The second round is finally here with the Penguins and Capitals locking horns yet again. As usual, previews are everywhere (like our excellent one here) and here are a few more crucial keys to the series
Power Play vs. Discipline
Washington got a first-round high 25 power play opportunities handed to them, mostly by undisciplined play by Columbus. (Pittsburgh wasn’t that far behind with 23). The Capitals parlayed that into eight 5v4 goals and one 5v3 goal, essentially breaking the series open and pushing them into this round of play.
Pens/Caps is a rivalry but players have to be smart (looks directly at Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin). Tom Wilson led all NHL players in minor penalties taken in the regular season. He is not a very smart player and will do dumb things - and just recently cost the Caps a game vs. Columbus. Let him be dumb and take advantage of it. If the Pens stoop to that level, they will be the ones in the penalty box, and more than likely the ones paying the price on the scoreboard.
Pittsburgh and Washington are two teams that thrive with powerful power plays. The one that gets the chance to do more damage probably will. And that team will likely be the one moving on from this series with more hockey to play.
Getting that first goal
Washington scored first in 5 of the 6 games against CBJ (record when doing so: 3-2, with both losses coming in OT). The Pens only scored first in half of the 6 games against Philly (record when doing so: 3-0...record when falling in the 0-1 hole, 1-2).
It’s a cliche, but it’s also rooted in truth - the team that scores first often puts their stamp on a game and controls it. This time of year it is difficult to make comebacks; the Penguins were 3-0 vs. the Flyers when holding a lead after 20 minutes, and also that same 3-0 when leading after 40 minutes. The Caps were 4-1 in the first round when leading after 2 periods. In fact, in the entire first round of the NHL playoffs only 4 times did a team blow a lead they held after 2 periods (with the Caps being one of them). The team that scores first and carries a lead into intermissions is that much closer to ending the game with a lead. Simple, but effective.
Could be an edge for the Pens here. With the Sidney Crosby/Kris Letang group expected to match up on the Alex Ovechkin/Matt Niskanen unit, the Pens and Caps often play power vs. power. The big guys usually come through but often times neutralize each other.
So will it be Lars Eller or Derick Brassard stepping up? Or, you know, big game Bryan Rust who scored the GWG in Game 7 between these two teams last year? Devante Smith-Pelley scored two huge goals last round for Washington, he’s a player to keep an eye on. Maybe just maybe Conor Sheary pops up out of his slump and puts an important one on the board.
This time of year it could be the guy you don’t expect as much to tip the balance of a game or the series. Whichever team can get some timely goals from their supporting players are going to be in great shape.
Clinging to health
Malkin is out for at least Game 1, possibly longer, after a leg injury last series. Carl Hagelin got cracked up high and is out probably longer than Game 1. Two important Pens players sidelined. The Caps appear to be relatively healthy at this point, though their wing depth may be tested with Andre Burakovsky out for at least the start of the series, and T.J. Oshie banged up and not skating at all in between games.
And that’s just the injuries coming into the series, after more physical playoff hockey the list is sure to get longer, not shorter. Who is on that list and able to stay as close to 100% is always
Battle in the net
It always comes down to the goalies. Ironically for as celebrated as Braden Holtby and Matt Murray are as two of the most decorated and winning-est goalies of the past couple years, both have much to prove in this series.
Holtby wasn’t the Caps starting goalie at the beginning of the season and had not played well in the second half of the 2017-18 regular season. But he certainly did play well against CBJ with a .932 save %, 1.97 GAA and 4-1 record. However, the next team he faces has been his kryptonite over the years in the Penguins shooters. Holtby’s save % in 13 playoff games against the Pens is a fairly pedestrian .908%. He’s only won five of those 13 games. He has another opportunity to do something he hasn’t done, keep the Pens at bay and lead his team to the conference finals. Will he be able to?
Murray started the playoffs as hot as Holtby (giving up just five goals in the first four games of the Flyers series) but ended it giving up 8 goals in the last 2. Philly didn’t shoot the puck much - the Pens have the current playoff best in allowing just 24.7 shots/game - so Murray really wasn’t tested much. That, surely, is about to change and in a big way with the firepower that the Caps have up front. Murray hasn’t had an impressive statistical season but his 10-1 record following a playoff loss tells you all you need to know about the mental makeup of the goalie who has won 8 Stanley Cup finals games in the last two seasons.
On paper and in the absence of Malkin this series looks like another tooth-and-nail battle between the two long-time rivals. As the Pens look to repeat on the repeat, it’s only fitting that their oldest adversary stands in the way once more.