For the third season in a row, the Capitals and Penguins will meet in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Pittsburgh has won the previous two highly competitive postseason series on their way to back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Washington won the Metropolitan finishing five points ahead of the defending champs, but come into this series as underdogs as the Penguins have owned the Capitals in the postseason, winning nine out of 10 playoff series. Washington’s lone victory came in 1994.
Over the past three seasons, the Capitals and Penguins have been the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference. That being said, they have seemingly switched playing styles. The Pens have become a team that relies purely on scoring and occasional dominant goaltending to win games, while the Caps have focused on becoming more well-rounded.
The two split their season series with two wins apiece. Let’s take a look at how this match-up between arch-rivals breaks down.
How they got here
Washington: After dropping the first two games of the series in overtime, the Capitals won four straight to defeat the Blue Jackets. The offense was firing on all cylinders, but defense and staunch goaltending were ultimately the deciding factors.
Pittsburgh: The Penguins needed six games to knock off the injury-riddled Flyers. Their offense flourished, particularly Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, but their defense and goaltending left more to be desired.
Washington: Despite losing a considerable amount of talent last offseason, the Capitals continue to have one of the most dynamic forward groups in the NHL. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov have led the way on offense for the team this postseason. Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller have both produced at a high level as well. The key for the Capitals in this series will be to continue getting production from the third and fourth lines.
Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel have put on a clinic this postseason, as both players lead the NHL in playoff goals (6) and points (13). The Penguins have the deepest forward group in the NHL — when healthy — with players such as Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust and Derick Brassard.
Advantage: Pittsburgh, when healthy. These two teams are stacked in terms of offense, but the Pens have a little more firepower than the Caps this season.
Washington: The Caps have been solid defensively in the playoffs. John Carlson was one of the best two-way defensemen in the first round and Dmitry Orlov showed signs of greatness as well. Playoff veterans and former Penguins, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, returned to form against the Blue Jackets after struggling late in the season. The two defensemen that Pittsburgh will look to exploit are Christian Djoos and Michal Kempny, who both had a fantastic first round, but the Penguins are a completely different animal.
Pittsburgh: Other than Justin Schultz, the Penguins defense was inconsistent in the first round all season. Oli Maatta and Kris Letang have not looked sharp this postseason. The biggest difference between this year’s Pens defensive core and ones of the past is that they uncharacteristically make a lot of glaring mishaps that continue to cost them.
Advantage: Capitals, but not by much. Defense is not the strong suit of either of these teams.
Washington: Braden Holtby has been excellent since coming into the series against Columbus in the third period of Game 2. The former Vezina trophy winner is 4-0 with a .932 save percentage.
Pittsburgh: Murray had a .911 save percentage and 2.20 GAA with two shutouts in the first round. The 23-year-old netminder looked brilliant at times but shaky at others and struggled to put together two strong performances in a row against the Flyers.
Advantage: Washington, purely based on this postseason. However, both goaltenders are capable of stealing a game, let alone a series.
Washington: They had the best power play in the first round, going 33.3 percent (9-for-27), including 35.3 percent (6-for-17) in three home games, while scoring at least one power-play goal in all six games against Columbus.
Pittsburgh: Statistic-wise the Penguins’ better special teams unit was their penalty kill in the first round. Yes, you read that right. The Pens were 90.5 percent effective on the PK against Philly, while their power play was only 20.0 percent.
Advantage: Even. Both have two complete and dynamic special teams units. Both teams desperately need to be disciplined.
Washington: Burakovsky underwent minor surgery and could be back later in the series.
Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin (lower body) and Carl Hagelin (upper body, likely a concussion) will both be absent for at least Game 1 of the series. Malkin traveled to DC with the team, but Hagelin did not
Washington: Lars Eller. The third-line center must outwork Derick Brassard and the stellar Penguins third line for the Caps to come out on top in this series.
Pittsburgh: Matt Murray. He has the capability to single-handedly put the Penguins in prime position to win each game.
Washington in six. Third time’s the charm for the DC faithful as this year’s Capitals team is calm and collected. They will finally get past Pittsburgh and make the Eastern Conference Finals.