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The Afternoon Narrative: Crash the Net, Special Teams and Coverage Coverage

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Three things we’re talking about this afternoon when we’re talking about the Caps

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

1. Per Jonathan Bombulie in the (Pittsburgh) Tribune-Review, “11 of the 18 goals Washington scored against Toronto came on shots fired from within 18 feet of the net.” The Pens are keenly aware of this, of course, and know they need to keep the Caps away from the front of the net as much as possible:

“I think that's the way the playoffs go,” said winger Patric Hornqvist, who makes his living in that area of the ice for the Penguins. “The percentage of the goals scored around the crease in the regular season compared to playoffs, it's way higher. It's tight games. It's hard to find scoring chances out there. If you throw the pucks there, you might get lucky once in a while and get the bounce or a rebound and you can outman their D or something like that and score a goal.

“Around the crease is going to be a big key in this series too, as every series in the playoffs.”

Easier said than done, of course. As Bombulie notes:

The Penguins don't necessarily have the ideal roster to keep the front of the net clean. None of their defensemen would qualify as a bulldozer-type who moves opposing forwards against their will. Injured goalie Matt Murray, with his 6-foot-4 frame and economy of motion, is probably better equipped to handle garbage in front than the athletic, quick-twitch Marc-Andre Fleury.

As a point-of-fact, the Pens’ defensemen that played in the first round are an average of 73.8 inches tall and weigh 205.0; the Caps’ first-round forwards average 74.1 inches tall and 205.8 pounds. So no difference there. At the other end of the ice, however, there’s a larger discrepancy, as Pittsburgh’s 72-inch-tall/192.3-pound average forwards will battle Washington’s 73.4/209.7 defenders. And speaking of “the other end of the ice” and battles...

Add the NHL’s clear-as-mud application of its goaltender interference rules and it’s a safe bet that, at some point, there will be controversy around the crease. Buckle up.

2. Somewhat related to that first point, Pittsburgh converted five of their 15 first-round power play chances, a 33.3 percent success rate. Washington made good on five of their 17 (29.4%). Those are the two best rates from the first round among the teams that are still alive. And, not for nothing, both teams killed off 83.3 percent of the power plays they faced in Round 1. Will special teams be important in Round 2? The Pens sure think so:

“They have a good power play,” Patric Hornqvist said. “We have a good power play. Whoever wins that battle is probably going to win the series.”

Then again, the Caps’ special teams out-performed the Pens’ last time around and it wasn’t enough. So what should we expect from Pittsburgh’s PK? Back to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey:

Expect the Penguins to shade more toward Ovechkin on the penalty kill, but they also need to respect center Nicklas Backstrom, who produced an NHL-high 35 power-play points during the regular season.

Ditto for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, the biggest acquisition any NHL team made at the trade deadline. Shattenkirk’s 27 power-play points during the regular season trailed only Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman (33) among NHL defensemen.

Oh, and don’t forget about T.J. Oshie (or, preferably, do forget about T.J. Oshie).

Over the four regular-season games against the Pens this season, the Caps went 5-for-18 (27.8%) with a man advantage, while Pittsburgh scored on four of their 12 power plays (33.3%). So, yeah, special teams are obviously an important point of focus for both teams heading into Round 2. That said, the Caps would be well-served to focus on something that may be even more important: the discipline to not put themselves shorthanded in the first place - in the first round, the Caps had a minus-1 power-play opportunity differential, while the Pens were plus-3. We’re looking at you, Tom Wilson.

3. Early this morning, ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside wrote the following in a roundtable response to the question, “Which player is ready to break out in the second round?“

I'm going with Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals. The Caps are going to need to fire on all cylinders to match the Pittsburgh Penguins' significant offensive depth, and that means Kuznetsov is going to have to deliver more finish than he did in the first round, when he had a goal and two assists in six games against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kuznetsov showed flashes of brilliance, and linemates Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson more than did their part scoring five times in total. Now, it's Kuznetsov's time.

Later this morning, Burnside wrote this:

That was soon followed by similar announcement from Pierre LeBrun:

ESPN has gutted its hockey coverage (particularly on the reporting side), cutting Joey MacDonald as well in a brutal crop of layoffs. Yesterday, we ran a note on ESPN staff predictions for Round 2. Now, at least 30 percent of those folks are no longer with the network.

Journalism is an increasingly brutal business in this digital age, and this latest round of cuts strikes close for hockey fans. Say what you will about ESPN’s on-air hockey coverage, but their online stuff was top-notch (and Craig Custance, among few others, apparently will still be there, doing great work). Guys like LeBrun and Burnside are too talented to not land on their feet, but today’s news is still shocking and sad for everyone, to varying degrees. Godspeed to all.