no-brainer when you remember Ovechkin’s best Brett Hull impersonation in power play production from his “office” — the left face-off circle.
What’s even more impressive is Holtby’s numbers on the penalty kill this postseason. He was perfect — yes, 100% perfect — down a man against Columbus, had an Expected Save percentage of 88.6%, and had an incredible 11.4 SV% differential. It was the Blue Jackets’ undoing; the dagger to their hearts. A showdown between him and Matt Murray might end up being one for the ages — as well as the deciding factor in this series.
Pittsburgh must convert on the man-advantage throughout the series. There’s no other way to say it. The Penguins showed in Game 2 and Game 5 of their first round series that when their power play gets too cute and isn’t clicking, a loss will be the outcome..aand that was against the 29th ranked Flyers’ penalty kill. This time around is a whole different animal.
Systems and Strategy
Here’s a couple heat maps that prove how ineffective the Capitals were at 5-on-5 play during the regular season. Look at the way Washington distributes the puck and, subsequently, look at its shots on average. There’s a lot of focus on the middle lane, the slot, and the point, but what’s interesting to me is how many shots the Capitals get off right to the right side of their opponent’s goal crease. That’s surely a point of emphasis by Barry Trotz’s offense, and it seems to work out well. Pittsburgh will need to hinder chances on the backside and prevent the puck getting cycled or squeezed into that area, and it can do so on the other end of the ice with its stifling forecheck.
Speaking of the forecheck, the Penguins have used their 1-2-2 variation to smother their opponents all year, and Washington has been and will be no different during this series. Pittsburgh has regularly dominated play in the neutral zone against this Capitals, using its speed and aggressiveness to force them off the in puck before any clean zone entries and offensive sequences can be set up. The Penguins have also eliminated the neutral zone altogether — bashing the Capitals into their defensive zone corners, frustrating Washington to no avail. That sort of pressure is paramount if the Penguins want to prevent the Capitals’ set up from easily accessing the middle of the ice in front of Murray.
On the flip side, the Capitals’ defense at even-strength is blood bath, and Columbus took full advantage of the space it was given by them in their first round series, detailed below.
Pittsburgh’s net-crashers (looking at you, Patric Hornqvist) have to be on their A-game, as well as the rest of the forwards not constantly looking for the “perfect pass” and omitting from taking shots when they have clear lanes to Holtby’s cage. The cute stuff needs to be put on the back burner — hopefully that’s over and done with.
A brief look back at Washington vs. Columbus
The Blue Jackets stunned the Capitals in the first two games of their Round 1 series after burying two overtime winners to go up 2-0 in D.C. The goal of an away team is to steal at least one victory on the road in the playoffs, but Columbus managed to return home with a comfortable lead.
Then, Braden Holtby happened. In my brief mention of him above, Holtby was the glue that held together this Capitals comeback surge. Their star goaltender’s name was called 20 minutes into Game 2, and though he didn’t earn a win in that contest, the series’ tide certainly turned in the Capitals favor from that point on. Washington went from having an 18% chance of beating Columbus after Game 2, to having a whopping 58% chance after its Game 4 victory. You can certainly see that in his aforementioned series numbers that Holtby was the main reason for it.
But even when you look past Holtby’s outstanding performance, the Blue Jackets didn’t give themselves much fo a chance. Hello, face-off circles and goal crease:
This isn’t going to be an easy series by any means. Whatever way you spin it, the Capitals are drooling over the chance to get revenge for the past two seasons’ outcomes. They definitely have a huge chip on their shoulder and a ton of pressure riding on how they’ll fair in Round 2, their arch nemesis. Everyone is waiting for them to whither and die again. Losing two Game 7’s at home in back-to-back seasons is embarrassing enough. To have it happen a third consecutive time might be catastrophic to the organization’s future as a whole. Time is running out for Barry Trotz’s squad.
What the Penguins have to do is stave off Washington’s home-ice advantage and basically mimic everything Columbus succeeded at (and also failed to do): control 5-on-5 play, play composed and limit trips to the penalty box, prevent the Capitals’ power play from converting at a high rate, break Holtby down with their lethal top-ranked power play, don’t leave Ovechkin alone in the left face-off circle, keep an eye on Backstrom (as he’ll sneak around when all eyes are on Ovi), limit Kuznetsov’s crashes to the net, and lastly, and most importantly, have Murray be a brick wall each night. Admittedly, that’s a lot to handle.
The Penguins will also have to hope for Malkin and Carl Hagelin’s health to be back at 100%. So far, neither of them have practiced, but it isn’t much of a cause for concern...yet.
Micah McCurdy’s model oddly favors the Capitals on paper, but when has adversity stopped this team from succeeding before? Washington is a less talented team than they were last postseason, and Pittsburgh is significantly better.
It’s doable. Of course it’s doable — this is the Pittsburgh Penguins we’re talking about.