“I’d relish the opportunity to send ’em home early.” —T.J. Oshie
WASHINGTON – Three hundred fifty-two days.
That’s how long the Washington Capitals have been thinking about this series, this opponent, their most bitter of rivals.
Asked Wednesday if it feels like his team waded through all 82 regular-season games, and six more in Round 1 to oust the Toronto Maple Leafs, almost as a formality to get to this point, their long-awaited stab at revenge over Pittsburgh, Nicklas Backstrom agreed.
“Yeah. That’s true,” the top-line centre said. “Here we are.”
Set aside your whining that the NHL’s top two regular-season seeds are meeting in the second round, turning Caps-Pens into an unofficial Stanley Cup Final in the minds of some. Just be happy we get the rematch.
T.J. Oshie, one of Backstrom’s two 33-goal triggermen, revealed he’d hoped they’d meet even earlier, in Round 1.
“I’d relish the opportunity to send ’em home early,” said the winger, bitter memories of Game 6’s 4-3 loss on May 10 dancing in his head.
“I was on the ice for that last goal. The feeling just sits with you. Now we have a chance to rewrite that.”
Buckle up, hockey fans. This one has the markings of a beauty.
“Pittsburgh is coming to town, and it’s going to be crazy,” Alex Ovechkin said.
Even Capitals coach Barry Trotz – who preached amnesia throughout the Leafs series – co-signed the revenge narrative this week.
“They knocked us out last year, so we get a chance to go back at them,” Trotz said.
Oshie and the ever-clutch Justin Williams are relatively new to the enmity. Nine times these clubs have met in the playoffs. Eight times Pittsburgh has won, and all four of the franchise’s Stanley Cup parades routed through Washington. The Capitals, of course, are championship-free.
The Caps’ lone series victory came in 1994, well before Sid-Ovie battles became the fulcrum of NHL player marketing.
Never had we seen Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin so buddy-buddy as this January at the NHL All-Star Game. One of the NHL’s greatest snipers and greatest winners shared a dais, their legacies cemented as two of the league’s 100 GOATs. Then coach Wayne Gretzky shoved them on the same line, like a parent-arranged playdate, and each set the other up to score in 3-on-3 shinny.
“Best friends. How I always said,” Ovechkin quipped that sunny afternoon in Los Angeles.
In the well-rested lead-up to Game 1 Thursday at Verizon Center, the Washington captain was decidedly more game-face. Both superstars speak of mutual respect, but…
“We’re not buddies. We’re not friends,” Ovechkin said. “If we have a chance to talk and hang out, yeah, I think every player is good, especially at all-star game because all-star game is fun.
“That battle between me and him, it’s great,” Ovechkin went on. “I think me and him enjoy it, you guys enjoy it, fans enjoy it. But right now, it’s not about me and him. It’s about Caps and Penguins.”
Sid vs. Ovie will hook the casual fan, but there are other stories at play in this series. Here are a few points of intrigue.
Topmost top sixes will bring goals aplenty
Of all eight playoff teams remaining, none scored as frequently as Pittsburgh (4.2 goals per game) and Washington (3) in Round 1. None registered as many shots on net, either. The Pens averaged 34.2 and the Caps 35.2.
Among active teams, the Penguins (2.6) and Capitals (2.67) also allowed the most goals per game.
In their regular-season meetings this season, Washington twice hung seven goals on Pittsburgh, and the Penguins put up eight in one game against the Capitals.
All of which is to say, expect offence.
“They’re stacked,” says Pittsburgh’s Carl Hagelin.
The Capitals’ Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie line is all-world, but the second unit of Johansson-Kuznetsov-Williams arguably generated more quality scoring chances against the Leafs. Bottom-sixer Tom Wilson has as many 2017 playoff goals as the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I like to be quiet,” Malkin said. “I just try not to be quiet on the ice.”
Extra-special special teams
The Metropolitan final features the playoffs’ two most effective power plays, each converting five times in the opening round. The Penguins operated at a 33.3 per cent success rate, the Capitals 29.4 per cent.
This will place an emphasis on discipline, and it’s conceivable that the side committing fewer penalties wins.
“Hopefully our power play can help us and bring us momentum,” Crosby said. “It was big in the first round.”
What’s the deal with Alzner’s health?
Slightly under the radar is the undisclosed upper-body injury to Karl Alzner, which sidelined the Caps’ top-four D-man for four games against Toronto.
An impending free agent, Alzner participated in a full practice for the first time Tuesday, but his replacement, Nate Schmidt, plays a faster game and is more offensively minded. He had two assists in Round 1.
“Right now, he’s making a statement: You’re not getting my spot back,” Trotz said of Schmidt in Round 1.
Vezina champ vs. the NHL’s best backup
Braden Holtby, the 2016 Vezina winner and 2017 finalist, improved as the Toronto series progressed, allowing just a single goal in each of the final two games.
With Matt Murray (lower body) still unable to skate, Marc-Andre “Thank Goodness We Didn’t Trade Him” Fleury will hope to match Holtby in what should be a busy two weeks for both netminders.
We give the edge to Washington here, as Holtby’s career playoff numbers over 52 games (1.93 GAA, .936 save percentage) are bonkers.
Are Hagelin, Kunitz ready to make an impact?
Wingers Hagelin (so impactful during the Pens’ Cup run last year) and Chris Kunitz (who skated on the fourth line Wednesday) are listed as day-to-day but look to draw in for Game 1.
“You can see the impact [Hagelin] has just in practice with his skating ability and the energy he has out there,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said.
Back at team practice and smiling from ear-to-ear. pic.twitter.com/XVwZNMtbVm
As for Kunitz?
“Our challenge will be to put him in places where he can play to his strengths and be successful,” Sullivan said.
Where art thou, Kris Letang?
The Penguins steamrolled the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games without their No. 1 defenceman and breakout artist, but defeating the Capitals – a deeper, better forechecking opponent and a tornado on the cycle – poses a more serious challenge without Letang, a contender for the 2016 Conn Smythe.
So critical is Letang’s injury, we’re picking Holtby to outduel Fleury and the Capitals to dispel their demons and take this thing in seven.
Sure, our prediction might be wrong, but Patric Hornqvist’s won’t be.
“We are all looking forward to it,” Hornqvist says. “It is going to be a hell of a series.”