Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has the better forwards?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

At the start of the season, no one in their right mind would have put the Caps’ forward depth and Golden Knights’ forward depth in the same galaxy, but nine months later, here we are.

So, which of these two teams has the better group of forwards? Let’s take a look.

CENTERS

Washington is loaded with so much depth down the middle, it’s scary. Assuming Nicklas Backstrom is healthy, that would give them a dynamic one-two punch of Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is currently riding a 10-game point streak. Both players would clearly be number one centers on most of other teams in the NHL. They both have dynamic offensive ability and they have the ability to make their linemates better.

On the third line, the Caps have the luxury of having a complete player like Lars Eller at their disposal. The 29-year-old scored 18 times during the regular season and he’s amassed five goals and 13 points in 19 postseason games this year. For a third-line player, his touch in the offensive zone is pretty good and he’s fully capable of killing penalties, too.

Jay Beagle continues to serve as the Caps’ fourth line center. He’s not the flashiest player on the roster, but he’s a smart veteran that is capable of playing a sound defensive game. He can also chip in offensively every so often, but that’s not his speciality.

By comparison, the Golden Knights have used a couple of centers that were flying under the radar coming into the season. Not only have William Karlsson and Erik Haula been two of the biggest surprises on the team, they’ve arguably been the biggest surprises in the entire league.

Karlsson has been centering Vegas’ top line with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. That trio has established themselves as one of the best lines in hockey. The chemistry that they formed has been incredible. They were so good that Karlsson ended up scoring 43 goals and 78 points in 2017-18. He’s added six goals and 13 points in 15 playoff games.

As for Haula, he managed to put up 29 goals and 55 points during the regular season. No one saw that coming when he left Minnesota (it probably cost GM Chuck Fletcher his job). Things have been a little more quiet for him in the playoffs, as he’s racked up seven points in 15 games. For the Golden Knights to go all the way, they’ll need him and some of the other secondary scorers to step up.

Cody Eakin and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare round out the centers on Vegas’ roster. Both players bring a physical element to the game and they’re both sound when it comes to the defensive side of the puck.

Advantage: Caps. As good as the Golden Knights have been, it seems pretty clear that Washington has the superior centers heading into the Stanley Cup Final. What does that mean? Maybe something, maybe nothing. After all, the Winnipeg Jets probably had a better group of centers and they still couldn’t take down Vegas.

WINGERS

Comparing the wingers on these two teams is pretty interesting.

Most people would agree that Alex Ovechkin is the best forward on either side (stop being friends with whoever disagrees). The 32-year-old is second on the team in points (22) behind Kuznetsov and he racked up 49 goals during the regular season. The Golden Knights don’t have anyone that can compare. Again, that doesn’t mean they can’t win the series, it just means that they’ll likely have to do it by committee.

As you’d imagine, there’s a significant drop off on Washington’s depth chart after Ovechkin. They have everyone’s favorite player, Tom Wilson, and they have skilled wingers like T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, Game 7 hero Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly. That’s far from a terrible group of forwards, but there’s an argument to be made that after Ovechkin, the Golden Knights have more quality wingers than the Caps.

Marchessault might just be the second best winger in the series after Ovechkin. After a disappointing performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, the 27-year-old stepped up and led his team to a berth in the final. Through 15 playoff games, he’s racked up an impressive 18 points.

Smith has just two goals this postseason, but he’s been the set up guy for his team. The 27-year-old has piled up 14 helpers this postseason and he does a lot of the heavy-lifting defensively for his line.

David Perron has been in and out of the lineup because of injuries, so that could be one of the reasons why he has no goals this postseason. Maybe the extra time off before the start of the final will help him recover from whatever’s bothering him.

James Neal is another forward capable of putting up offensive numbers for Vegas. The pending unrestricted free agent nine points in 15 games while playing on his team’s second line.

Vegas also has Tomas Tatar, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, Alex Tuch and Ryan Carpenter that can also contribute to varying degrees.

