2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Penguins vs. Capitals

HC at Noon discussion on whether facing the Penguins in the 2nd round is a nightmare scenario for the Washington Capitals, or a chance to shut everyone in the hockey world up for good?

For the third year in a row the Penguins and Capitals meet in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, though it’s been a mostly one-sided affair. Pittsburgh, of course, has won the previous two post-season meetings en route to claiming the Stanley Cup, but the franchise rivalry goes even further back than that.

This is the fourth playoff meeting between the two in the Ovechkin-Crosby era and prior to 2005, Pittsburgh and Washington met an additional seven times with the Pens coming out on top in six of them. The only time the Capitals have triumphed over their division rivals was in 1994 when the Caps won a first-round series in six games.

This is also the third straight season in which Washington won the Metropolitan Division crown, though this year’s is the most surprising. The Caps were all-in on last season’s playoff run, then lost a ton of skill in the off-season and were expected to take a step back from contending. This season brought underwhelming underlying numbers and developed a goaltending controversy between a struggling Braden Holtby and backup Philipp Grubauer, which seems to have been resolved in the playoffs.

The Penguins are the Bizarro Capitals — a team without a Presidents’ Trophy, but three Crosby-era Stanley Cups instead. This year the Penguins are chasing history as they try to become the first team since the dynastic New York Islanders to win three consecutive championships. It didn’t always look like the Pens would even get this far, though. The Pens allowed 50 goals in 13 October games, were 28th in even strength goals through the first two months of the season and Matt Murray struggled with a .904 save percentage as of Dec. 31, which was 42nd-best at the time.

But it all started to get back on track in 2018 — Pittsburgh was 13th in goals against from Jan. 1 onwards, and became a top 10 team in even strength goals in the 2018 portion of the schedule with Murray improving to a .912 save percentage in the second half as well. While that was still a below-average mark, it somewhat stabilized a troubling trend in the first half.

Make no mistake, as has been the case in these series since 2005, the show is all about Crosby vs. Ovechkin. While the Pens captain is heavily decorated and has won everything conceivable in his hockey career, Ovechkin hasn’t seen Round 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs yet. The greatest goal scorer of his generation and perhaps in NHL history has a huge monkey to get off his back and is looking forward to the challenge ahead.

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5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Pittsburgh: 52.23 CF% (5th), 48.07 GF% (21st), .910 SP% (29th), 7.29 SH% (23rd), 98.33 PDO (29th)

Washington: 47.99 CF% (24th), 52.48 GF% (12th), .925 SP% (13th), 9.14 SH% (2nd), 101.61 PDO (4th)

Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.

Pittsburgh 9.12 (1st) 3.95 (19th) 6.53 (6th)
Washington 5.62 (13th) 3.56 (23rd) 4.59 (19th)

Pittsburgh: 26.2 PP% (1st), 80.0 PK% (17th), 270 GF (3rd), 248 GA (20th)

Washington: 22.5 PP% (7th), 80.3 PK% (15th), 256 GF (9th), 238 GA (16th)

Pittsburgh: 2-2-0

Washington: 2-2-0

Round 1 Strengths for Pittsburgh: As the highest-scoring team in Round 1, offence was a strength for the Penguins, although a large chunk of that can be attributed to the weak goaltending in Philadelphia’s net. In this sense, it’s hard to get a read on what the Penguins actually did well, and what was the result of a distressed opponent. But by now we know the Penguins win on the backs of their biggest three stars (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel), who they sometimes spread across three lines, and the deadline addition of Derick Brassard gives Pittsburgh its best 1-2-3 punch down the middle since Jordan Staal left in 2012.

Crosby is the leading playoff point-getter and he’s boosted linemate Jake Guentzel yet again as the 23-year-old is out of the gate as a goal-a-game player. Malkin has five points in five games to go with 15 shots and the fact Kessel scored just once in the opening round series only means he’s due for more. The Pens can create matchup nightmares when they have game-breakers spread out over three different lines. The most promising outcome for Pittsburgh against the Flyers was its continued success at 5-on-5. After becoming one of the best even strength teams in the second half of the season, salvaging a terrible first half, the Pens were the highest-scoring team at evens in Round 1.

Round 1 Strengths for Washington: The Penguins’ power play may have been the best in the regular season, but Washington’s conversion rate of 33.3 per cent paced the league in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blue Jackets handed the Capitals the most man advantage opportunities of anyone in the first round and they earned five more goals on the power play than did Columbus, the biggest difference of any first-round series.

John Carlson was a key contributor from the back end and, of course, Ovechkin was the driver up front. After falling behind 2-0 in the series, Ovechkin guaranteed the Capitals would return home with the series all tied up, which they did, and his two goals in Game 6 gave the Capitals a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. This guy is a playoff player.

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Penguins’ X-Factor: With Marc-Andre Fleury in Vegas, Murray no longer has a high-calibre backup fully capable of assuming No. 1 duties in case of injury or poor play. The safety net is gone. Murray’s play has been sporadic all season, and even in Round 1 he was up and down. The 23-year-old may have earned two shutouts against the Flyers, but he also allowed more than three goals in two of the games and was nearly pulled in Game 6. There is some question about his health, too. Murray was seen by local reporters consulting with the Pens’ assistant athletic trainer last week. The goalie said he was fine, but given his play, it’s a situation worth watching.

Capitals’ X-Factor: We have to take the goalie in Washington, too, given the offensive potency of the Penguins and the fact Holtby wasn’t the Caps’ starter in either of Game 1 or 2 versus Columbus. Holtby’s .907 save percentage this season was by far the worst of his NHL career and in January and February his save rate dropped below .900. This led to more starts for Grubauer, but since wrestling the job back from him against Columbus, Holtby’s playoff save percentage is a very respectable .932 — the second-best mark of all advancing Eastern Conference goalies, behind only Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. If Holtby is back on top of his game as one of the world’s elite, he will be the key for Washington to exorcise their demons.

Pittsburgh: Jake Guentzel (6-7-13), Sidney Crosby (6-7-13), Kris Letang (1-6-7)

Washington: John Carlson (1-8-9), Alex Ovechkin (5-3-8), Evgeny Kuznetsov (4-4-8)

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