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Caps vs. Pens, Chapter 10

The Caps know the road to an elusive Stanley Cup title goes through Pittsburgh, and they're ready to travel that rematch route.

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / Monumental Sports Network

It could have happened in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoff, and it should be happening in the third round of the playoffs, but here we are in the second round of the playoffs, and it's time once again for the Capitals and Penguins to renew their postseason rivalry.

This second-round playoff matchup is one virtually everyone could see coming as the regular season unfolded, and now it's about to get underway. 

"It seems that way, doesn't it?" says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. "Almost a year ago now, we were talking here about how it would be nice to have another crack at these guys and we'd like to fast forward to that moment. Here we are. Guys are excited for that opportunity."

This season marks the 10th playoff meeting between the two teams, and it's the second consecutive spring in which these two clubs have gone head-to-head in the second round. On their way to a Stanley Cup championship last spring, the Penguins eliminated the Capitals in six games last May, and Washington has been gearing up for a rematch ever since.

"You're waiting for this match," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "Obviously we played against Toronto, and we beat them and it was a tough series. But right now, we play against the Stanley Cup champion. It's a big opportunity for us to beat them and move forward." 

"We're going into it with the mindset that we have to go through the same thing as last year," says Caps center Jay Beagle. "You usually have to go through the best team to get where you want to go. It's 1 vs. 2, so we're excited to do that. 

"Let's do it now. Overall, we're just excited. It's what you want as a player, to go up against an opponent that beat you out of the playoffs last year. You can't ask for anything else. You want to redeem yourself and you want to go after a team that got the better of us last year."

Pittsburgh has won eight of the previous nine playoff series between the two teams, with Washington's lone series win coming in 1994. The rosters and make-ups of the two teams haven't changed much since last spring's series. The Caps have three new faces - forwards Brett Connolly and Lars Eller and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk - while Pittsburgh picked up veteran defensemen Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit at the trade deadline and has worked young forwards Jake Guentzel, Carter Rowney and Scott Wilson into its lineup. 

If veteran Pens forwards Carl Hagelin and/or Chris Kunitz are able to return to the Pittsburgh lineup after missing the first round series with Columbus because of injuries, Rowney and/or Wilson could sit out. 

Roughly 18 months ago, the Penguins didn't look like a team that would soon have a chance to be the first team in two decades to win consecutive Stanley Cup titles. Early in the 2015-16 season, the Pens were spinning their wheels under second-year head coach Mike Johnston, until general manager Jim Rutherford made a coaching change, one of many wily moves he made since the previous summer and would continue to make up to the 2016 trade deadline. 

Mike Sullivan took over for Johnston, coaching his first game as Pens bench boss against the Capitals in Pittsburgh on Dec. 14, 2015. Addressing the media that morning, Sullivan laid out his vision. 

"Your ability to come out of your end zone and your ability to move the puck from your back end is an important aspect of your game," said Sullivan that morning, "both defensively and offensively. You'll spend less time in your end zone, and if we can get the puck into the forwards' hands, we've got a better opportunity to generate some offense. So that's a big part of it. 

"We're going to try to implement a few adjustments as far as coming out of our end zone; that's going to be a point of emphasis for this team moving forward and a priority for us. We've already started to implement a few new concepts and ideas that I hope will help us come out of our end zone more efficiently." 

Having averaged 30.2 shots on goal per game in 28 contests under Johnston, the Pens improved to a league best 34.5 per game in the 54 games after Sullivan took the helm. After averaging just 2.36 goals per game under Johnston, the Pens netted 3.24 goals per game in the 54 games under Sullivan, a remarkable rise of nearly a goal a game. 

For years, the Penguins would routinely import rental wingers at the trade deadline to play alongside stud centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. 

Gary Roberts, Pascal Dupuis, Marian Hossa, Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Alex Kovalev, James Neal, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen, Jarome Iginla, Lee Stempniak and David Perron were all brought to Pittsburgh in midseason between the 2006-07 and 20014-15 seasons. In the middle of last season, Rutherford flipped Perron to Anaheim for Carl Hagelin. 

The additions of Hagelin and defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz were key. Hagelin finished fifth on the team in playoff scoring and played in all 24 postseason games while Daley and Schultz suited up for 15 each and provided the depth needed to get through four playoff rounds. 

Heading into last season, few saw the Pens as having a deep farm system. But in the last year, Pittsburgh has matriculated forwards Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Guentzel, Rowney and Wilson into its lineup from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Having half a dozen useful young forwards on entry-level deals while vying for a second straight Stanley Cup title is a situation that 29 other teams in the league would love to be in. 

"I think with the way Mike Sullivan coaches," says Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik, a former Penguin, "it's one of those systems where they can interchange bodies, and he's really good at getting guys to buy into the system that he wants to play. And if they don't, I think he just finds someone else who will. 

"They seem to finish at our near the top of the division or conference every year, with a ton of injuries every year. I think they're getting back to full strength minus a couple of guys, but I think we know what to expect. This system doesn't change; sometimes the personnel changes." 

Pittsburgh suffered the loss of 278 man-games because of injury during the regular season, according to mangameslost.com, the seventh most of the 30 NHL teams. The Pens will be playing without defenseman Kris Letang for the duration of the playoffs, and they're also missing goaltender Matt Murray in addition to Hagelin and Kunitz.