On the wing, it’s advantage: Golden Knights.

OVERALL

When you look at both groups of forwards as a whole, there isn’t a huge gap between the two sides. But the fact that Washington arguably has the three best forwards in Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin has to separate them from Vegas.

That’s not meant to disrespect the Golden Knights in any way, but giving them an advantage in this department just isn’t possible. Not only are the Capitals better down the middle, which is crucial, they also have the best winger in the series.

Advantage: Capitals. 

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT’s Three Stars: Eller leads the way for Capitals

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1st Star: Lars Eller, Washington Capitals

Eller continued his strong postseason with a huge goal and an assist 59 seconds apart late in the second period to help the Capitals to a 6-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2. Washingon now leads the series 2-0. Eller netted his fifth of the playoffs and then set up Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s power play goal with three seconds to go in the period to flip a 2-2 game in the Capitals’ favor. He would later add a second assist on Brett Connolly‘s third of the playoffs.

2nd Star: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

After allowing Tampa’s second goal of the game, Holtby would stop the final 30 shots he faced for his fourth straight victory. He would finish with 33 saves, his sixth 30-plus save night of the postseason.

[Lars Eller emerging as unexpected playoff star for Capitals]

3rd Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

Kuznetsov finished with a three-point evening and now has 19 points this postseason. After assisting on Tom Wilson‘s opening goal 28 seconds into the game and then doubling Washington’s lead late in the second period, he later set up Alex Ovechkin‘s 10th of the playoffs with a cool dish. He now has 10 points in his last five games.

Highlight of the Night: Vincent Lecavalier’s son, Gabriel, helped pump up the AMALIE Arena crowd before Game 2.

Factoid of the Night:

Monday’s schedule: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Jets lead series 1-0)

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Tampa’s advantage, underrated Gallant

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1. What do the Capitals need to improve upon from Round 2 against the Lightning?

SEAN: Barry Trotz should certainly realize the Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line experiment should never happen again. Tom Wilson is back from suspension, but should there ever be a need for a tweak, he can’t consider that option again. Another improvement would be staying out of the penalty box. The Capitals have been shorthanded the most of any NHL team this postseason and their penalty kill has only been successful 79.1 percent of the time through two rounds. Now they’re facing a Lightning power play that’s been clicking at a 26 percent rate in each of the first two rounds. Discipline will be key.

JAMES: Honestly, the Capitals have performed far better than expected during these playoffs, with Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby standing out as being particularly effective. That said, Barry Trotz might need to be a little more willing to make in-game tweaks. The standout example is sticking with Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line during Game 4 despite that clearly not working. Trotz eventually relented, but the Lightning are probably more capable of exploiting such stubbornness. (At least Tom Wilson’s suspension is over, so that specific lineup problem might not be an issue. Of course, the Stamkos – Kucherov line could force some maneuvering, too.)

ADAM: There is not a lot because they have played well so far, but discipline maybe? Discipline in the sense that Tom Wilson needs to stop hitting people in the head when he returns, and discipline in the sense that they need to just stay out of the penalty box. They’ve already been shorthanded 43 times this postseason, most in the NHL in the playoffs, and have had been shorthanded at least four times in eight of their first 12 games. And their penalty kill has not exactly been great, converting on just 79 percent of their opportunities. It has not hurt them yet, but that can swing a series. Especially against a team like Tampa Bay.

JOEY: They have to find a way to do a better job of neutralizing the opposition’s top line. Sure, the trio of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist was tough to stop, but one of the main reasons they moved on to the Eastern Conference Final was because Pittsburgh got to secondary scoring. This time, they can’t let Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller dominate because the Bolts are deep and they have other players that can hurt the opposition. Tampa managed to advance to this point without getting much from their top performers, which is pretty scary. The Capitals have to make sure that the Lightning’s best players don’t dominate. Easier said than done.

