Once again the Caps are through to the second round... and once again the team that waits for them there is the Pittsburgh Penguins. We look ahead to the rematch and discuss whether this year is finally The Year the Caps defeat their Pennsylvania rivals.
Q1: The focus for the Caps’ brass since being bounced by the Penguins last spring has been on building a team to match the reigning Cup champs, particularly when it comes to forward depth. How successful do you think they’ve been in this quest?
J.P.: I’ll tell you in two weeks.
Seriously, though, they were third in the League in goals-for during the regular season (without sacrificing a thing defensively) and had 11 forwards score double-digit goals, including a trio of 12-plus goal guys who formed a possession-dominant third line and another 30-plus goals from the fourth line. So yeah, I’d say mission accomplished there.
Will that depth show up for the Pens series? Tom Wilson’s (surprising) three goals were the only ones scored by a bottom-six forward against the Leafs, so they’ll need to do better than that. But if the regular season is any indication, there’s reason to believe that they will.
Adam: The Capitals have a great forward corps and it should be able to match the Penguins, at least in terms of depth. The only depth-related thing I’m worried about is whether the third line can turn it’s solid possession into sustained periods of production.
Pepper: The third line kept, if not exceeded, the pace throughout much of the series vs. the Leafs, a team similar in speed and offensive attack to the Pens. In particular, if Lars Eller and his wingers can cycle and battle in the offensive zone like we’ve seen so far, the possession edge is tremendously valuable to neutralize whatever Pittsburgh line they go up against, and maybe pot a few. Takes me back to one of the great -- and offensively productive -- shutdown lines in Caps history of Steve Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern, and Ulf Dahlen. (But don’t remind me of how the 2000 playoffs turned out. Or 2001.)
Tommy: Just to reiterate what everyone else said, the Capitals’ third line this year in comparison to last year is much stronger, especially possession wise. The only initial concern, and I’m not even fully convinced it is a concern considering just how talented the Capitals’ third line is, is how much they will be able to match the Penguins’ speed within the bottom six. Speed is what the Penguins possess, but what does Barry Trotz say to describe Eller? He has size. Now, I don’t think Eller is a slow player by any means, but the clear difference between this year’s edition of the team and last year’s addition is the strength of the third line. And that’s what hurt the Capitals last time these guys met.
But let’s not forget to mention Kevin Shattenkirk. While he may not have had a superb opening series for the playoffs, his offensive ability is second to none. If he’s able to tap into that for this series, that will help out immensely. Not to mention, Dmitry Orlov has been nothing short of outstanding, a different player from last year, and Nate Schmidt has been great as well. This is a better blue line than the Capitals had last year.
Jason: The real speed onus (the name of my forthcoming band) is on Washington’s defense. It was painfully obvious that Brooks Orpik couldn’t hang with Pittsburgh last year, and many of us wonder if he still can. John Carlson had similar footspeed question marks, as does Karl Alzner suddenly, though Nate Schmidt appears to be doing all he can to force Trotz to solve that problem by leaving him in the line-up.
Peerless: As successful as they can be. Managers manage, coaches coach, and players play. The front office has assembled as complete a roster as one could hope for in the salary cap era. We’re past the days of an Oiler or an Islander or a Canadien dynasty. The salary cap makes for more parity, which introduces a measure of randomness (“luck,” if you will) in results and makes injuries a factor, as they could be for the Pens. But the front office has done its job, bolstering the third line in the offseason and adding defensive depth at the trading deadline. It’s time for the coaches to coach and the players to play.
Q2: As much as it’s been Ovi vs. Crosby for over a decade, playoff series are rarely decided by the superstars. So who’s the X-factor for each team this time around?
J.P.: Andre Burakovsky. The Caps have spent the last 12 months trying to mimic, in a lot of ways, the Pens team that eliminated them from the playoffs, most notably the notion that a “top-nine” forward group featuring three scoring lines is the way to win in today’s NHL. Well, critically important to that is, of course, that third scoring line, and that falls on Lars Eller (more of a possession center than a playmaker), Tom Wilson (more of a fourth-line grinder than a goal-scorer, Round 1 notwithstanding) and Burakovsky, the most-talented of the trio by a mile. It’s on him to start producing at this time of year and I think he’s got it in him to do just that.
Adam: It’s gotta be Andre Burakovsky. His boxcars have been good through his first few seasons but his production rates are elite: he ranked 23rd in the league in five-on-five points per 60 minutes of ice time during the regular season. It’s time for that regular season production to translate to the playoffs. Without production from Burakovsky it’s hard to imagine the Capitals winning this series.
Pepper: I’d say Evgeny Kuznetsov. Not that he’s got a low profile, but playoff-wise he’s still below expectations of production, and critical to countering the Pens’ top two lines. He stepped up in the first round and had plenty of stellar opportunities, but his shooting percentage is still painfully low in that small sample size.
Tommy: I agree with Pepper that it will be Kuznetsov. Assuming he goes head to head against Evgeni Malkin, he must win that matchup.
But for the sake of introducing someone new, I’m going with Orlov. While the possession numbers weren’t glowing against Toronto’s top line of Auston Matthews, I’m convinced that the Matt Niskanen-Orlov pairing made all the difference in the world in that series once they were matched up with the top line. Niskanen is as steady as they come, and the Penguins know that. But they haven’t played this version of Orlov yet, and he has to be on top of his game.
