Like the changing of the seasons, like the tide coming in and going back out again, there is nothing more predictable than the Capitals facing off against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As we count down the hours to puck drop, the Rink crew chats about what lies ahead...
Q1. Who do you think could be the key player for the Caps in this series? Who is the Penguin to keep an eye on?
The Peerless: The obvious pick for the Caps is Braden Holtby, who has struggled in the postseason against this team like no other. But after that, Lars Eller. This is a series in recent years that is especially frustrating in that the Caps have dealt with the top two forward lines reasonably well, but have been pecked to death by the ducks, er...Penguins on the bottom two lines. If Eller can be that guy for the Caps, contributing playmaking and scoring, this could end well for the Caps. For the Pens, I’ve got defenseman Brian Dumoulin. He’s been getting a good helping of minutes (behind only Kris Letang) and has been productive. I think he’s taking a step up in weight class in terms of quality of forward competition in this series. Can he respond to that challenge?
Becca: For me, it’s Matt Niskanen. The Caps’ defense is younger and less experienced, facing an offensive powerhouse in the Penguins, and it’s usually been Niskanen’s job to shut down Sidney Crosby. And while this series could, as it almost always seems to, come down to more than just the stars, stopping Crosby is going to be crucial to the Caps’ ability to move on once and for all. Niskanen has had a somewhat up-and-down postseason so far - he needs to be at his best in this series.
For the Penguins, I’m going with Patric Hornqvist. The dude just always, always seems to find a way to score against the Caps and he’s that horrible combination of highly effective pest and relatively talented hockey player that can really burn you in the playoffs. If the Caps let him take up too much space in front of the net, it doesn’t bode well for Holtby; if they let him take up too much space in their heads, it doesn’t bode well for their ability to stay disciplined. Contain him without giving in to his pesty nature and he can be neutralized.
Jason: I’m gonna say Tom Wilson. Speed kills, unless you have a killer, with speed. That’s Tom Wilson for the Capitals. Last season, a lot of the discussion was around the polarity of “Speed” vs. “Size,” especially as it concerned defensemen Brooks Orpik, Karl Alzner, and Nate Schmidt. Sure, the Nick Backstrom line will always be Washington’s best shut-down line. But Tom Wilson, finally, gives them a truly dynamic player that has the skill to be a contributing offensive weapon, the speed to keep up with Pittsburgh’s fleet-footed forwards, and the size to wreak havoc on some undersized Penguins like Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.
Hobeck: For the Caps, I think it’s Alex Ovechkin. Not because of some hot take about his leadership, intangibles, or what have you, but rather about his speed and finishing. His five goals in the six games of the Columbus series speak for themselves. And even if Pittsburgh allowed four or more goals in three games in their series against the Flyers, the Capitals’ best players will still have to be at their best for them to get this done. General manager Brian MacLellan said last offseason that Ovechkin needed to work on his speed, and he does look like he’s gained half a step this year.
Penguins can’t fly, but we’ve seen that team fly past Washington on the way to the Stanley Cup for the last two years. For Pittsburgh, I look at Jake Guentzel. Four goals in the Penguins’ series clincher was impressive even by the young winger’s already-lofty standards, and that’s before you note that he had 13 points in their six games against Philadelphia. For the Capitals to advance, he and his line of (for now) Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist have got to be silenced.
Kevin: I’m gonna put myself out on a limb here and say Brooks Orpik. No, really. Hear me out. For all the discussion about whether Brooks Orpik was good or not in the first round (I don’t think he was particularly good, boasting a 42.7% CF and 41.3% HDSC), I’ve long trumpeted the philosophy that the underlying numbers are worth a hill of beans in the postseason, given that a seven-game series is generally too short for the expected production evinced by those numbers to kick in. Brooksy managed to exit round one with a favorable tally in on-ice goals, with 4 GF and 3 GA.
Orpik, who has been nothing short of awful all season long, is a sitting duck for Pittsburgh’s incredible speed and skill. Whether it’s by way of a strong showing from Braden Holtby, or some nice shooting percentages from the guys up front, if Orpik can repeat his performance as a net-positive in the goals column, that’s going to go a long way towards the Caps advancing.
Q2. Braden Holtby came in and had a superb performance against the Blue Jackets, but has historically struggled against the Pens. How concerned are you (if at all) about his ability to step up in this series?
The Peerless: Quite a bit, actually. You don’t do something until you do it, and Holtby hasn’t been all that successful against this team. There are times I think the Pens have a vault full of videos of Holtby that they have analyzed like the Zapruder film to find holes. The flip side is that Holtby is of the unflappable school of goaltending, so if anyone can change the script, he can.
Jason: I mean, the whole series comes down to this, doesn’t it? Let’s not kid ourselves: Holtby may not have been the reason the Capitals lost last year against the Penguins, but he sure as hell didn’t do anything to push them over the top to a win. If Holtby can stand on his head and be The Holtbeast - a moniker less earnable by any feat other than defeating the Penguins in the playoffs - the Capitals will win. If he is anything less - if he is even average - the Capitals will likely lose.
Kevin: Whether it’s Holtby’s performance against this team the last two Springs, Holtby’s performance in the regular season that culminated in his losing a job, the fact that Pittsburgh scored 10 goals against Holtby this year in 3 games (only NJ and CBJ scored more, each in 4 games), or the fact that the Pens just dropped 28 goals on their previous opponent in 6 games, there’s a lot more that concerns me than eases me.
Hobeck: His play in the latter stages of the Jackets series, especially Game 5, reminded me of his coming-out party against Boston in 2012. He was all over the crease in a good way, flashing his glove so often and so well that I almost thought I was back in my freshman year of college. He’s as locked in as I’ve ever seen him in the playoffs, so even though his performance - or lack thereof - will be eminently important for the next couple of weeks, don’t bet against his ability to reach that next level.
Becca: Being a Caps fan seems to always be a balancing act between reliving the past and being weirdly optimistic about the future - and that’s where I am with Holtby right now. I agree with Eric that his performance against the Jackets was vintage Holtby, but he has had some rough runs against the Pens - regular season and playoffs - in the past and that will always be in the back of my mind. That said, Matt Murray hasn’t exactly been stellar in the postseason to this point; perhaps it won’t matter if the Caps can take a page out of the Penguins’ playbook and just score their way out of any trouble they may run into.
3. We’ve seen this Capitals-Penguins movie many, many, MANY times… is the 2018 reboot going to be different? Predictions, please.
Becca: This reboot has a twist ending. Caps. In. 7.
The Peerless: This is the scene in the movie, Groundhog Day, in which Phil Connors wakes up next to Rita, the radio is playing a different song, and it’s a bright, sunny morning. Caps in six.
Jason: *unscrews bourbon cap, chugs deeply, gasps for breath, takes another seven swigs* Sorry, what was the question?
Hobeck: Not since Calle Johansson mini-golfed the puck into an empty net has D.C. watched one of its major sports teams (Capitals, Redskins, Nationals, and Wizards) go far in the postseason. In the intervening 20 years, 16 teams have gotten to this “final eight” stage, and 16 have fallen. I don’t buy into the idea of a team or even a city being “due”, because to be blunt, it doesn’t work that way. With all that being said, I’m seeing a Washington team that has played largely superb hockey since last Tuesday and a Penguins team that was legitimately great in a few of their games against the Flyers but streaky at best in others. The Curse of Dan Snyder, as I call it, will end on Wednesday, May 9 at Capital One Arena. Caps in seven.
Kevin: I predicted Columbus in 7, and I like the way that turned out, so Pens in 7.