SCOTT: Washington was good in the second round. Their power play has been clicking all playoffs. Braden Holtby has found his stride again and they’re a confident bunch after beating the Pittsburgh Penguins finally. But they need someone not named Alex Ovechkin and Evegny Kuznetsov to carry the offensive burden. Both are capable at doing so, surely, and we saw it against the Penguins. But secondary scoring could use a boost, for sure. 

2. What is the biggest advantage the Lightning hold over the Capitals?

SEAN: You might say depth, but Washington got contributions from the likes of Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly. Heck, even Alex Chiasson potted a big goal. If that continues, that category can be marked as even. I’d give them an edge on the blue line. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh can play heavy minutes and Braydon Coburn has been excelling with fewer minutes compared to the regular season. The Capitals will look to give their third pairing of Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos favorable minutes, but that’s something Tampa can try and exploit with home-ice advantage.

JAMES: The Lightning boast a better defense. All due respect to John Carlson on that contract year tear and the underrated Matt Niskanen, but Washington has no Victor Hedman, and Ryan McDonagh seems like he’s settling in. If Nicklas Backstrom can’t play, Tampa Bay’s two lines could be another big edge, as Brayden Point‘s showing that his strong regular season play has been no fluke. If Point isn’t a star, he’s awfully close.

ADAM: There seems to be a belief that the Lightning are just going to roll through the Capitals, but I just do not see it. I think these two teams are pretty evenly matched in the sense that they each have superstar forwards, they each have elite goalies, and they each have some pretty deep offenses. I think if Tampa Bay has one thing going for it over Washington it’s that it has a legitimate No. 1, elite-level defenseman in Victor Hedman and the Capitals don’t. John Carlson is good, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not Victor Hedman. And having that guy that can play half of a game and follow around a top player and shut him down is a pretty big advantage to have.

JOEY: The Lightning are clearly superior on the blue line. Sure, the Capitals have John Carlson, but there’s a steep drop off after him. The Bolts have Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev. Even Dan Girardi has been relatively useful during this run. If McDonagh can kick it up a notch, that can put even more distance between these teams. The two sides are pretty evenly matched after that. They both have multiple lines that can score and goaltenders that can play at a high level.

SCOTT: Experience. Tampa has a combined 273 games of Conference Final experience to Washington’s measly 28. Washington has three players who’ve reached the penultimate round whereas the Lightning have nearly their whole roster with 18 players. This is new territory for most of these Capitals players.

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3. What’s been the most impressive part of this Winnipeg run?

SEAN: I hope the hockey world is taking note of what Mark Scheifele is doing. Seven of his 11 goals came on the road in Nashville in the second round. He’s blossomed into an elite level player over the last several year and has been nearly a point-per-game player since the 2015-16 NHL season. He’s a hockey nerd, even if he’s not a fan of that description. He’s worked with Adam Oates for the last few years, which has greatly improved his skills and made him a better 200-foot player. Now we’re finally getting to see all that work on display on a grander stage.

JAMES: This feels like a team that’s “been here before,” or maybe an Exhibit A for why people frequently make too big of a deal about “experience.” The Jets were down 3-0 and wouldn’t be denied in a comeback win. Connor Hellebuyck has been steadier than most veterans would be. They’ve played well enough to turn something that would dominate headlines (Patrik Laine struggling to score, at least by his standards) into a footnote. This team has few discernible weaknesses.

ADAM: I knew the Jets had an amazing offense and that Mark Scheifele was one of the driving forces behind it, but I wasn’t quite prepared for him to have a playoff run like this. He has been simply outstanding and seems to have two points every single night. He has quietly been one of the most productive players in the league the past few years and this postseason has been a pretty big statement from him to make a name for himself across the league.

JOEY: Their ability to win games on the road has been nothing short of remarkable. Through two rounds, Winnipeg has gone 4-2 away from home, including three wins at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Mark Scheifele scored seven road goals during their second-round series, which is now an NHL record. In their three road wins against the Predators, Winnipeg won by a total of 11 goals. Going into Vegas won’t be easy, but if there’s a team that can get the job done there it’s the Jets.

