Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
This is the fourth and final musing during the Capitals’ bye-week, which takes a closer look at the most challenging opponent the Caps may face in the postseason; more specifically, that team from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
While we are not looking past any of the potential Eastern Conference playoff opponents — The Caps should expect a battle from each one of them — it’s the Pittsburgh Penguins that are most likely the primary hurdle in the Caps’ quest to lift the Stanley Cup.
Those Pesky Pens
The 2016-17 Caps-Penguins regular season series ended over four weeks ago in mid-January, but don’t bet against these two powerhouses facing one another in the playoffs.
In the Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom era, Pittsburgh has beaten Washington both times they’ve played against each other in the playoffs, including the 4-2 win for the Pens last spring. Let’s take a closer look at the Penguins, and then at the changes which have occurred since that series that might make a difference if they do play each other again in April and/or May.
Most of the Capitals’ current team were on the ice for the Penguins’ even strength goals in the games Pittsburgh won during the playoffs, and the Capitals experienced a broad breakdown (in other words, it wasn’t just a few Caps players that struggled). In particular, the Capitals seemed unable to stop the Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel line no matter who was on the ice. While Kessel is having another strong year, joining Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as key offensive leaders, the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel trio has been unable to regain their chemistry. This is due in part because they’ve not played a lot as a threesome, and it’s unclear if they will be reunited. The Penguins’ winger depth is being tested as Hagelin is out with a concussion, and Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust are injured too. Scott Wilson (24-years old), Jake Guentzel (22) and Josh Archibald (24) have been called up from the AHL and have filled in ably. Chris Kunitz, Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Cullen and former Cap Eric Fehr continue to play key roles and provide solid depth. And of course, there is Patric Hornqvist (my least favorite player) and a player some consider to be dirty after his shot to the head of T.J. Oshie in the last game between the two teams.
On Pittsburgh’s blueline, Kris Letang has missed 18 games to injury, but hasn’t missed a game since the end of January. Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz anchor the other two defensive pairings. Like Holtby, goalie Matt Murray is one of the top goaltenders in the league and has proven he has what it takes to help a team win the Stanley Cup. Outside of the need to address some injuries with younger players, it’s basically the same cast of characters as last season for Pittsburgh; General Manager Jim Rutherford could potentially add another player by the trade deadline if he feels some extra depth would benefit the team.
Along a slightly longer horizon, I hope Marc-Andre Fleury does not agree to waive his no-trade clause so the Pens are forced to protect him in the expansion draft (even though I don’t think this will happen).
Remedy and Response
Some of the changes the Capitals have made that might help them this time around in the playoffs include:
1. The acquisition and integration of center Lars Eller and winger Brett Connolly over the summer, replacing veterans Mike Richards and Jason Chimera respectively. The two newcomers have worked well with Andre Burakovsky, making it important that Burakovsky fully recovers from his recent injury.
2. An even spread of ice time and offensive production among the four lines; has benefited the energy and health of the entire roster, and Brooks Orpik has played much better in particular (Orpik missed an extensive amount of time last season due to an injury).
3. Better implementation of a defense-first and more conservative approach to puck possession has also resulted in better offensive chances too; to me, this has made the biggest difference when comparing the Capitals of this year to last year. The Caps need Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, and all members of the first two forward lines to show consistent commitment to this approach because, well, it works. The Caps also need to maintain their health because the team has a high degree of chemistry and success implementing this approach when their 18 skaters are able to go (just compare the games in 2017 when John Carlson and Burakovsky could play to the games when either could not)
4. Furthermore, when the Caps play consistently, they seem to sport an “enough is enough” attitude and often crush the competition standing in their way
5. The Capitals have just added right-handed defenseman Tom Gilbert; a move Capitals analyst Alan May had been advocating and he mentioned recently that he has not ruled out just yet that the Capitals won’t add a similar player before the deadline. This is just more depth.
The road to the Stanley Cup will be paved by the team that plays technically and tactically strong, maintains stamina and a killer instinct, and can play fast when needed and get a little fortunate at times. Maybe the Hockey Gods won’t have the Caps and Pens collide this spring, but I wouldn’t count on it. Instead, I’m anticipating a head-on collision in which the Caps beat the Pens. Rock the Red everyone!
By Tim Foisie