If three consecutive Pittsburgh Penguins – Washington Capitals series translate to the original “Star Wars” trilogy, then Caps fans might look at 2017 as “The Empire Strikes Back.” All that promise ended with darkness … although at least no one lost a hand.
Could this be the year that we see the Capitals celebrating surreally, as if surrounded by ewoks?
After winning the Presidents’ Trophy two seasons in a row only to fall to the Penguins, Alex Ovechkin & Co. still managed to win the Metro. Even so, this team lost a bunch of supporting cast talent during the 2017 off-season, and it showed in many of their stats.
This is as close as we’ve gotten to the Capitals being an underdog on paper, not just in the narratives. Will this group finally be able to overcome the hurdle of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the dynastic (empire?) Penguins?
In other words, with lowered expectations, could there be a new hope?
We won’t need to wait long for the next chapter to begin, as you can watch Game 1 on NBCSN tonight. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. ET; here’s the livestream link.
Penguins: Jake Guentzel‘s Game 6 outburst was such a surge, he’d make a great spokesman if they rebooted Surge Cola again. He scored four consecutive goals to turn that contest on its head, and totaled five points just in that contest. It’s not like that was a one-night thing, either; Guentzel and Sidney Crosby sport matching outputs so far: six goals, seven assists for 13 points in just those six games. (They even have identical shooting percentages: their six goals came on 17 SOG, giving them 35.3 shooting percentages, which even make William Karlsson blush.)
To a lesser but still impressive extent, guys like Kris Letang are showing up for Pittsburgh, too. Letang collected three assists in Game 6, and six of his seven playoff points came in the last four contests of the Philly series.
Capitals: The most important surge is probably that of Braden Holtby, who’s been playing at a high level since getting his starting job back.
Other big names were productive against Columbus. John Carlson continues to inspire John Carl$son jokes, as he followed up a career-best regular season by leading the Caps in points with nine (one goal, eight assists). Alex Ovechkin scored twice in Game 6 and had a great series with eight points overall. Nicklas Backstrom did Nicklas Backstrom things.
The most heartening sign might be the assertive play of Evgeny Kuznetsov. Beyond the nice production (four goals, four assists), Kuznetsov wasn’t shy about firing the puck, registering 28 SOG, second only to Ovechkin’s 33. Barry Trotz must be pleased.
Penguins: Sometimes it’s difficult to separate cold streaks from “not playing on the same line as stars” in Pittsburgh.
With that disclaimer out there, Conor Sheary (zero goals on 11 SOG) and Tom Kuhnhackl (zero points, just three SOG) have been quiet. Jamie Oleksiak seems to be in low regard lately. After averaging 17:24 TOI since being traded to Pittsburgh during the regular season, Oleksiak is averaging just 11:51 minutes per night during the playoffs.
Capitals: Washington received some nice contributions from depth guys Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler Stephenson, making quiet series from Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana more glaring. Both players generated 27 points during the season and just one assist apiece versus the Blue Jackets.
If something happens to Holtby, you have to wonder where Philipp Grubauer‘s head is at, too.
Penguins: Let’s not forget that it was Marc-Andre Fleury, gestures and all, who played incredibly well in helping the Penguins best the Capitals during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Matt Murray‘s experienced an up-and-down season as the unchallenged top goalie, and those peaks and valleys carried over to the playoffs. Murray only managed a .907 save percentage during the regular season and .911 in the postseason. Not great.
On the other hand, he’s been a big-game performer essentially from day one. If nothing else, his resume argues that he can be counted upon.
Capitals: Holtby is off to a fantastic start to the postseason, going 4-1-0 with a phenomenal .932 save percentage. Of course, he briefly lost his job due to an unusually stormy regular season, so it’s dangerous to pencil in “Best Holtby” even after that strong showing.
Fair or not, people will ask if the Penguins are “in his head,” particularly if the series gets off to a high-scoring start. Holtby really wasn’t awful in his previous duels with the Penguins, but he nonetheless fell short both times. Pittsburgh’s offensive arsenal can make just about any goalie flounder, let alone one who has some baggage of past defeats.
(Grubauer had a great regular season and a rocky postseason, so he’s basically the opposite of Holtby. For all we know, a cleaner slate could be an asset … but the Capitals don’t want it to get to that point.)