SCOTT: Their ability to face compartmentalize each game, specifically losses, and bounce back the next night. The Jets lost in double-overtime in Game 2 in Nashville bounced back to win Game 3 despite the heartbreak two nights earlier. In Game 6, when they laid an egg in a 4-0 loss with a chance to clinch the series, the Jets again regrouped and put in perhaps their best performance of the playoffs in a 5-1 win in Game 7. That game had all sorts of pressure riding on it and the Jets handled it in stride.

4. Despite a Jack Adams Award nomination, is Gerard Gallant an underrated head coach?

SEAN: When the success of the Golden Knights is brought up, worthy praise goes to Jonathan Marchessault, Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, among others. But Gallant’s name is sometimes left out that discussion. In his second chance as an NHL head coach he helped turn the Florida Panthers around only to be dumped 22 games into last season. Then he gets thrown behind the bench of an expansion team and has to figure out the best line combinations for a group of players who have never played together. Vegas’ success wasn’t something that was gradually built up — they’ve been a good team since the start of the season. Credit to Gallant and his staff for what they’ve done. He’ll win coach of the year by a landslide, but probably still not get enough credit for the job done this season, no matter how it ends.

JAMES: Being that he’s a lock to win the Jack Adams by an enormous margin, I’d say he’s rated just fine. Now, if there are people who are saying that Vegas is running on luck alone, then Gallant would be underrated. Sure, he’s enjoyed outstanding goaltending, but this team kept humming along even when their netminders were barely luckier than Spinal Tap drummers early in 2017-18. This team also plays an exciting, and most importantly, fitting style. Other coaches might think “I need to follow Jacques Lemaire’s lead and make this expansion team be slow and boring to limit chances.” Gallant should be credited for taking a courageous and entertaining approach, and lauded for it actually working.

And, really, the best tests of how he should be rated are yet to come. Between the remainder of this run and avoiding a sophomore slump next season, we’ll get an even better idea of the guy pulling the strings.

ADAM: I never really understood all of the fuss when the Panthers fired him last year. I thought a new front office had the right to bring in their guy and Gallant didn’t really have a track record that made it seem like an obvious mistake. But man, what a job he’s done this year. Coaching is one of those things that is difficult to evaluate, but I think the way he’s kind of turned his players loose and has them playing a fast, quick game that never lets up no matter what the score is in the third period is the right choice. I think he also deserves a ton of credit for getting the most out of some players on the roster, and I’m not necessarily talking about a player like William Karlsson. I mean more specifically a player like Deryk Engelland becoming a useful, regular, 25-minute per night defenseman.

JOEY: Coming into this season, he was definitely underrated, but now that the Golden Knights have had so much success, I feel like he’s been getting a decent amount of love from the hockey world. GM George McPhee did a great job of selecting players, but Gallant has really brought them together as a unit and he has them playing a style that fits them perfectly. This whole year has been a Gallant/Vegas love fest (rightfully so), so I don’t think he’s overrated anymore. Getting a cab on the streets of Vegas probably isn’t an issue for him.

SCOTT: I think you might have said this before the start of the season. Let got in Florida for no good reason, Gallant was quickly snatched up by George McPhee and the Golden Knights. But to see what he’s been able to do as he glued together pieces from teams around the NHL is remarkable, and a testament to his abilities as a head coach. He’s getting the credit he is due now, when before he didn’t. He’s underrated no more.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Capitals strike early, hold on to even series in chaotic game

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After allowing three different two-goal leads to disappear on home ice this postseason, the Washington Capitals were able to hold on to one on Sunday afternoon, picking up a 4-1 win to tie their second-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins at one game apiece.

It was another fast start for the Capitals as they were able to jump all over a sloppy Penguins team in the first period.

