In the 2016 version of the Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins second round playoff series, two things stood out for the Capitals, a positive and a negative factor.
The positive was the play of the Capitals’ top line against Sidney Crosby. In that series, Crosby was held to just two assists in the six games. Meanwhile, Nicklas Backstrom recorded four assists, while T.J. Oshie managed to score five goals and added an assist of his own.
Success against the Penguins has come naturally for that duo. Since joining the team for the 2015-16 season, Oshie has scored 11 goals and nine assists in just 15 games against the Penguins. Oshie credits a lot of the production towards the simple motivation of playing against a rival. Plus, considering he’s consistently gone against Crosby in these matchups, he knows he has a big job to complete each time he takes the ice.
“You get extra motivation from that, kinda the game within the game,” Oshie said. “Last year, the puck found the net for me, hopefully [this year] it’ll do the same. I just have to get it there though.”
Backstrom found success in the possession battle against Crosby during last year’s playoff round. And in limited time against Crosby this season, Backstrom again had the upper hand in the matchup, both in the possession department and on the scoreboard (a small part of Backstrom’s big season against Pittsburgh):
Backstrom has a bit of confidence in his team this year because he has full trust in every line. While his own line may be relied on a bit more for offense and may play a larger role in the team’s overall success, any line is more than capable of contributing.
“I think this year we’ve really been producing on a different level than last year,” Backstrom said. “I feel like we rely on everybody, not just a couple of [people]. I think that is why we can do better this year.”
That’s important for this year’s version of the Capitals, because that was the negative aspect of the team in last year’s playoff series. The Penguins’ storied third “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel tore up the Capitals’ third line, in large part due to Washington’s reliance on third-line center Mike Richards, who simply was not the offensive or defensive threat he once was. That, in part ,allowed Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel to combine for five goals at even strength. Their seven, five and six points, respectably, led the Penguins for the most in the series.
But now the team has Lars Eller, a player they are confident can play strong on both ends of the ice.
“He’s a very strong player, he goes to the hard areas,” Backstrom said. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s a tough game or we’re up 5-0, he goes in. He’s a skilled player willing to do the hard work. He’s a great guy to have on this team.”
The Penguins’ bottom six is still considered a primary strength of their team. While the “HBK” line no longer exists, Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary and Bonino possess speed and skill within the Penguins’ third line.
Hagelin has been out since March 10 with a lower body injury, but he reportedly took to the ice today in a non-contact jersey, suggesting he may return to the lineup soon. He would likely replace Wilson on that third line, and between he, Bonino and Sheary, that may be the quickest bottom-six line in the NHL.
Eller said that he is very much looking forward to the challenge of facing off against that third line. He’s fully aware that he was brought in specifically to fill a need for the Capitals, and even more specifically for this matchup against the Penguins. Eller knows that the Penguins’ third line serves as an asset, but he knows his own line does as well.
“I like to believe that it’s one of our strengths too,” Eller said of the third lines in this series. “They had some big goals from that third and fourth line, and they have a lot of experience too. They’re a good team, but so are we.”
To say the Capitals are eager for this series seems to be a bit of an understatement. Oshie said that you don’t need much more motivation in a series that features a team that knocked you out of the playoffs just last year. The Capitals recognize that they are already facing one of the best team’s the NHL has to offer in just the second round of the playoffs, and they will work hard to come out on top.
“We were disappointed last year,” Backstrom said. “First thing you thought was coming back and playing them again, and here we are. It’s not a surprise. It’s going to be a good matchup. They’re a good team, Stanley Cup champs, so it’ll be a really good matchup. We’re very excited about it.”
But what will it take to win the series? Last year, Backstrom believed that the series really could have gone either way because of how tight it was at times. He cited that in Game 1, he didn’t think the Capitals played all that well, but they were still able to squeak out an overtime win. Backstrom said that he hopes the Capitals come out a little bit faster out of the gates in this series on home ice in Game 1.
But Oshie identified another important factor last time these two teams met that he believes cost them the series. And if the Capitals are able to flip the script this year, it may mean all the difference in the world.
“I think it comes down to whoever is going to play their game the best and for the longest amount of time,” Oshie said. “Last year, I think they played better, longer than we did. They played their game more than we did, and I think it showed in the results. [We need] to change that this year. We understand it’s going to be a big task, but mostly for us, it’s just focusing on our game.”