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The Penguins speed gives them an additional gear

Skating ability could be the difference in the playoffs

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The instant Tom Wilson turned the puck over in the Penguins zone and Jeff Carter made a slick little play to get the puck to Jared McCann, you wouldn’t be alone if an antenna of an alert went went up to raise your focus and pique some anticipation. Spend enough time around the sport of hockey and you can gain a sense of when something notable might be about to unfold. Here, it did. McCann put a wonderful pass to stretch the ice, banking it off the boards to where there was nothing but Kasperi Kapanen and 44-year old Zdeno Chara trying in vain to push his 6’9 cargo ship of a body into a cross-over to try and keep up.

That race was over before it started.

All that was left for Kapanen was to beat the goalie as badly as he left the veteran defender hopelessly behind in his wake.

And just like that, what was a tie game in the third period shifted to a Pittsburgh lead on the road.

In a way, this was a play a long time in the making. The Penguins, under former general manager Jim Rutherford, worked by a mandate to focus their off-season moves in a pointed effort to become younger and faster. Kapanen was the jewel of the team’s off-season, and he is certainly both young and fast. Chara, literally the Caps’ biggest off-season addition, has a lot of things going for him in what has been a remarkable career, but he certainly is far from either of those attributes.

It was just one play in a game filled of thousands of them, but just stood out so perfectly as to point out the differences in strategy and roster construction between the two.

“I saw [McCann] got the puck,” the ever under-stated Kapanen said after the game. “And he kinda just threw it behind me off the boards and I just tried to use my speed and I shot in on net and it went in.”

It was a play Pittsburgh was intentionally built for, emphasizing getting a player like Kapanen to stretch the ice with his legs. It was only fitting it happened at the expense of the lumbering Chara, a player very much in the Washington mold of superior size and strength. Because there can be no mistake, the Caps tend to tower over the Penguins up and down the lineup.

At the risk of over-simplification, it was a fitting contrast in what the two teams are built to do. For Pittsburgh, it’s skilled plays and opening up the ice with young legs. For Washington, it’s working more of a power game with big bodies. When the styles clash, the Pens are at risk of getting out-muscled. The Caps are at risk of, well, you see the highlight above.

Could the speed factor be the difference in a Penguins/Capitals playoff series? Pittsburgh is getting healthier and still will look to add the demonic forechecking and indomitable spirit of Brandon Tanev back to a lineup that contains players like Kapanen, McCann, Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker. Split over multiple lines, the Pens can bring wave after wave of plus skating ability at Washington, or any other Eastern division rival that they may face in the post-season.

“It’s easy to play my game when I play with centers like [Crosby, Malkin and Carter]...I’m just trying to play my game and use my speed. Get on the forecheck and make plays and shoot as much as I can.”

With 26 points in 35 game, Kapanen has been doing just that, having what would be a career year, minus injuries and the pandemic-shortened season.

The Capitals, like any potential future playoff opponent, will have to attempt to contain the Pens’ speed and limit their ability to get into open ice as priority and key factor in a series.

As we saw last night, Pittsburgh is very willing to open up the ice and exchange run-and-gun chanced. Washington took 37 shots to the Pens 35 in a wide-open game. Trading chances and playing a free-wheeling style is a gamble Pittsburgh is willing to take. And when they’ve got players on the ice like Kapanen going up against defenders like Chara, it’s easy to see why.