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Penguins believe they are underdog vs. Capitals

Defending Stanley Cup champions finished behind Washington in standings, have defeated them in past two playoff series

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions, but goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury considers them the underdog in their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Washington Capitals.

The best-of-7 series starts at Verizon Center on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2).

"They finished first [in Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division], right?" Fleury asked after practice Monday. "We finished second."

 

[RELATED: Complete Penguins vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

Regular-season standings won't matter when the series starts, nor will the fact that the Penguins defeated the Capitals in six games in the second round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs on their way to winning the Cup.

"Regular season is regular season, and playoffs is playoffs," Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist said. "There were crazy games there. It's always fun to play against Washington. They're always a good matchup for us."

To the Penguins, past playoff meetings hold slightly more significance than regular-season games. Because of the history between the teams, each likely knows what to expect from the other.

"I think both teams know each other pretty well," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "We play in the same division and saw each other last year in the playoffs. So there shouldn't be any surprises as far as how each team plays.

"You kind of expected we'd probably see each other at some point. So we just have to prepare."

Much of the attention will fall on Crosby and Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin.

It's the third time they will play in a second-round series against each other. The Penguins won the previous two, also winning in the second round in 2009, before winning the Cup.

Although the Penguins are not focused on individual rivalries, they understand the importance of Crosby facing Ovechkin.

Video: 2009 Round 2, Gm2: Ovechkin, Crosby double hat-tricks

"Obviously, they're two of the best players to ever play the game," Hornqvist said. "When you get those guys in a matchup like this, there's going to be a huge media race for it. It's fun to watch."

With the Penguins becoming increasingly healthy, the anticipated series could be further elevated.

Forward Chris Kunitz (lower body) and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (upper body) each practiced Monday, one day after skating in a no-contact jersey. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said each will be a game-time decision Thursday.

There also was good news about the status of forward Carl Hagelin, who last played March 10 because of a lower-body injury but has skated on his own the past two days. The Penguins are hopeful he can return at some point during the second round, Sullivan said.

In a series-deciding Game 6 against the Capitals last year, Hagelin had one goal and two assists. He had seven points (three goals, four assists) in the series.

"He's getting closer," Sullivan said. "Whether we have him or we don't, we have a speed team. Now, he obviously increases our speed because of what he brings to our team, but we have plenty of speed throughout our lineup. That's obviously part of the fabric of this team's identity."

The news isn't as good for goalie Matt Murray, who has not skated since sustaining a lower-body injury during warmups before Game 1 of the first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Fleury is expected to start Game 1. He said he is prepared to face the Capitals after going 4-1 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in five games in the first round.

"There are no easy matchups," Fleury said. "Every team we face right now is a good team."

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