The Caps and Pens clash yet again in the postseason, doing so for the 10th time, all of them occurring since 1991. This time around, the two longtime rivals face-off as the top two teams from the 2016-17 regular season, when the Caps finished with 118 points and Pittsburgh finished second with 111.
This second-round series between Washington and Pittsburgh marks the first time the league's two best regular season clubs have met in the postseason since the beginning of the salary cap era in 2005-06. The last time it happened was in the 2001 Stanley Cup final when Presidents' Trophy winner Colorado defeated New Jersey - the league's second best team during the 2000-01 regular season - in a seven-game set.
Special Delivery - Pittsburgh finished third in the league in power play efficiency during the regular season, and the Pens have been a top eight team in the league with the extra man in five of the last six seasons. Given the offensive weapons they've featured on their roster over that time frame, it's no surprise.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | April 27
In its first-round series against Columbus, Pittsburgh scored five power-play goals in 15 tries for a 33.3 percent success rate, tops among all remaining teams in the postseason. Both the Pens and the Caps featured four different players who scored on the power play in the first round, and four different players who recorded multiple power-play points in the first round.
Washington was perfect on the penalty kill in the first four games of last spring's series with the Pens, but Pittsburgh erupted for three power-play goals in the final two games of the series, including two in the series-clinching Game 6. In the four regular season meetings between the Caps and Pens this season, Pittsburgh scored four power-play goals in a dozen opportunities for a 33.3 percent success rate.
Discipline will be important in this series to be sure, but penalties will be taken and Pittsburgh will get power play opportunities. It will be up to the Caps' coaching braintrust to devise a way to neutralize Pittsburgh's extra-man unit and up to Washington's accomplished penalty killers to execute that plan.
"Top power plays are always having new looks and they're always changing their games," says Caps winger Tom Wilson, a staple performer on Washington's penalty killing outfit. "They've got some new looks that we're going to see, and we reviewed it. We're focused, we've got to execute and make sure that we're sharp because they do have guys who can really move the puck and obviously a lot of talent on that top unit."
Rather than look back at what the Caps did well against the Pens' power play last spring, Washington is going to school on what the Blue Jackets were not able to do in the first round against the Pittsburgh extra man group.
"Obviously you don't want to give away too much here," says Wilson, "but we're going to play it different than Columbus did. They didn't have a lot of success against their snipers and their talented guys, so we're going to play it a little bit different.
"A series can change multiple times and you do it as you go. We have a plan to start here, and [assistant coach Lane Lambert] is good at adjusting as we go and even in-game. We have looks that we've used all year and we have a bunch of different systems and different pressured areas that we can implement if need be, but I think it's just about being smart, making reads and limiting their time with the puck when we can."
Video: Rinkside Update: Tom Wilson | April 27
No More Soft Underbelly - In Washington's first-round series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Caps were able to take advantage of favorable blueline match-ups on a couple of occasions. The Leafs were without defenseman Nikita Zaitsev for the first two games of the series, and they were without Roman Polak after Game 2. Those losses forced the Leafs to rely on Martin Marincin to play third pairing minutes with ex-Cap Connor Carrick.
After playing just 25 regular season games and appearing in just two of Toronto's last 32 games of the regular season, Marincin was in the Toronto lineup for all six of the first-round games against the Capitals. Marincin's overtime turnover in Game 1 was directly responsible for Wilson's game-winner in the extra session that night, and his turnover in the third period of Game 6 led to the first of Marcus Johansson's two goals that night. Johansson outmuscled Marincin in front of the Toronto net on the series-clinching overtime winner in Game 6, too.
Toronto coach Mike Babcock did his best to shield that third pair, limiting their minutes and their exposure to Washington's top six forwards when he could. As the Caps prepare to take on the Pens - who are without No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang for the remainder of the postseason - it's not as easy to identify which of the three Penguins defense pairs is the third pairing.
The gap between top ice time getter Justin Schultz (21:16 per night in the first round) and the lowest average ice time (19:44 for both Ron Hainsey and Brian Dumolin) on the Pens' blueline from the first round is only about 90 seconds. That indicates a high level of trust in all six defensemen on the part of the Pittsburgh coaching staff.
"They went out and have filled their defensive void with Ron Hainsey," says Caps coach Barry Trotz of the Penguins. "And when they do sustain some injuries, they have a veteran group back there. They play their six [defensemen] pretty equally. Obviously guys like [Justin] Schultz and [Brian] Dumolin get a little more of the power play time and maybe a little more if they're down, but I think they trust their three pairs.