Alex Ovechkin started the scoring just 1:26 into the game when he pounced on a Patric Hornqvist turnover at the blue line and wired a shot into the top corner behind Matt Murray to give the Capitals an early lead. Later in the period Jakub Vrana scored on the power play to give the Capitals what has become — for them — a dreaded two-goal lead. But unlike in Games 1 and 2 of the first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and also in Game 1 of this series against Pittsburgh, the Capitals were able to build on that lead and hold on for the win.

They were able to add to it when Brett Connolly scored on a breakaway early in the second period, again capitalizing on another sloppy Penguins turnover, this time by Dominik Simon.

With all of that important details taken care of, it was a pretty chaotic path to get us to the end result.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

You want replay controversy? We had that!

Vrana’s goal in the first period had to withstand a goaltender interference review after the Penguins challenged it due to Brett Connolly taking a whack at Murray’s pad.

Connolly clearly knocked Murray off balance, but in the eyes of the league he had enough time to reset himself and get back into position to continue to play his position.

The call on the ice was upheld and the Capitals had their two-goal lead.

The Penguins were not happy with it, but that seems to be fairly consistent with how these reviews have been handled. Murray had time to recover after the contact from Connolly while that contact did not really alter his ability to stop the puck. There is a lot of griping about how interference reviews have been handled this season — and in many cases the griping is justified — but not all of them are completely arbitrary and inconsistent. If the goalie has time to get back into position, they usually let it go.

That would not be the only review in the game.

Midway through the third period, with the Penguins now trailing 3-1, they thought they had scored to pull within one on a Patric Hornqvist rebound attempt on the doorstep. It was unclear whether or not Capitals goalie Braden Holtby was able to keep the puck out of the net or if it had entirely crossed the goal line.

The call on the ice was no-goal and after a lengthy review it was determined that there was no conclusive evidence to overturn the call.

Holtby’s leg blocked the overhead and in-net cameras from determining whether or not the puck was entirely across the line.

This was the only angle that clearly showed the puck.

The team you want to win — or the team you are playing for — will determine what you want to see here.

This was a play that no matter what the call on the ice was they were going to stick with it given the replay angles they had to work with.

Then there was Tom Wilson!

Wilson was involved in another controversial play when he knocked Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin out of the game with a hit to the head.

There was no penalty called on the play but it will almost certainly be reviewed by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Wilson avoided a suspension in the first-round when he knocked Columbus’ Alex Wennberg out of the series for a few games with a high hit.

Losing Dumoulin was a big blow to the Penguins because it not only forced them to play with only five defensemen for the rest of the game — not a great spot for a team that is already lacking blue line depth to be in — but because Dumoulin has been great for them this postseason. If he can not go in Game 3 they would have to turn to Matt Hunwick.

The Penguins are already dealing with some significant injury issues as forwards Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin have yet to play in this series due to injuries they sustained in their first-round series win against the Philadelphia Flyers. Malkin’s absence has been glaring on the power play, while he and Hagelin make up two-thirds of what has been the team’s second line this postseason. That is a major dent in their forward depth.  That said, they have still won two of the three games they have played this postseason without Malkin, managed to split in Washington without him and Hagelin, and head home on Tuesday night for Game 3 tied in the series.

There also needs to be some attention given to the game Holtby played in net for the Capitals on Sunday because he was outstanding, stopping 32 of the 33 shots he faced.

The only goal he allowed, a long distance shot from Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, was one that beat him through traffic that he probably did not get a clear view of. He made a couple of highlight reel saves — including two on Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel that really stood out — to help slow down the Penguins’ offense.

Related: Penguins’ Dumoulin injured by hit to head from Tom Wilson

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Second Round Preview: 10 things to know about Penguins vs. Capitals

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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.

Schedule

Surging Players

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.

Struggling players

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.

Goaltending

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.)

Special teams

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.

Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Fancy stats

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.

Injuries

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.

Prediction

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.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
10 things to know about Golden Knights vs. Sharks

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.