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Even without Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, the Penguins are better than the Capitals

The Penguins are missing two key players to injury — but they still hold the upper hand

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

The odds in Vegasfor Game 1 of the 2nd opened with the Capitals as slight favorites (-125) over the Penguins. With Game 1 being in Washington and the Penguins owning the worst road record of all remaining playoff teams, the line wasn’t all that surprising. Factor in that the Penguins and Capitals split the regular season series this year and that Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin won’t be in the lineup and the line jumping up to the Capitals as -130 favorites also makes first glance.

A further dive into the odds shows the Penguins as slight favorites (-120) to win the series, which can lead us to two assumptions:

  1. The oddsmakers have reason to believe that Malkin won’t miss extended time ( no offense, Carl, but you’re not the one swinging the odds here)
  2. The oddsmakers have reason to believe that, even without those two in the lineup, the Penguins are the better team

I won’t speculate on the first assumption, but I can give you some evidence that the second assumptions may be playing a role.

First Line

Outside of the dynamic Bruins first line of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak, there probably isn’t a hotter line in hockey. Sid is being Sid, Hornqvist seemed like the game off was able to mend whatever injury caused him to miss time, and J4ke just scored four goals in a row to eliminate the Flyers.

Ovechkin has been hot, with five goals in the Columbus series, and linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov isn’t far behind with four goals and the same number of points (8). However, the line has been playing a lot of minutes—averaging about 24 per game—with three of their first round games going to overtime, including one double-OT session.

Also, Tom Wilson plays RW on this line.

Advantage: Penguins

Second Line:

We might as well start with the (Russian) elephant in (or, not in?) the room. Yes, no single player, other than Crosby, would be able to replace Malkin’s production. But Sid is already producing 2.17 points per game, so there’s not much more he could realistically add to that total.

But, once again, the ever-prepared Jim Rutherford will have a player acquired from another mid-season, buy-low trade step into a key role for the Penguins. Is Riley Sheahan better suited for being an excellent 4C, or upper echelon 3C? Of course.

However, when paired together, Sheahan and Kessel have put up virtually identical GF%, SCF%, and HDSCF% numbers compared to those Kessel has put up away rom Sheahan (mostly playing with Malkin and Brassard). This isn’t about Sheahan or stand-in Dominik Simon, it’s about Kessel. Just like it always has been when Phil has been given his own line away from Sid and Geno.

On the other side, Nicklas Backstrom and Timothy Jimothy (TJ) Oshie anchor a steady second line for the Caps. Oshie scored three goals in the first round—all coming on the powerplay—but only produced two even-strength points in six games, and was held pointless in all games he didn’t get into the goal column. Backstrom also saw the majority of his production come on the powerplay, but did record both of his goals in the series at even strength.

The third member of this line, Chandler Stephenson, sounds like a rejected sitcom character. Chandler produced 4 points in round 1.

On paper, Backstrom and Oshie make this line look superior to the Penguins’ second line, but they haven’t been producing like they should at even strength.

Advantage: Even

Third Line

Here’s where it gets interesting. Another line, another Jim Rutherford trade acquisition. Derick Brassard centers Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust on a third line that was one of the Penguins’ more consistent in the later first round games. It’s also a third line that’s too good to be a third line. With speed, skill, and outside of Sheary, relatively strong defensive awareness, this isn’t a typical third line checking unit that you can throw your top line out and assume they will drive play.

If the Capitals go stars on stars and let the third lines go head to head, this becomes a massive advantage for the Penguins. I’m a Lars Eller fan, but he doesn’t exactly instill fear when it comes to producing points. Devante Smith-Pelley leads the line in points, but is slow and wouldn’t be able to match the speed of Sheary. And Brett Connelly is the oldest looking 25 year-old I have ever seen:

Advantage: Penguins


John Carlson was a monster in round one, and Kris Letang played a few games where he looked astronomically better than he did 80% of the regular season. But this is the position of weakness for both teams, and to me boils down to “who has the pieces capable of shutting down the opposition’s top forwards”?

Both third pairings are just that. Both second pairings are solid. But give me Dumo-Letang vs the Capitals best over Kempny-Carlson over the Penguins best.

Advantage: Penguins


Believe it or not, there are still Penguins fans out there that irrationally dislike Matt Murray because he forced Marc-Andre Fleury out of town. Add MAF’s stellar season, and even better first round, and the lamenting is at an all-time high.

He may not have put up Fleury numbers, but Murray was for the most part fine in the first round. Yes, he had bad goals against and bad games. But he also posted two shutouts and, as always, came up with the save he absolutely had to have. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was another playoff series win for a goalie who has yet to lose one.

Holtby comes in hot, having won four straight games and posting a .932 SV% and sub-2.0 GAA in round one. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? He’ll enter the series with the best playoff numbers he’s put up since 2015 when, you guessed it, he was utterly broken by a high-scoring Penguins team.

Should Holtby’s recent play give the Capitals an advantage here? Probably. But this is the playoffs and it’s Pens-Caps. We all know how this ends.

Advantage: Even

Special Teams

This is another interesting one. In the regular season, the Penguins owned the league’s best powerplay unit. In the playoffs, the Capitals own the league’s best powerplay unit. The Penguins have been better on the kill in the postseason, but the Capitals PK hasn’t been a hindrance, still killing at a rate of over 83%.

The absences of Hagelin and Malkin will loom largest on special teams, in my opinion. Give that and current form…

Advantage: Capitals


One head coach has never lost an NHL playoff series in his life and one head coach is playing Tom Wilson with his generational talent on the first line.

Advantage: Penguins

The big takeaway here: stay out of the box. At even strength, the Penguins, even without Malkin and Hagelin, have slightly better depth. The Caps’ second line has struggled to produce offense at 5v5, but they own the playoffs’ most productive powerplay unit. Don’t do them any favors by continually putting them on the man advantage.

Do that, and I don’t think stealing a game in Washington is out of the question. Remember when the Penguins had no shot when Letang missed Game 4 vs. Washington in the 2016 playoffs?

Take a deep breath, relax, and remember: the Capitals are 8-2 all time vs. the Penguins in Games 1s, and 1-9 all time vs. the Penguins in playoff series.