For the Penguins, I’m going with Jake Guentzel. With five goals in the opening series, he is the new offensive weapon the Penguins get to play with. He’s slotted alongside Crosby, and if he can keep up the production, he’ll be a nightmare for Washington.
Jason: For the Capitals, I think it’s Orlov. He is the exact prototype (at least, this year’s version of him) of the defenseman that Caps needed last season. Quick, competent, mean. He could go a long way toward shutting down Pittsburgh.
For the Penguins, it’s every single player you’ve never heard of but is randomly incredibly likely to score 5 goals in this series for no reason. I don’t know how Pittsburgh does it, but I want it. If you don’t know how to say a guy’s name, keep an eye on him.
Peerless: I don’t think the Caps get past this round without contributions from Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, but for me the “X-factor” is Kevin Shattenkirk. He did not appear in any of the four regular season games against the Penguins, so his potential impact on a game or series is the great unknown. If he does what he was brought here to do, then things should end pleasantly for the Caps.
For the Penguins, Justin Schultz. With Kris Letang out, Pittsburgh is going to need a credible threat from the blue line on offense and a player who can skate or pass pucks out of trouble in the defensive end. He took on a big load in the latter stages of the season, averaging 23:31 in ice time over his last 22 games. He’s going to have to be a workhorse in both ends for the Penguins.
Q3: What weakness of the Penguins do you think the Caps can exploit, and vice versa?
J.P.: A year ago, I’d have answered this question by pointing to the Pens’ defense and they held up… but they also had Norris-caliber workhorse Kris Letang in the lineup. Without Letang, and Justin Schultz’s emergence notwithstanding, that D corps can be had.
As for the Caps’ vulnerabilities, it’s the same as it was when these teams played that series last spring and the same thing that gave them some trouble in the first round against the Leafs: speed. The Caps need to play their game, not get drawn into a track meet of chance-trading, etc. Easier said than done, perhaps, but both of these points (the teams’ weaknesses) get to where this series is likely to be won or lost: in transition and in the neutral zone.
Pepper: I agree that losing Letang (for more than one game due to suspension) strains the depth on D for Pittsburgh, and that could be exposed over a long series. At the same time, I’m concerned that the Pens can expose the Caps’ pair of Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk much the way the Leafs’ did.
I’m also interested to see if the Pens’ coaching staff continues to evenly distribute ice time on D with Letang’s absence, and if the Caps staff continues to ride the Niskanen-Orlov pair and limit Orpik-Shattenkirk, or likewise revert to a more even distribution like we saw all regular season (successful) and through the first three games of Round 1 (unsuccessful).
Tommy: A Letang-less blue line certainly makes the defense the Penguins weak spot, and they even know that. There’s a reason why they traded for three defensemen at the deadline. This team uses Ian Cole as a top-pairing guy. He’s adequate as a second pairing, but first pairing?
As for the Capitals weakness, it could end up being just overthinking things. Trotz said that he wasn’t that concerned with matching lines in the last series, and it may have hurt the Caps in those first three games. If there ends up being too much tinkering and not enough matching, things could go south. For example, if Alzner is healthy and able to return, does Schmidt really end up coming out? Those are decisions that the Caps will have to face, and if they make one too many decisions incorrectly, it could bite them.
Jason: The Caps have had trouble putting chances on net lately. Like, literally, just hitting the open net. In a series that will surely be decided by the micron width of a single chance, you cannot squander anything. If Pittsburgh can capitalize on the types of chances Washington can’t, it could destroy the Caps.
As for Pittsburgh, this Capitals offense is a nasty, terrifying, monstrous thing. If the Penguins defense can’t hang with this forward corps, it could end up being, wildly unexpectedly, a somewhat short series.
Peerless: I’m going to go off the board on this and say that the Caps can exploit the Penguins’ goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury is a battle-tested veteran, but he hasn’t had many postseason battles in the last few years, and his even-strength save percentage so far this postseason, while good (.933), is in the middle of the pack among 16 goalies appearing in at least three games in the playoffs thus far. This is a goalie who has not carried a team to the second round since 2014. Let’s see how he deals with the grind in this second round.
For the Caps, I don’t think what the Pens can exploit is technical, like the fourth line or team speed, as much as it is mental, the Caps persistent tendency to let teams back into games. It happened in the first round, and it’s got to stop. If the Caps cede momentum to this team, they will have a devil of a time getting it back. That six-goal second period after taking a 3-0 lead in the last game of the season series should be burned into their brains.
Adam: The Penguins defense is porous...especially without Letang. Since Letang’s injury on February 28th only four teams have allowed shot attempts against at a higher rate than the Pens. The Capitals will get their chances and Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t the goalie that he used to be.
Q4: Capitals. Penguins. Playoffs. We’ve seen this movie before… does it get a new ending? Predictions, please.
J.P.: Yep, Caps in six brutal, heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, bowel-shaking games.
Adam: The Capitals will shock us all and win this series in five.
Pepper: Caps in seven. And a series-winning, OT goal call to surpass Dale Hunter’s tally against the Flyers in the annals of franchise history.
Tommy: I think this team possesses a bit more of a killer instinct than last year’s version. While winning in Pittsburgh will be very difficult, I think the Caps can win in six. It’s going the distance, and both teams know it. It’ll be at least six.
Jason: Dude, I don’t know. Pass me a beer.
Peerless: When the puck drops for Game 1 of this series, it will be 23 years to the day since the Caps beat the Penguins in a postseason series. The Caps ended that series in six games, and that sounds good to me this time around.