2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals Prospectus: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals Prospectus: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals
M.D. Wright

Pittsburgh Penguins (M2) vs. Washington Capitals (M1)
Another renewal of the longtime utter domination rivalry between these two. The Caps knew that they would likely need to go through the Pens in order to advance through the Eastern playoffs and onto the Stanley Cup, and here we are. In showing that they knew this, they went out and upgraded their third line by acquiring Lars Eller from Montreal and signing Brett Connolly in the offseason. Their fourth line, centered by Jay Beagle and flanked by Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson remains the best in the NHL.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Nicklas Backstrom (Alex Ovechkin/T.J. Oshie) and Kuznetsov (Justin Williams/Andre Burakovsky) lines to get it done so that there isn’t the amount of pressure on the bottom six to score. Pittsburgh’s bottom six carried the Pens vs. Washington last year, while Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby were largely shut down.

The Caps have confidence in Braden Holtby, who got better as the series went on in the first round versus Toronto. He was still shaky at times, however. And his five-hole still remains an issue. Holtby needs to be better. Both for the Caps to advance, and to shake the growing reputation of being a playoff choker. The Caps still cannot compete with the Pens’ overall speed, but they have upgraded their defence by moving up speedy puck rusher Nate Schmidt and acquiring power play quarterback Kevin Shattenkirk for forward Zach Sanford.  Shattenkirk has been good — not great — but he has helped create balance on the Caps’ power play. John Carlson does not always have to be the one to set up Backstrom down low, or Ovechkin in his “office” on the left wing. Overall, the Caps “D” is the best in the league and, minus the calcified Brooks Orpik, the best overall pairing of Matt Niskanen and Dmitri Orlov provides Washington with coverage on the back end, and a puck rusher with a heavy shot in Orlov. Orpik will have troubles with the Pens’ speedy bottom six. Barry Trotz will utilize last change expertly to avoid having Orpik on the ice at the same time as the Crosby and Malkin lines, so the speed of the Pens’ bottom six vs. Orpik and Shattenkirk will bear watching.

Pittsburgh caught a bad break at the onset of their series with Columbus. Down went Matt Murray. It was unfortunate. Marc-Andre Fleury did the job, but in reality, the Blue Jackets aren’t all that skilled. He will be under the gun against the Caps, who had to pull out every stop — maybe to their benefit — against the young and highly game Maple Leafs. Fleury is not what he used to be. Anyone who suggests otherwise is a fool.

Image result for ovechkin fleury

The key here is the absence of Kris Letang due to injury. This is pivotal. He had a direct hand in two game-winning goals against Pittsburgh last spring. The Pens don’t really have anyone who is a legitimate offensive threat on the back end. The key will be for Washington to get pucks in deep, work the boards and pressure the Pittsburgh defence in order to set up a forecheck and slow the Pens’ open ice game. In the zone, the Caps have as good of a chance as ever to beat Pittsburgh, but the aforementioned must occur with regularity, because Washington still isn’t going to compete with the overall speed of players like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Connor Sheary and Scott Wilson. Never mind Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel. Will we see Carl Hagelin make his return from injury in this series?

We’ll make a call here based upon the assumption that Holtby’s strong finish to the Leafs series carries over. The Caps don’t have to worry about Letang (or anyone in his absence) jumping up and creating passing and shooting lanes, which killed Washington so frequently in game-winning situations last year. If they don’t do it now, the Caps as we know them are finished. Cap hell awaits. As does the expansion draft. The urgency and desire for retribution should be enough to get them through here, as the Pens aren’t exactly playing their best lineups. Take nothing from the Columbus series. The Jackets only had one line working; and that wasn’t even consistent from game to game. Trotz rolls four and they have all shown the scoring touch at times in the playoffs. This should be the difference. It won’t be easy.



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