After having defeated the Flyers (in fewer than seven games!!), the Caps are through to the next round... just in time to face another Pennsylvania team. We take stock of where the team is, what concerns us going forward and who emerges victorious.
Q1. What has you the most concerned about the Caps heading into Round 2 against the Pens?
Adam: I'm a little concerned about scoring. During five-on-five play the Capitals were getting a lot of chances but they were having a lot of trouble converting those chances into goals. This was particularly evident for the line of Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, and Williams. That line didn't combine for any five-on-five goals despite dominating play in terms of possession. The Capitals were eventually able to put the Flyers away without scoring a lot of goals but I'm not sure they will be able to do that again. Lines two through four will have to produce for the Capitals to succeed against the high-powered Penguins.
But in case the five-on-five offense doesn't work; the Capitals power play was fantastic in the first half of the first round...but they were held off the scoresheet once the Flyers started to play more aggressively. We've seen this unit sputter in the playoffs before, and while they were still generating some decent chances against the Flyers, one can't help but worry that a lack of shots from the right side of the ice has made the power play a little predictable and therefore stoppable.
Muneeb: I'm concerned about the Penguins' speed. The Caps' blueliners can skate, but the Penguins bring four lines' worth of players who can turn blueline turnovers into odd-man rushes. They feel a bit like the 2009-10 Caps in that it's so easy to picture them turning a mistake anywhere on the ice into a rush and a goal.
J.P.: Along the lines of what Muneeb said, my biggest concern is the transition game or neutral zone play - make a mistake at center ice or near the offensive blueline or in coverage at your own blueline and this team can and will make you pay. Braden Holtby can erase a lot of mistakes, but this isn't the Flyers the Caps are facing - it's a deep, fast team that comes in waves (case in point, Evgeni Malkin is currently on their third line).
That's not to say that the Caps need to be ultra-conservative - that's a recipe for failure - but rather that they have to manage the puck well, make smart decisions and execute at these key spots on the ice.
Becca: I think they need to avoid getting into the kind of game the Penguins want to play, namely a faster, end-to-end game. It's not that the Caps can't play that kind of game or don't have speed in their own right, but as others have alluded to, Pittsburgh's strength is their speed. The Caps are fast and physical, so if they can use the latter to slow down the Pens through the neutral zone and avoid too many mistakes, they'll be fine.
Peerless: There are two distantly related pieces to this, and the intersection of them is "youth." Crosby and Malkin, Ovechkin and Backstrom. I think those will be constants. But what concerns me is further down both sets of forward lines. The youngsters for the Caps who had good regular seasons - Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky - cannot be as quiet as they were in the Philadelphia series. They have the skill and the creativity to make the Penguins pay in ways they could not in the first round, because the Flyers seemed to intimidate them somewhat physically. The Penguins do not have as much of that attribute, and the kids need to take advantage of that.
On the other side is the "no-name" offense of the Penguins lesser forwards. Tom Kuhnhackl, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust. They had five of the Penguins' 21 goals in the Rangers series, all of them are in their first postseason, and none of them are older than 24. The Caps can't let these guys find their way onto the score sheet very often.
Rob: I'm on the same page as Peerless; let's just say for the sake of argument that the Caps' top six can hang with the Penguins' top six, the depth is going to be a concern. How is it that the Caps, dominating their league with their depth all year, are somehow concerned about a Pittsburgh team as top heavy as you'll find in the NHL? Well the depth players on the Caps aren't doing a whole lot.
Capitals vs. Penguins Series Preview
The Washington Capitals take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, starting tonight in Washington. What do the Capitals need to do to exorcise their demons and exercise their authority? Jason Rogers lays it out in his series preview.
They didn't bleed goals against the Flyers, but they also weren't providing any. Tom Wilson's highlights are basically "well he did have that great chance" and aside from that Steve Mason blooper they haven't gotten squat from Jason Chimera or the third line. Beagle had a nice goal in game one (set up by a great Marcus Johansson play... who has been moved up to the second line due to Burakovsky's ineffectiveness in the top six) and another gift PPG but is obviously not to be relied on for consistent offense.
Meanwhile, over in the rust belt, the Pens' bottom six is scoring like they've got the Midas touch, and while the percentages could come back to earth, the tenacity with which they play is not going to change. Unlike the Flyers series, there are no easy or even favorable matchups among the forward lines.
Q2: What has you feeling the most confident?
Adam: Braden Holtby has been a beast so far and I'm relatively confident that will continue. His career playoff numbers are really fantastic and his shutout performance in Game 6 was crucial to mollifying the worries of Caps' fans everywhere.
Tommy: I'm confident in the shutdown tandem of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen. That duo completely neutralized Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds in the opening series, holding the trio to a single even-strength point. Niskanen and Alzner have a gigantic task at hand in slowing down Conor Sheary, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist, and while they may not be able to keep them away from the scoresheet as much as the Flyers' top line, I can't think of any other duo in the Eastern Conference playoffs that has a better chance at slowing down the Penguins' top line than 27 and 2.
Muneeb: Holtby is better than Marc-Andre Fleury and (very probably) much better than Matt Murray as well.
