Photo by Brian McNally for The Sports Capitol

Why the Capitals will finally beat the Penguins

BY BRIAN MCNALLY | APRIL 25, 2018

KETTLER ICEPLEX — The Capitals earned a day of rest and that was all after an extended first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Wednesday they were back at work. They have one day to get ready for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who arrived in Washington on Wednesday afternoon. Who knows the next time we’ll see these teams in this position? It is the fourth postseason meeting of the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby era. Don’t assume it will happen again.

The Penguins need no introduction. This crew is basically the same one that won the past two Stanley Cups. Marc-Andre Fleury is gone, but he was really just a guest star in last year’s Washington series. Matt Murray, injured during the series last spring, took the reigns again in the final two rounds and was wonderful. He is back in goal. As a rookie in 2016 he had an excellent .926 save percentage against the Caps in a six-game series win.

If anything, last year’s version of Pittsburgh was weakened by injury. Defenseman Kris Letang did not play. Murray was hurt. Even Crosby missed a game after the infamous collision with Matt Niskanen in Game 3 – and the Penguins won in seven anyway. Why would this year be any different? It might not be. But if it is, here are a few reasons why:

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice….shame on me again.

The Penguins were wildly outshot last spring in their seven-game series win. It didn’t matter. They posted 28 shots on goal or fewer in six of the seven games against Washington, yet they scored 16 even-strength goals. They were relentless capitalizing on the chances they did get off the rush or in front of the net. That wasn’t the case in 2016 when Pittsburgh topped 40 shots twice and 30 shots five times in a six-game series victory.

Such tactics make it hard on a goalie. Braden Holtby had a couple rough games last year that proved costly. This is the benefit of skill. The Penguins don’t need a ton of chances. They have a great mix of stars (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel) and tough wingers (Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary) who know how to finish.

The Caps have started to adopt some of these tactics in 2017-18, though. They focused much more on shot quality than shot totals and it worked. They rode a 9.2 shooting percentage, a high-end power play (22.5 percent, seventh overall) and great goaltending (.925 save percentage) to another Metropolitan Division title despite poor underlying numbers that made advanced stats folks blanche.     

Quotable: Caps goalie Braden Holtby on adjusting to Penguins’ style of play

“The way they play, and I think they still do in some ways, but I think the rest of the league has kind of matched it in some areas of finding different ways to play. They kind of sat back in the D-zone and kind of drown you out and then wait for you to kind of make a mistake and then it’d be boom, 2-on-1, breakaway or something like that. Wait for the grade-A chances instead of just hope chances and I think we’ve learned a lot from that. You can tell by the way we’re scoring goals and the amount of shots and chances this year. I think that’s a good sign that we learned from them. We can use that as another weapon on our side in addition to the other ones we already have.”

Malkin’s status

Pittsburgh’s ultimate trump card is its depth down the middle with Crosby, Malkin and now Derick Brassard anchoring three lines. That’s going to tax any blueline. But Malkin (leg injury) won’t play in Game 1 and that is worrisome for the Penguins. Malkin was a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate after a wonderful season. But he was hurt in Game 5 of the Philadelphia series and didn’t play in Game 6. That tells you how bad the injury is. The Penguins wanted no part of a Game 7 on home ice in a series they had led 3-1. For Malkin not to play means he’s struggling. He hasn’t been seen on the ice since.

Yes, Pittsburgh was without Murray and Letang last spring against the Caps. But they had Fleury as a capable replacement in goal and he was awesome, especially in Game 7. Crosby also missed Game 4 after the Niskanen hit, but that was one game on home ice and he returned for the rest of the series.

Losing Malkin for any extended time in this series alters the calculus at center, where Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov feasted on the Blue Jackets. Brassard is good insurance here, but then the bottom six becomes far less formidable. This is something to watch. Malkin’s left wing, Carl Hagelin, is also out for Game 1 and didn’t even make the trip to Washington.

