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Coaches Room

Capitals need to believe they can defeat Penguins in second round

MacLean says confidence, Holtby could be key for Washington against Pittsburgh

by Paul MacLean / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a weekly column by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher.

In this 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs edition, Paul MacLean, former coach of the Ottawa Senators, looks at what the Washington Capitals will need to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round. Pittsburgh has defeated Washington in the second round in the past two seasons and has gone on to win the Stanley Cup each time.

Here we go again.

 

[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Penguins series coverage]

 

The Washington Capitals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

For two consecutive springs, the Capitals' Stanley Cup aspirations ended when they were eliminated by the Penguins. On Thursday, these two foes meet again in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Second Round.

What will it take for the Capitals to finally overcome their obstacle, their Pittsburgh Kryptonite if you will?

For what it's worth, I've been in Washington's position.

Video: NHL Now on the Penguins, Capitals Second Round series

Yes, I've been there. Done that. I was a player for the Winnipeg Jets in the 1980s and had to play the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs. We didn't win a game.

We played the Oilers in the playoffs in 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1987. In that span, we went 0-14. We lost the first two series 3-0; the final two of those series 4-0.

At least Washington has won some games against Pittsburgh. That's more than we could say we did against Edmonton in that period.

As a result, I can understand the mindset of: "Oh my God, them again."

I'll say this: Every year we played the Oilers, we went in with the mindset that we were going to beat them. This is the year we're going to break through and stop the dry spell.

And we never did.

I think there are similarities. In our case, we had Dale Hawerchuk. They had Wayne Gretzky. In this series, the Penguins have Sidney Crosby, Washington has Alex Ovechkin. In all these circumstances, the higher-quality player has won in all circumstances. It's been three in a row for Pittsburgh in these head-to-head series.

If you're the Capitals, you go into this series thinking you're a much more well-rounded team than in the past and are eager to get going.

Especially given the situation involving Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.

Video: Holtby, Capitals overcome 2-0 series deficit

Malkin sustained a lower-body injury in Game 5 of Pittsburgh's Eastern Conference First Round win against the Philadelphia Flyers. Malkin skated Wednesday and accompanied the team to Washington, but he won't play in Game 1 on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

Malkin's injury is a huge factor. With him, the Penguins have a one-two punch of him and Crosby at center. Without him, you might have to give the nod up the middle to Washington's Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Forward Carl Hagelin is also injured for Pittsburgh and won't play in Game 1. Couple that with Malkin's situation and the Capitals have to be optimistic.

If Washington can get some momentum out of the gate with those two Penguins sidelined, it will make a huge difference. Get this going in the right direction.

In terms of tactics, Washington has to have the puck. It has to win face-offs and it has to have the puck. It's as simple as that.

If the Capitals do that, they make Pittsburgh play in its end. That's the key. No one has ever made Pittsburgh play in its own end. Pittsburgh has always played in the other team's end. No one has been able to force the Penguins to play in their own zone shift after shift after shift. If Washington can somehow carry the puck into the Pittsburgh zone successfully instead of just dumping it in, it will severely hinder the Penguins' ability to make their trademark stretch plays.

The other big factor here: Capitals coach Barry Trotz has provided goalie Braden Holtby with extra radar to succeed.

To be honest, my radar went up when Trotz started Philipp Grubauer in Game 1 in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. But then I thought about it and thought about it. And you know what? I came to the conclusion that he's never been challenged. He's always been No. 1.

Until he wasn't.

As a result, entering the series against the Blue Jackets, he's been told that he's not the guy. That could be enough for Holtby.

Then when the Capitals were down 2-0 in the series, Trotz brings him in. Holtby could have come in with a bad attitude but he didn't. He came in and was in goal for four consecutive victories.

Now he has something to play for. Now he wants to show the world that "I'm the Guy." I think that was a great tactical motivational move by Trotz and I think you'll see a different Holtby against Pittsburgh.

He's going to be very focused. He's going to be very hard to beat.

He'll have to be if the Capitals want to finally exorcise their Penguins curse.

***

 

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