Eastern Conference Round 2 Preview: Penguins vs. Capitals

How the Capitals got there:

 

Braden Holtby led all current playoff goalies with a 0.84 goals-against average, a .968 save percentage and two shutouts after Round 1, and the league’s second-best penalty killing unit continued their dominance in the playoffs, holding the Flyers to just one goal in 24 chances. Even without Brooks Orpik, the Caps were just too deep, too talented, even if the Flyers gave them a little score after making the switch to Michal Neuvirth and winning two straight games.

That little scare shouldn’t be overlooked, however. Despite the Caps’ dominance in the regular season, a small blip on the radar in the playoffs made everyone clamp up and hold their breaths, which means everyone still senses the same kind of mental weakness that has dogged the franchise for years. The Blues and Sharks showed resiliency in the opening round – unfazed and undaunted even when their Stanley Cup-winning opponents were applying the pressure. Can the Caps do that, especially knowing that the Pens may have the psychological advantage with the league’s best player, a Cup banner and tons of momentum?

 

How the Penguins got there:

 

The flightless birds sure can fly. The Penguins offense made a fool of Henrik Lundqvist, whose nightmare season made him look more pauper than king, allowing 15 goals in five games, thanks to a top-notch power-play unit that converted 38 percent of their chances. The Penguins’ decade-long problem of not having enough secondary scoring has been solved by a pair of unlikely heroes: 5-foot-9 speedster Conor Sheary and third-round pick Bryan Rust, both of whom took years to crack the Penguins lineup, a nice change from the team’s tendency to rush their prospects or depend on European imports. (Sergei Plotnikov, anyone?)

 

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The best player of the series is:

This is the ultimate question, isn’t it?! You can’t go wrong with either, but, at this moment, right now, Crosby is the best player heading into the series. He plays a more important position and he’s carried his team for much of second half of the season.

 

The best defenseman of the series is:

This is a tough call between Kris Letang and John Carlson, and like the Sid vs. Ovi debate, there’s no real wrong answer – it just comes down to what people personally prefer. But, Carlson should have the edge here with his better all-round game and should see more minutes this series than he did in Round 1.

 

The best goalie of the series is:

Holtby, and it’s not even close.

 

Why the Caps will exact revenge for 2009:

Because, unlike the previous time, the Caps have the stronger team. The last time the two teams played, the Caps employed an aging (and probably disinterested) Sergei Fedorov, and Alex Semin played more than 20 minutes, so a lot has changed since. Today, the Caps have the better goalie, a deeper defense and an offense that boasts as much talent as the Penguins, but most importantly, can beat teams in a variety of ways. The key will be to maintain discipline and effectiveness on the penalty kill, especially going against the best power-play unit in the playoffs. It’s highly unlikely the Pens’ power play will maintain the same effectiveness against a stronger opponent, but the Caps need to shut it down. Allowing more than one power-play goal per game and the Caps could be in trouble.

But, make no mistake, the Capitals are hungry. Ovechkin is missing a Stanley Cup ring from his bursting trophy case. Barry Trotz is the best coach in the league without a finals appearance, and he’s long overdue. Mike Richards still has a lot to prove, and he’s played the playoff hero numerous times. The team that wins this series will likely be the one that’s more desperate.

 

The Capitals’ X-factor(s):

Evgeny Kuznetsov scored just one goal in the opening round, though not for lack of trying (20 shots, third on the team). But with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin AND Phil Kessel scoring, Kuznetsov has to provide some offensive help. This series will also need late-game heroes, and ‘Mr. Game Seven’ Justin Williams has zero goals in the playoffs so far.

 

Why the Penguins will continue their charge:

It does smell a little like 2009, doesn’t it? After a mid-season coaching change, the Penguins offense is flourishing once again, and their offense is now so good it just might carry them to the final. In what will undoubtedly be a physical and chippy series, both teams will get power-play opportunities, and this is where the Pens have to make good. The Rangers defense was a shell of what it once was; this will be the Penguins’ true test. Of the eight teams remaining, only the Pens have a Cup title in the cap era, and the same core players in 2009 have stuck around (Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury).

 

The Penguins’ X-factor:

How will the Penguins generate offense if they’re stuck in their own end all the time? Letang can’t do everything, and the Caps will try to rough him up a little any chance they can get. Expect plenty of dumping by the Caps, and when Letang goes to retrieve the puck from the corners, that’s why guys like T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson will punish him. That means Olli Maatta has to be the guy Sullivan can trust to play 20, 25, maybe even 30 minutes and beyond if games to go overtime, when he averaged just 18:27 in Round 1.

 

Prediction:

Defense wins championships, right? Capitals in 7.