2016 NHL playoffs: Penguins vs. Capitals series preview
Regular season recap
Oct. 28: Penguins 3, Capitals 1
Dec. 14: Capitals 4, Penguins 1
March 1: Capitals 3, Penguins 2
March 20: Penguins 6, Capitals 2
April 7: Penguins 4, Capitals 3 (OT)
Penguins: G Marc-André Fleury (concussion, day-to-day); F Beau Bennett (undisclosed, day-to-day); F Scott Wilson (lower body, IR); Kevin Porter (ankle, IR)
Capitals: D Brooks Orpik (upper body, day-to-day)
Keys to a Penguins victory
The Penguins rolled over the Rangers in their opening-round series, dominating the Blueshirts in every aspect of the game. Led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who combined for five goals and 20 points against New York, the Pens averaged a league-high 4.2 goals. They ran four capable lines—10 different forwards scored in the series—and got strong two-way contributions from their bottom six. The third line of Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin clicked for four goals and 12 points. The fourth line of Matt Cullen, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl chipped in four goals and nine points.
The Capitals can't match that depth. They can't match Pittsburgh's speed, either. The Pens make quick decisions, quicker passes and keep their feet moving at all times. The Rangers spent five games eating their dust.
The power-play clicked at a bruising 38.1% against New York, tallying at least once in every game, but it will be up against a penalty kill that stoned the Flyers on 22 of 23 chances (95.8%). The Pens are solid at five-on-five, but they'll need to take advantage of the extra man to set the pace against a dangerous Washington offense. Their own PK will have to stifle both Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson, the Caps defender who scored three power play goals against Philadelphia.
With Marc-André Fleury still battling concussion symptoms, the Pens will rely on 21-year-old Matt Murray between the pipes. The rookie quickly alleviated concerns about his readiness in the opener against the Rangers, allowing just four goals and posting a .955 save percentage while winning each of his three starts. He'll face an entirely different challenge from the top offense in the East, but he comes in knowing he's stared them down once already this season back on April 7.
Keys to a Capitals victory
The Caps cleared a hurdle, both physically and mentally, when they finally knocked the pesky Flyers out in Game 6. With the possibility of an early upset put to bed, they're feeling good about themselves heading into the second round.
The Pens though will provide a completely different challenge. Unlike the Flyers, who were content to lay back and wait for a mistake, Pittsburgh will be relentless on the attack. That puts the pressure on Braden Holtby as the last line of defense. The Vezina Trophy favorite got the job done in the first round, posting a 0.84 goals-against average and .968 save percentage. He's the kind of keeper who can bail his team out of a jam if they're getting outplayed ... then again, so was New York's Henrik Lundqvist. The Pens sent the King to the showers early in both Games 4 and 5, lighting him up for 10 goals on 41 shots. Holtby will have to raise his game to meet the challenge.
Washington boasts a deep and disciplined blue line, but the Caps will miss Brooks Orpik. He's a rock on the ice and an emotional leader in the room. Matt Niskanen and Carlson will log the heavy minutes, but the pressure will be on depth defenders Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to up their games to fill in for the missing vet.
Up front, the Caps have some questions to answer. They managed just two goals in the final three games of the Flyers series, and need to rediscover their touch early if they hope to keep pace. That shouldn't be a problem for the East's top regular-season offense ... but it shouldn't have been against Philly, either. The pressure's on Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored just once in the first round and failed to register an assist after finishing with 44 even-strength helpers (tops in the league) and 57 overall (4th) during the regular season. If Washington is going to outduel Pittsburgh's offense, he has to be a game-changer on the attack. The Caps also need a strong series from Nicklas Backstrom. He turned Philly's Claude Giroux into a non-factor with his two-way play. He may be asked to do the same against Crosby.
Being Caps-Pens, all eyes will be on Ovechkin, a player who's made a career out of finishing second to Crosby. This might be his best chance to change that narrative. Washington needs his goals, of course, but as he showed in the first round he can be a force even when he's not lighting the lamp. His continued commitment to two-way play is key. So is his physical game. If he plays as heavy as he did against Philly, he'll wear Pittsburgh's smaller defenders down before this series is out.
Finally, keep an eye on their even-strength play. The Caps scored just six goals at five-on-five in the first round (only the Flyers, with three, scored fewer). It was a stunning turn for a team that finished second in the regular season with 166 at even strength. They have to find that magic again if they want to get past the Pens.
The Capitals were the best team over the entirety of the regular season but the Penguins, who've won three in a row and 18 of their past 21, are the best team right now. Their speed and depth will be the difference. Pittsburgh in six.