Photo: NBC Sports Washington
The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will clash in the second round for the third consecutive season. The Penguins beat the Capitals in six games in 2016 before beating them again in 2017 in seven games. They have won nine of 10 postseason meetings all-time against Washington. The two teams split four games this season. Washington won 4-1 at Capital One Arena on November 10 and 3-1 at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on April 1. Pittsburgh won 3-2 in the first meeting between the two teams, back on October 11 at Capital One Arena, and 7-4 on February 2 at home.
After the Capitals finished the regular season 12-3-0 in their final 15 games of the regular season, they fell into an 0-2 series hole against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1. They bounced back nicely, winning the next four games to eliminate the Blue Jackets. They will bring that winning streak, their longest postseason winning streak in franchise history, into Game 1 vs. the Penguins at Capital One Arena later this week.
John Carlson carried his spectacular regular season performance, when he had 15 goals and 68 points, into Round 1, where he led the Capitals with eight assists and nine points. His nine points in Round 1 were tied for fifth in the NHL with Philadelphia Flyers’ center Sean Couturier. Behind Carlson, winger Alex Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov each had eight points in six games, which tied each other for seventh in the NHL. Ovechkin led the Capitals with five goals in Round 1, including two in Game 6 against Columbus. He is tied for third in the NHL with Couturier and Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov in the goal scoring department. Kuznetsov had four goals in Round 1, which was good for second behind Ovechkin on the team.
Washington enters this series with the No. 1 ranked power play in the postseason, converting on 33.3% of their power play opportunities in Round 1. After scoring five goals on 13 opportunities (38.5%) in the first two games of the series, Washington has cooled down on the man advantage but still scored at least one power-play goal in each game in the series against Columbus. They only scored on four goals on of 14 opportunities (28.6%) in the last four games of the series. T.J. Oshie and Ovechkin shared the team lead with three power-play goals and were tied for second in the NHL in power-play goals with Lightning forward Alex Killorn. Carlson scored eight of his nine points in the series on the man advantage, which leads the NHL. Backstrom was second in the league with six power-play points. Ovechkin was tied for third with five points on the power play with Boston Bruins’ defenseman Torey Krug. Oshie was tied for fifth with four points on the man advantage.
After sitting dead last in the league with an average of 29 shots per game, Washington leads the NHL with 37.3 shots per game, 1.9 more than the Nashville Predators, the second best team in terms of shots per game in the playoffs.
Washington killed the last 17 Blue Jackets’ power plays of the series after allowing four goals on seven shorthanded opportunities to start the series.
Braden Holtby regained the starters net with four consecutive wins after Philipp Grubauer started Games 1 and 2 against the Blue Jackets. Holtby replaced Grubauer at the beginning of the third period of Game 2 after Grubauer allowed eight goals on 49 shots through the first two games. Holtby responded by stopping 127 of 137 shots he faced during the remainder of the series, which was good for a .932 save percentage. He also had a goals-against average of 1.92 in the Blue Jackets series. Grubauer started the series after he went 15-7-2 with a 1.99 goals against average and a .935 save percentage in his final 30 games of the regular season. Those numbers were the lowest goals-against average and the highest save percentage among goaltenders with at least 30 appearances during that time frame. Meanwhile, Holtby had a .907 save percentage and a 2.99 goals against average in the regular season when he went 34-16-4. It marked the worst season of his career and the first time he failed to reach 40 wins since 2013-14. Holtby went through a 1-5-2 stretch from February 11-March 6 with a save percentage of .851 in that span. Lifetime against Pittsburgh, Holtby is 8-9-2 with a .911 save percentage and a 2.90 goals against average. He has been pulled in each of his last two regular season starts in Pittsburgh, allowing at least five goals in each game. Holtby recorded his 200th career NHL win against Pittsburgh on November 10, when he made 27 saves in a 4-1 win. Grubauer started the final meeting of the regular season against Pittsburgh and made 36 saves on 37 shots on April 1. It marked his first career start against Pittsburgh.
