The Washington Capitals will play the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round for the third consecutive season. Game 1 is at Capital One Arena in Washington on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Pittsburgh won in seven games last season and six games in 2016, going on to win the Stanley Cup each time.
Here are five key matchups that could decide the best-of-7 series:
[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Penguins series coverage]
1. Crosby vs. Niskanen
With 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in six playoff games this season, center Sidney Crosby has passed Mario Lemieux for the most points in Penguins history with 177 (63 goals, 114 assists) in 154 games. Lemieux had 172 points (76 goals, 96 assists) in 107 games.
Crosby's most frequent opponent at 5-on-5 in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers was forward Claude Giroux (46:15), according to Natural Stat Trick. The Penguins outscored the Flyers 9-1 in that time.
Washington's top shutdown defenseman is Matt Niskanen, whose average ice time of 24:51 per game at even strength and 3:57 shorthanded rank first and 13th, respectively, in the NHL during the playoffs. He led the Capitals with 20 blocked shots and 47 defensive zone starts at even strength. His most frequent opponent in the first round was Artemi Panarin at 83:25; the Columbus Blue Jackets scored one goal during that time.
Video: PIT@PHI, Gm6: Crosby buries juicy rebound to tie it
2. Guentzel vs. Oshie
Forward Jake Guentzel tied Crosby for the Penguins lead with 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in six first-round games.
Guentzel led Pittsburgh forwards with an average of 14:34 per game at even strength, during which the Penguins outscored the Flyers 14-3. He tied Crosby for the Penguins lead with 17 shots and tied Derrick Brassard for third with 13 hits.
Because he plays left wing on a line with Crosby, Guentzel may often match up against Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie, who plays on a line with center Nicklas Backstrom.
Oshie is versatile; among Washington's forwards in the regular season, he tied Lars Eller for second with 21 drawn penalties, ranked third with 54 blocked shots, was fourth with 124 hits and 29 assists, tied Eller for fourth with 18 goals, ranked fifth with a shot attempt differential (SAT) of plus-7, and ranked sixth with 127 shots.
Video: PIT@PHI, Gm6: Guentzel scores four straight in win
3. Ovechkin vs. Letang
Alex Ovechkin led the Capitals with 49 goals and 355 shots in the regular season, then led them with five goals (three on the power play) and 33 shots in the first round. The left wing figures to spend a lot of time facing Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, who was his third-most frequent 5-on-5 opponent in the regular season (33:34).
Letang led Pittsburgh in the first round with 19:17 per game at even strength and ranked fourth with 2:48 per game shorthanded. His 11 blocked shots were tied with his partner, Brian Dumoulin, for second, and he was third with seven points (one goals, six assists) in six games.
Video: WSH@CBJ, Gm6: Ovechkin buries one-timer for PPG
4. Malkin vs. Kuznetsov
In terms of scoring, Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov are closely matched. Since 2015-16, Malkin ranks 10th with 2.37 points per 60 minutes, and Kuznetsov ranks 13th with 2.32, according to Corsica Hockey (minimum 500 minutes).
Malkin had five points (three goals, two assists) in five first-round games, leading the Penguins with five takeaways and five drawn penalties.
Kuznetsov led Capitals forwards with 19:04 per game at even strength. He took 28 shots and scored four goals, ranking second to Ovechkin in each category. He drew four penalties, tying defenseman John Carlson for the Washington lead.
Malkin is day to day with a lower-body injury sustained in Game 5 against the Flyers; he missed Game 6. His usual left wing, Carl Hagelin is also day to day, having sustained an upper-body injury in Game 6.
Video: CBJ@WSH, Gm5: Kuznetsov beats Bobrovsky five-hole
5. Kessel vs. Carlson
Penguins forward Phil Kessel and Carlson are key figures on the power play, which could decide the series. The Capitals lead the League this postseason with nine power-play goals in 27 opportunities; the Penguins are fourth with five power-play goals in 25 opportunities.
Since being acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade July 1, 2015, Kessel has played a Penguins-high 888:40 on the power play and leads them with 89 points (24 goals, 65 assists) with the man-advantage.
Carlson led the Capitals with 32 power-play points (four goals, 28 assists) during the regular season and leads them with eight power-play points (one goal, seven assists) in the playoffs. He will likely be matched up against Kessel at even strength.
Video: WSH@CBJ, Gm3: Carlson blasts home PPG
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