PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Washington Capitals three times in five tries during the regular season, including scoring a combined 10 goals in the final two games, March 20 and April 7.
Despite their recent success against their Metropolitan Division rival, the Penguins expect a tough matchup when they meet in the Eastern Conference Second Round.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang has played quite a bit against the Capitals this season, averaging 27:47 of ice time in four games; he missed a game Dec. 14 because of an upper-body injury.
Letang said the Capitals have improved noticeably since Barry Trotz was named coach May 26, 2014.
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"A lot more structure and a lot more physical," Letang said. "They have good defensemen. They have a good squad on the back end so they're able to defend really well. So they're a tough team to play against. … They have four good lines that can skate and score goals. The back end can bring a lot offense, so they're pretty deep."
Significant momentum swings have defined the past three games, including Washington's comeback from a two-goal deficit in a 3-2 win March 1 and Pittsburgh's 4-3 overtime win after leading 3-0 on April 7. If that continues into their second round series, Forward Chris Kunitz said expects something similar to the Penguins' seven-game series victory in 2009.
"I think when you look at our last games against them, we jumped out to leads, they came back," Kunitz said. "Everybody knows they've been the best team in the League for a while. They had to put it in a lower gear for a little bit at the end of the season, but you watch the games against [the Philadelphia Flyers] and the [physicality] really comes out there."
The Penguins successfully controlled Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin during the regular season, holding him without a point in five games. Letang said the stats could be deceiving, since clamping down on Ovechkin opens space for his linemates.
"He's the same intense guy, passionate guy that likes to score goals and likes to make highlight plays. He's going to look for big hits," Letang said. "He's going to bring those big plays. I think he's a little more patient than he used to be, but he's really dangerous. The same guy who's really dangerous off the rush."
Ovechkin is at his lethal best on the power play. The Capitals converted 29.6 percent of their man-advantage opportunities in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Flyers, with Ovechkin scoring two of their eight power-play goals. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said the best way to defend the Capitals' power play is limiting their chances.
"It starts with our own team discipline, that we don't give their power play too many opportunities to be the difference," Sullivan said. "But when the opportunity does come, our penalty kill has to find ways to get it done and we have ideas on how we want to defend against them and we will do our best to limit their opportunities."
Sullivan said the Penguins are focused on the upcoming series and not on the regular season or their series from 2009. Having played in that series, however, Kunitz said it's beneficial to know what could be in store.
"It's always been the talked-about matchup that the League wants [Sidney Crosby against Ovechkin]. But for us, having played them once already and knowing that it was a loud building to play in, their fans really get rocking," Kunitz said. "It's a great environment if you want to be in that playoff atmosphere."