"Every coach will trust one pair more than the others - just in terms of match-ups - probably a little bit more. But I think they're probably pretty even."
Video: Trotz talks to the media before #CapsPens Game 1
With Letang out however, Pittsburgh has just one right-handed defenseman (Schultz) in its lineup. Veteran lefties Hainsey and Trevor Daley are both playing on the right side for the Pens. That might be an area the Caps can exploit from time-to-time on the forecheck, if they're able to make those defenders make plays on their backhands.
"Without getting too in depth into strategy here," says Caps defenseman Matt niskanen, "that's a big part of playing the game, just knowing who you are on the ice against and what 'hand' guys, where one-timer shots are, can you force a guy to his backhand, and things like that. So knowing their personnel is part of the game plan."
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net for Washington tonight, making his 53rd career start in Stanley Cup playoff competition. It's been rare for Holtby to struggle in the postseason, but he surrendered four or more goals in three straight games in Games 2-4 in the first-round series against Toronto, the first time he has ever done so in the playoffs and the first time he had done so at any time in more than two years.
Holtby prides himself on bouncing back from subpar performances, and he stopped 61 of 63 shots he faced in the final two games of that series against the Leafs, helping the Caps to consecutive 2-1 overtime victories to confirm their second-round date with the Penguins.
Each of the last two times Holtby has endured three straight games with four or more goals surrendered, he has followed with at least five straight games in which he has permitted two or fewer tallies. The Caps are hoping he is in the midst of a similar run as the series with Pittsburgh gets underway.
"That's the way goaltending is," shrugs Holtby. "If you're not used to that, you're not going to have much success. It's sometimes out of your control, and you just have to focus on playing your game. Aside from Game 4, I felt like my game was pretty consistent. That's going to be the same mindset going into Game 1 [of the Penguins series]. It's just focusing on my mindset going in to make sure it's the same as it usually is."
Video: Caps players talk to the media before Game 1
"Every experience that you go through - good or bad - is a good experience to go through," says Trotz. "He had to fight through that a little bit. For goalies, it's about reading plays and being able to connect the dots and all of those type of things. When things are out of the ordinary, then it plays with you a little bit. So he had to work through that mentally. It's great for him, absolutely. It happens during the year a few times, and he always gets on track. It was real good for him."
Last season, goaltender Matt Murray led the Pens to the Stanley Cup championship. Although Pittsburgh was the first team to use three different goaltenders en route to the title since the 1930s, it was Murray who earned 15 of the Penguins' 16 playoff wins last spring.
Murray also earned 32 of Pittsburgh's 50 regular season victories in 2016-17, but he came up lame during warm-ups ahead of Game 1 of Pittsburgh's opening-round series with Columbus. Fortunately for the Pens, they've got a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender as their backup, too.
Marc-Andre Fleury stepped seamlessly into the Pittsburgh crease and forged a .933 save pct. in five first-round appearances, going 4-1 in the process. Murray still isn't close to returning, so Fleury appears to be the Pens' man for the foreseeable future.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Fleury is 20-12-2 with three shutouts, a 2.60 GAA and a .913 save pct. In the last three regular seasons, he is 4-5-0 with a 3.02 GAA and a .902 save pct. in 10 appearances against Washington (nine starts).
Dating back to the regular season and including his performance in the first-round series against Columbus, Fleury has permitted three or more goals in six of his last 10 starts.
All Lined Up - Barring last-minute injury or illness on either side, this is how we expect the Capitals and the Penguins to look when they take to the Verizon Center ice for Game 1 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series on Thursday night in the District. Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz is nearly ready to return to the lineup from an absence related to a lower body injury, and he could supplant one of the bottom six wingers listed below for the Pens, pending a game-time decision:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
65-Burakovsky, 20-Eller, 43-Wilson
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 10-Connolly
27-Alzner (upper body)
59-Guentzel, 87-Crosby, 72-Hornqvist
17-Rust, 71-Malkin, 81-Kessel
23-Wilson, 13-Bonino, 43-Sheary
34-Kuhnhackl, 7-Cullen, 37-Rowney
2-Ruhwedel (upper body)
14-Kunitz (lower body)
30-Murray (lower body)
58-Letang (neck surgery)
62-Hagelin (lower body)