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Are the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals headed for a first round series?

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The most accurate and immediate way to describe tomorrow’s Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals SuperBowl Sunday game is as a rematch of the 2011 Winter Classic. That being said – and forgive us for being dreamers* – but could that early game also be a preview for a captivating first round series?

If the 2011 playoffs began at this moment, the Penguins would host the Capitals in a fourth vs. fifth seed series. There are justifiable reasons why each team might stay in second place in their divisions, too.

Odds are that you know that Pittsburgh will likely be without Evgeni Malkin’s services for the rest of the season while Sidney Crosby’s return is indefinite, two huge losses that may eventually wound them in their neck-and-neck run against the Flyers. Even after finally besting the Southeast-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday, the Capitals also have the deck stacked against them. They play six of their last seven February contests on the road and face a six-game road trip in March while the Lightning still have eight games left in their mammoth homestand.

(Really, the biggest threat to this first round series might be the sixth-ranked Montreal Canadiens, who only have one less point than the Capitals while owning two more wins.)

With this possibility in mind, here are a few thoughts on this hypothetical series.

Would a first round series be a good thing for the league?

A Pens-Caps first round series would be a great “glass half-full vs. half-empty” barometer for league executives. The optimistic side would be obvious: the league would receive a guaranteed pay-off from the 24/7 documentaries and the years of buzz created by this budding feud. On the other hand, a pessimist will point out the fact that the stakes aren’t as high in a first round match as they would be in, say, the Eastern Conference finals. Of course, an even deeper Debbie Downer would say that the playoffs would lose one of its marquee teams after four to seven games.

How would the Capitals handle the pressure of facing an ‘underdog’ Penguins team?

Even if the Penguins hosted the series, Alex Ovechkin & Company would have to deal with the fact that Pittsburgh would probably go in with a “nothing to lose” attitude since they would play without Malkin. Pundits would likely quip that the Caps just have to win this series and would likely call them “gutless” if they lost. Washington would skate with some added weight on their already-burdened shoulders.

Would HBO’s cameras return?

The NHL would have a lot to gain if they permitted a behind the scenes look of such a playoff series. Surely the two sides would be a little more secretive – and the typical two week shelf life of a playoff series would introduce some interesting obstacles – but can you put a price on the kind of buzz a 24/7 sequel would generate? Obviously, this is the purest of speculation, but it’s a fun thing to think about, isn’t it?

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Anyway, those are a few things that come to mind while pondering the tantalizing possibility of a Pens-Capitals first round series. Feel free to share your two cents in the comments.

*- Don’t get us wrong, it’s beyond-early to say that the Penguins won’t win the Atlantic Division title and the Capitals are out of the hunt for the Southeast crown in 2010-11. Both teams are only three points behind their respective division leaders, which are far from insurmountable margins. In other words, don’t call HBO to set up 24/7: playoff edition just yet.

Game on: Penguins even series with rival Capitals

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The Pittsburgh Penguins will head back home with a split of their second-round series with the rival Washington Capitals.

Former Capitals forward Eric Fehr came back to burn his hold team, as he scored with under five minutes remaining in regulation to help lift the Penguins over Washington with a 2-1 victory in an eventful Game 2 on Saturday. Evgeni Malkin threw the puck toward the net and Fehr was able to re-direct it by Braden Holtby.

Oh, this was an eventful game, indeed.

It started early in the first period with Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik catching Penguins blue liner Olli Maatta with a late and high hit that warranted — at least for now — only a minor penalty for interference. Maatta, clearly in distress following the hit, didn’t play another shift and saw only 31 seconds of ice time in total, as Pittsburgh was reduced to five defensemen for the remainder of the game.

It continued in the third period. Kris Letang was furious after getting called for a trip on Justin Williams, and even more ticked off when the Capitals tied the game on the ensuing power play.

For two periods, the Capitals couldn’t get much going. Only four of their players had registered a shot on goal through 40 minutes, while the Penguins held the edge in that department and held the lead.

Washington came out with more jump in the third period, testing rookie netminder Matt Murray with 14 shots in the final 20 minutes. But the Penguins got the late goal to break the deadlock.

Video: Penguins’ Letang was furious after Capitals tie up Game 2 with power play goal

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Kris Letang watched from the penalty box as the Washington Capitals tied up Game 2 with a power play goal in the third period. The Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman was called for tripping after he appeared to muscle Justin Williams off the puck as he entered the zone.

Letang let his disagreement with the call be known at the time, and was furious after the Capitals capitalized on a goal from Marcus Johansson.

The Capitals started the period down a goal and being outshot 28-10 by the Penguins, who need a win to even the series.

Also, it seems this is worth mentioning:

Video: Hagelin goes top shelf to give Penguins the lead in Game 2

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In their quest to even the series, the Pittsburgh Penguins had done a nice job through two periods of suffocating the Washington Capitals, while gaining the lead on a beautiful goal.

Carl Hagelin took advantage of a vast amount of space that opened up in front of the Washington net, finishing off a nice pass from Nick Bonino, burying his shot just under the cross bar on the glove side of Braden Holtby.

Through two periods, the Penguins were outshooting Washington 28-10. Only four Capitals players — Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Matt Niskanen — had registered shots on goal.

Video: Orpik penalized after catching Maatta with late, high hit

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The Pittsburgh Penguins were without defenseman Olli Maatta for most of the first period of Game 2 after he was on the receiving end of a high, late hit from Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik.

The hit occurred early in the first period, well after Maatta had gotten rid of the puck on a rush into the Washington zone.

Maatta, who nearly fell over as he tried to stand back up, was in obvious distress as he went to the dressing room. Orpik was given a minor penalty for interference on the play.