Since falling to the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers in five games of the 2015 Eastern Conference First Round, Pittsburgh has won nine consecutive playoff series and are the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since 1997-98 when the Detroit Red Wings did it. They are aiming to become the third team to “three-peat” since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-1983. They defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round in six games and won all three games at Wells Fargo Center by a combined score of 18-6, including 10-1 in Games 3 and 4.
The Penguins had three players in the top-10 leading scorers. Evgeni Malkin, who is currently day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, led the Penguins and was fourth in the league behind Edmonton Oilers’ center Connor McDavid (108), Flyers’ forward Claude Giroux (102), and Kucherov (100) in scoring. He is also considered by many to be a Hart Trophy favorite as the league’s MVP after racking up his most points since the 2011-12 season when he had 109 and won the Hart and the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer. Malkin also scored 42 goals in the regular season, which was fourth in the NHL behind Ovechkin (49), Winnipeg Jets’ winger Patrik Laine (44), and Vegas Golden Knights’ center William Karlsson (43). Malkin had two goals and four assists (including two goals and two assists on February 2) in four games against the Capitals this season. Phil Kessel tied Los Angeles Kings’ center Anze Kopitar for seventh in the NHL with a career-high 92 points and was 11th in the NHL with a career-high 58 assists. Kessel had three goals and four assists in four games against Washington this season and had two goals and three points against the Capitals on February 2. After leading the NHL with 44 goals last season, captain Sidney Crosby was 10th in the NHL with 89 points and was only one of eight players in the NHL who had at least 60 assists in the regular season. Crosby just had three assists and was a -4 in four games against Washington this year.
Crosby, the back-to-back Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, and forward Jake Guentzel share the NHL lead with 13 points in the playoffs. Crosby had two goals and seven points against the Capitals in the second round last year despite missing a game due to a concussion. Guentzel led the Penguins with 13 goals in the playoffs last year and has tallied 19 goals and 34 points in 31 career playoff games. He had four goals and nine points in the seven-game second-round series against Washington a year ago. He tallied four goals and five points in Game 6 vs. the Flyers to help the Pens punch their ticket to Round 2.
The Penguins lost a lot of pieces that guided them to a Stanley Cup the past two seasons such as forwards Nick Bonino (Nashville), Matt Cullen (Minnesota) and Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay) and defensemen Ron Hainsey (Toronto), Ian Cole (Columbus), and Trevor Daley (Detroit). They also lost goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who arguably stole the series against the Capitals last season, to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. The Penguins’ losses in the past year have opened holes on defense (they allowed 3.02 goals per game: 12th most in the NHL and most in among all playoff teams and were 17th in the NHL and 13th among all playoff teams with an 80% penalty killing efficiency.)
The Penguins tied the Florida Panthers for first in the NHL with an average of 34.4 shots per game and led the NHL with a 26.2% power play efficiency this season. The second best power play, the Toronto Maple Leafs, had a 25% power play efficiency this season. They averaged 3.29 goals per game in the regular season, good for third in the NHL. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning (3.54) and Winnipeg Jets (3.33) averaged more goals per game than the Penguins. In the postseason, they have averaged the highest goals per game average in the NHL (4.67). The Capitals are second (4) in that department. The Penguins have also given up the fewest shots per game average (24.7) in the postseason.
Matt Murray will be in the Pittsburgh net. After winning the Stanley Cup twice as a rookie with the Penguins, Murray had a .911 save percentage and a 2.20 goals against average in the first round. He recently went through a stretch of 225:15 where he did not allow a goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs spanning from the 26:52 mark of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators last year to 19:23 of Game 2 against the Flyers this year. Murray had some family and injury issues throughout the season and was only limited to 49 games. In those 49 games, Murray recorded a 27-16-3 record with a save percentage of .907 and a goals-against average of 2.92. In his career against Washington in the regular season, he is 4-4-0 in eight appearances with a save percentage of .882 and a goals-against average of 3.66.
Capitals vs. Penguins Highlights From the Regular Season
By Harrison Brown