Peerless: Braden Holtby. Going into the Flyer series, Holtby had a career regular-season record against Philadelphia of 6-4-6, 2.76, .907, with two shutouts. Not exactly confidence-inspiring. Then he was the "Saskatchewan Shield" against them in the first round. Against Pittsburgh, he has a career record of 5-7-1, 2.79, .914, with two shutouts. Look familiar? There are folks who might point to that and say, "not too good." Well, it hardly seems to matter. He is in another world at the moment. Not even at the moment. This is a goalie with a .954 save percentage over his last 17 postseason games, 11 of which he allowed one or no goals. It could come crashing down, but I don't think it would be the way to bet.
J.P.: Besides the obvious answer in net, the Caps' depth has been a strength all season and hopefully will continue to be in this series. I'm also confident that the Caps have a physical edge and if this turns out to be a long series, that could pay dividends. Guys like Tom Wilson and Jason Chimera need to finish checks without taking penalties, particularly on somewhat injury-prone blueliners.
Rob: The ability to keep pucks out of the net. Obviously that starts with Holtby, but the Caps' defensive corps is obviously superior as a group. And if Tom Wilson gets a crack at Kris Letang...
Becca: Holtby is a major source of confidence. Beyond that, I'm very confident in both the Caps' depth and maturity. One of the ways the Caps have been able to beat teams, over the course of the season and so far in the playoffs, is by sending wave after wave of attackers to wear down the other team while maintaining a sense of calm regardless of the situation. Both of those can be an advantage against a younger, smaller team like the Penguins.
Q3: What's the X-factor needed to win this series?
Adam: The Capitals will have to find a way to neutralize the Penguins speed in transition without playing a straight-up trap. Holtby will do fine in net, it will be up to the Capitals to get more production from their forwards than they did in round 1.
Tommy: *Pulls the "Cop Out" card from the official Japers' Rink pre-season assigned deck and places it on the roundtable* I'm going with Braden Holtby.
Over the course of his entire playoff career, Holtby has only ever lost to a team that put a goaltender named "Lundqvist" in the net. The closest thing the Penguins have to a "Lundqvist" is a "Sundqvist," and he's a forward who only played in 18 games this year.
You know who only played in 13 games this year? Matt Murray, and while he has been pretty solid in many of his efforts this season, he's still a relatively fresh-faced 21-year-old with three playoff games under his belt. If Holtby is able to rock his .968 save percentage in the second round, or at least a number close to it, I'm not entirely convinced Murray is going to be able to hang. And if it ends up being Marc-Andre Fleury in the series, I'm still not convinced he will be able to stand up toe-to-toe against a premium Holtby.
To beat the Penguins, Holtby is going to have to be the best player in the entire series, and I think he has all the tools to be that guy.
Muneeb: The Penguins' depth defensemen are prime targets for "heavy hockey," and to that end, the Caps' depth forwards need to wear them down and expose them. In the first round, the Jay Beagle-Dan Winnik line was able to consistently get into the offensive zone and start cycling. If they can play their game and turn some of that possession into a few goals as well, they'll give the Caps the extra margin the team needs to take the series.
Peerless: The Three "P's:" Persistence, Pain, and Patience. The Penguins will try to play an up-tempo game with quick breakouts, speed through the neutral zone, and easy entries. If the Caps can put persistent pressure on them in their own zone, make them endure pain to make plays, and be patient, they can slow them down, tilt the ice, and take advantage of a team defense that doesn't have to play a lot of team defense if they are doing their speed thing.
J.P.: Besides the neutral zone play I alluded to above, it's going to be important to maintain discipline and get some contributions, offensively, from the middle-six forwards.
Rob: Evgeny Kuznetsov is the only guy the Caps have that can bring the talent to match the Pens' top two lines (no, I don't care what Malkin's line is listed as). He had moments but no production against Philadelphia. He's going to need to turn those moments into production if the Caps are going to have a chance. If Kuznetsov doesn't count as an "X factor" then I'll go with Tom Wilson forechecking Kris Letang.
Becca: Balance. For all the talk about how deep the Pens are, the Caps (on paper, at least), are deeper. In a one-off game, that's not as big a factor; in the playoffs, it's huge.
Q4: And finally... predictions?
J.P.: Caps in seven. Raise a "Pennsylvania State Champions" banner and move on to the Eastern Conference Final.
Adam: I hope that I'm wrong but I'm picking the Pens in 6.
Tommy: Caps in seven. Williams' one goal and one assist performance will triumph over the Capitals' Game 7 woes of seasons past.
Muneeb: For once, it's the Caps' physicality, structure, and discipline that gets an opponent off its game just enough for a series win. Caps in 7.
Peerless: In the first round, the Penguins played a team - the Rangers - that only once over their final 25 regular season games managed consecutive games in which they had more shot attempts at 5-on-5 than their opponent, and then the Pens managed just 45.2 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 against that team (numbers from war-on-ice.com). Even score adjustments don't help them much. The Caps have an opportunity to show whether or not this emperor has any clothes. I think they will show that he does not. Caps in 6.
Rob: Pens in six.
Becca: Caps in seven. This is the year that demon gets exorcised and sent back to the black-and-gold hell from whence it came.