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5 Keys: Penguins at Capitals, Game 1

Pittsburgh's Murray needs big response; Washington needs depth players to step up

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins play Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Second Round series at Verizon Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Here are five keys for Game 1:

#1: Scoring depth: Although much of the attention is on Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin facing Penguins captain Sidney Crosby in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009, these teams go much deeper than their biggest stars and top lines. Capitals coach Barry Trotz said that Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (two goals, five assists in the first round against the New York Rangers), a two-time Art Ross Trophy winner, has been playing third-line minutes since returning from an upper-body injury.

Crosby's line with Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist clearly is the Penguins' first line. Malkin's line with Chris Kunitz and Eric Fehr appears to be the second line. That means right wing Phil Kessel (three goals, three assists in the first round) is playing on a dangerous third line with center Nick Bonino and left wing Carl Hagelin.

"We've had pretty good scoring throughout all four lines, pretty good depth all year," Bonino said. "So it should be a good matchup. It should be both teams using all four lines and seeing who's better."

To take some pressure off their first line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, the Capitals will need much more in this series out of their second line. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who led the Capitals with 77 points during the regular season, had one point (a goal) in six games in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers. Right wing Justin Williams had two power-play assists in the series. Andre Burakovsky, who had no points, has been dropped to the third line and replaced by Marcus Johansson (one goals, five assists) at second-line left wing.

#2: Isn't that special?: Both teams dominated on special teams in the first round. The Penguins were 8-for-21 (38.1 percent) on the power play and 17-for-19 (89.5 percent), with one shorthanded goal, on the penalty kill. The Capitals were 8-for-27 (29.6 percent) on the power play and 23-for-24 (95.8 percent) on the penalty kill.

Those numbers are unlikely to hold up in this series. The Capitals' power play was 0-for-10 when the Flyers went with a more aggressive approach on the penalty kill in the final three games. The Penguins can use their speed to attack the Capitals similarly. The Capitals did a good job controlling the Flyers' Wayne Simmonds at the net front on the penalty kill; they'll have a similar challenge with Hornqvist for the Penguins.

"Philly was heavy on the net presence, but also some of the low plays and what have you," Trotz said. "I'm not saying that [Pittsburgh] isn't. [Pittsburgh] has a great net presence. Hornqvist is one of the best guys in the League at that. So they'll give us multiple types of looks, I'm sure, and we'll have to adjust as they go along."

#3: Matt Murray: The 21-year-old rookie goaltender stepped into the Penguins' first-round series against the Rangers after missing the first two games because of an upper-body injury and stopped 85 of the 89 shots he faced in three consecutive victories. As impressive as that was, Murray likely will face more pressure against the Capitals than he did against the Rangers.

How Murray handles that pressure will be pivotal to the Penguins' chances in this series because the status of Marc-Andre Fleury is unclear because of a concussion that has sidelined him since March 31.

"He'll do a good job," Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin said of Murray. "It's good for him that he played the Capitals [twice] in the regular season this year. I think that helps and he's ready."

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm5: Murray denies Diaz's shot

#4: Rush hour: With their speed and skill, the Penguins thrive offensively on rush plays off the counterattack and will look to push the pace. The Capitals limited the Flyers' odd-man rush opportunities because of how hard their forwards backchecked. That must continue against the Penguins.

The Capitals have plenty of talent to play the rush game too, but also can wear down opponents physically and work the puck in the offensive zone to create scoring chances, which is not one of the Penguins' strengths.

"We have to dictate our style of the game, our system," Ovechkin said. "If we're going to dictate our style, our physicality, our system, it's hard to beat. We just have to play simple and play our way."

#5: Pressure the defense: The Capitals were able to hold Flyers rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere in check by targeting him physically and making him work in his end. The Rangers had some success dumping the puck in defenseman Olli Maatta's corner and forechecking him, so look for the Capitals to take a similar approach.

The Flyers gave the Capitals their most trouble at 5-on-5 by putting the puck in behind their defensemen and hitting them. Matt Niskanen was targeted for 11 hits in Game 4 alone.

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