Quotable: Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen on Pittsburgh’s depth at center

“Their centers are the strength of their team. They have quality people on the wings, too, obviously. But they have some real high-end guys up front, down the middle. Big challenge for our centers. But like I said earlier – it’s going to take a team effort, back pressure and good gaps to try to take away their rush game. We’re going to have to be committed without the puck. They’re a talented group.”

The penalty kill

A great way to neutralize the Penguins is limit that prodigious power play. They led the NHL at 26.2 percent during the regular season. They tied for third in 2016-17 (23.1 percent) with the Caps. Washington was about middle of the pack on the penalty kill (80.3 percent, 15th) this season, but it killed 17 in a row to close the series against Columbus.

And don’t think it was all Holtby. The Blue Jackets managed just 19 shots in those 17 power plays. The Caps did well to retrieve pucks, block shots and together limit Columbus’ zone time. Can that continue against the Penguins? Not really. But remember last year: Washington killed 19 of 22 Pittsburgh power plays in the series. That’s pretty damn good against that group. The Caps will need to stay out of the box, of course, but in a long series the Penguins will get their chances. Washington has to at least make this a draw.

Quotable: Caps forward Tom Wilson on the PK

“We did our job. That’s all you can look at. We did our job in that series but you forget about that and start fresh against a new unit. The threats are going to be coming from different spots than they were against Columbus. It’s going to be a bit of a different structure for us. We’re going to have to change a little bit. We’re not going to play it the same as we played against Columbus. We’ll make small tweaks to it to get ready for Pittsburgh. We did good things that we’ll focus on, but it’s going to be about turning the page and getting ready for a new group of guys to kill against.”

Braden Holtby’s recovery

He did not start a playoff series in net for the first time since 2011. But Holtby’s regular-season struggles were forgotten by the time he entered in relief of Philipp Grubauer to start the third period of Game 2 against Columbus. He allowed the overtime goal in a 5-4 loss, but saved 137 of the 147 shots he faced (.932 save percentage).

The Penguins are a different animal. Have they figured Holtby out? They got him last year, for sure. He had an .887 save percentage, nowhere near good enough. But Holtby still has the second-best save percentage in Stanley Cup playoff history so if he really is back in form he could post the numbers he did against the Penguins in the 2016 playoffs: A .923 save percentage. If he does that, Washington is probably winning the series.  

Quotable: Caps coach Barry Trotz on Holtby

“It gives your team confidence. It gives you sort of a security blanket that you know you’re going to get a save, a timely save, and it allows you to play free. That’s really what it does.”

Star power

The Capitals always have a puncher’s chance against Pittsburgh because they are one of the few teams that has the top-end talent to go toe-to-toe. And it has to concern the Penguins some that all four of Washington’s top offensive players performed well against Columbus. Defenseman John Carlson led with nine points (one goal, eight assists). Alex Ovechkin (five goals, three assists), Nicklas Backstrom (two goals, six assists) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (four goals, four assists) all had eight points. T.J. Oshie, grinding through a lower-body injury, contributed three goals and an assist. It took the Penguins 13 games to beat the Caps the past two seasons. They were better, but not so much that an extended Malkin absence or just so-so play from Murray gets them through.  

Quotable: Alex Ovechkin on why this year is different

“I don’t know. One day, it have to happen. If we want to get success, we have to beat Pittsburgh and move forward. They most experienced team right now in the league. Lots of great players over there, and it’s a huge challenge.”

Quotable: Matt Niskanen asked the same question

“Well, nobody’s been able to beat them. They have a lot of experience, they’re talented. It’s quite the challenge. I think we’re excited for that challenge. Somebody’s going to beat them eventually so let’s get excited about our opportunity that maybe we’re the team to do it.”

Brian McNally is a senior staff writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He is also an award-winning multi-media journalist, who has covered the Redskins, Capitals and Nationals for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times and 106.7 The Fan and major events like the Super Bowl, NCAA basketball tournament, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA playoffs, NFL Combine and NFL Draft.

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