Penguins: During the season, the Penguins had a possibly historically lethal power play and a mediocre PK.
They connected on a healthy 20 percent of their opportunities against Philly, but it was Pittsburgh’s penalty kill that really came through, as the Flyers PP really let them down.
Both of these teams have managed dangerous power play units, both during 2017-18 and during their recent histories.
Capitals: John Tortorella & Co. had no answer for Ovechkin’s trips to “his office,” and the other weapons on Washington’s still-mighty power play. The Capitals (easily) topped all playoff teams with nine power-play goals, converting on one-third of their opportunities. They won the special teams battle handily, as they only allowed four PPG and were perfect through the final four games of the series.
During the regular season, Washington was middle-of-the-pack on the PK and ranked seventh with a power play success rate of 22.5 percent.
Penguins: The Penguins have, essentially, been a possession juggernaut since Mike Sullivan took over. During the bleaker moments of the 2017-18 season, Pittsburgh was doomed by bad luck, whether it was poor shooting, Swiss-cheese goaltending, or both.
Those numbers leveled out, and with that, the Penguins took off since the calendar turned to 2018. Pittsburgh hogged the puck on a healthy level against the Flyers, too. The Penguins stand as the more impressive possession team on paper.
Capitals: By a variety of possession metrics, the Capitals were underwhelming, if not downright bad, during the regular season. That said, they showed some signs of improvement late in 2017-18, and were neck-and-neck in possession stats with Columbus, especially if you correct for when the score was within one goal.
The bottom line, though, is that Washington is not a Corsi monster. Ideally, Holtby will continue to play well, and Washington will manufacture high-danger shots. They managed an above-average PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage, which is viewed as a decent shorthand for luck) during the regular season, even with hit-or-miss goaltending.
Penguins: This is the Penguins we’re talking about; of course there are significant injury concerns. Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin have already been ruled out for Game 1, with Malkin’s health being an enormous concern. Pittsburgh’s dealt with a real scare for Kris Letang (he seems fine, or at least playoff-fine?) and also saw Patric Hornqvist miss some reps against the Flyers.
With Pittsburgh aiming for a “threepeat,” they are likely dealing with plenty of wear and tear that doesn’t keep people out of the lineup. All things considered, avoiding a Game 7 was a real bonus.
Capitals: Generally speaking, the Capitals remain flabbergastingly sturdy. Washington’s training staff might actually be wizards. They continued their amazing run of health for another season:
That said, this is a hockey team, so of course there are issues. Andre Burakovsky‘s out week-to-week, likely missing the remainder of the postseason. T.J. Oshie appears to be banged up, too.
X-Factor for Penguins
How can it not be Malkin’s health?
If the star center is only going to miss Game 1, or even just the first two games in Washington, the Penguins might be able to steal a win or two on the road. If he misses significant time or simply can’t play anywhere near an optimal level, the Penguins might fall short of the Caps’ firepower.
X-Factor for Capitals
Most of the time when people bring up “the yips” and “clutchness,” I roll my eyes. Sometimes it’s downright fun to play on those tropes/misconceptions.
The Capitals are a pretty special case, here, so you have to wonder if they’ll maintain morale if things get hairy.
This team has been lampooned for much of Ovechkin’s prime for falling short in the postseason, particularly against the hated Penguins. Washington fought back from a 2-0 deficit against Columbus, and they actually fought back from 3-1 to push their last series with Pittsburgh to a heartbreaking Game 7. So they aren’t “quitters,” yet you wonder if the sheer volume of letdowns might make them fragile.
What happens if this series starts off with some poor play and/or bad luck? Could things really go off the rails?
The narrative could go from “No one expects anything from this version of our team” to “Uh oh, it’s happening again” in dizzying speed.
Penguins in 7: In many cases, breakthroughs happen after you give up on a sports team. Dirk Nowitzki’s title run happened after many gave up on the Mavericks in the NBA. The Sharks absorbed year after year of disappointments before making it to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. It’s a common joke that this could be the Capitals’ year because that’s just how weird the playoffs are, and it’s not as though the Caps are a bad team. They won the Metropolitan Division for a reason.
Still, the Penguins boast a deep, scary offense. They seem capable of finding that “extra gear” and still haven’t lost as series under Mike Sullivan. Here’s a reluctant vote for history repeating itself instead of the law of averages winning out.
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.