The Pens' success in light of those injuries is a testament to the strength of the Pittsburgh system, but the Penguins surrendered the second highest goal total (229) of any team to make the playoffs this spring, ahead of only Toronto (234). 

"They do a good job at five-on-five," says Caps coach Barry Trotz of the Pens. "There are certain areas of their game [that are lacking] stats-wise; they've given up the most odd-man rushes in the league. The good and bad of that is that if you don't capitalize, they get an odd-man rush the other way, and they're a high-functioning team that will capitalize. That's part of their game.

"I think defensively, they block a lot of shots. Their shot totals are way up in the playoffs over what they were in the regular season. They've got elite players, they've got good goaltending and they've got a good defense. But it's getting the belief, and it starts by getting your leaders to believe." 

The men in the middle of the ice should have quite a bit to do with which team moves on to the Eastern Conference final. Seven of the eight centers in this series were part of the Caps-Pens series last spring, with Washington's Lars Eller as the lone newcomer. 

Pittsburgh's group of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen are as good as any group of pivots in the league, and they've combined for over 3,200 career regular season NHL games. The Caps' group of Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Eller and Beagle is formidable as well. That quartet has combined for nearly 2,000 NHL games, and the four of them missed a grand total of just two games during the regular season, giving Washington a great deal of stability at the position throughout the campaign. 

"They all four can play, and we all four can play, too," says Kuznetsov. "So it's going to be a great challenge in the face-offs and everywhere. I think the center is pretty key for every team, and we have to be better for sure."

"That's an important part of the game within the game," says Eller, "to be better than the center you're going up against and facing, both defensively and offensively. It's an area that could tilt the series in favor of either [team]." 

The middle of the ice includes goaltenders, too. 

In Braden Holtby, the Caps have the league's all-time leader in career playoff save pct. (.936) and its best GAA (1.93) of any goaltender whose career has started in the last six decades. But Holtby is just 26-26 in his 52 career playoff starts coming into this series, largely because of a lack of offensive support over the years. 

At the opposite end of the ice, veteran Marc-Andre Fleury is manning the crease for the Pens after serving as the backup for Matt Murray for most of the 2016-17 season. Murray, who helped lead the Pens to the Cup title last spring when he was in net for 15 of Pittsburgh's 16 wins, was injured just ahead of the Penguins' first-round series with Columbus. 

Fleury won 30 playoff games for the Penguins in 2008 and 2009, leading his team to the Cup final against Detroit in the first of those years and a Cup victory over the Red Wings in the second. But after going 30-14 over those two springs, Fleury has posted a 26-28 postseason mark since, including the four wins he claimed in the first round against Columbus. 

The Pens will be hindered some without Letang, but the late-season additions of Hainsey and Streit will help Pittsburgh deal with his absence. The Pens kept Schultz around this season, and the 26-year-old ex-Oiler had a career season with 51 points, seventh among all NHL defensemen. 

Even without Murray and Letang, the Penguins are an extremely formidable foe. So how do the Caps go about finally getting past them, and getting beyond the second round of the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades? 

"I think having a good start at home, first and foremost," says Niskanen. "Our special teams were pretty good last year if I remember right, but five-on-five defending and five-on-five generating offense is going to have to be the difference maker for us. You can't depend on only your power play. Our power play was good in the first round, and we hope it's good again. But I think five-on-five is going to have to be good in order to beat these guys." 

"I think puck management against them is the biggest thing," says Orpik. "Their transition game and the speed at which their forwards play is probably their biggest strength. So making them go 200 feet to get their chances will be key here. You see when you turn pucks over - you saw it in the Columbus series - it goes from being a one-goal game to a three-goal game pretty quick. Puck management and discipline are the two key things."

Aside from their primary motivation to take down the team that took them down last spring and to finally claim a Stanley Cup title of their own, the Caps believe they also have a deeper and better roster with which to take on the Penguins this spring.

"All I know - and I've said it earlier this year, too - is that it's so important that everyone is involved and producing," says Backstrom. "We've been good this year having four lines producing, and that's a key for us to get ourselves going. It's going to be a little tighter games this series than the last series, so you need all of us is we're going to be successful here. That's our plan." 

And although this series features two of the league's top three goal-scoring teams from the regular season, Backstrom thinks it's defense that's going to get it done. 

"Both teams know how to score goals," says the Caps' pivot. "I think in this series, whoever plays the best defensive game is probably going to win. That's what we've got to focus on first. If you play good defense, you're going to create chances offensively. That's our focus right now, focus on defense and really help Holts out back there." 

"We're going on to play the Stanley Cup champions," said Trotz shortly after his team finished off the Toronto Maple Leafs in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series. "They had a wonderful season. They had a lot of injuries, and we didn't pass them or really pull away from them until the last week of the season. We know how good they are. They knocked us out last year, and we've got a chance to go back at them again." 

Since late in the evening last May 10, that's all these Capitals have wanted.

"We didn't get to where we wanted to [last year], and this year we've got another shot," says Trotz. "I think it's the way it should be. They knocked us out last year. We've got a shot to go at them again this year. Opportunity ahead of us; we've got a great opportunity. I think we've got a good team, I think they've got a hell of a team. They're the champs. So they're sitting on the throne right now."    

"It has to be this way," says Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt. "You wouldn't want it any other way. No matter what, you're going to have to play these guys. I should be a really entertaining series and I'm really excited for it."

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