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Round 2

Capitals vs. Penguins playoff preview

Top two teams in NHL during regular season clash in Eastern Conference Second Round

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

Washington Capitals (M1) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (M2)

Season series: Washington 2-0-2

Last playoff meeting: 2016 Eastern Conference Second Round; Penguins won series 4-2

All-time playoff series: Penguins lead 8-1


How they got here

The Washington Capitals, who won the Metropolitan Division and Presidents' Trophy by going 55-19-8 (118 points), defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who finished second in the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings by going 50-21-11 (111 points), defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games in the first round.

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

From the start of the season, it seemed inevitable the Capitals and Penguins would cross paths again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup after defeating the Capitals in the second round last season.

Although many expected the Capitals to cruise past the young Maple Leafs in the first round, they had to survive a tight series that included five overtime games, tying the League record. The Penguins made quicker work of the Blue Jackets despite a host of injuries, including to goaltender Matt Murray (lower body) and defenseman Kris Letang, who had season-ending neck surgery.

Video: Hradek previews Capitals vs. Pens second round series


5 storylines

Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby III: There's a lot more to this series than it being the third postseason meeting between Ovechkin and Crosby, but it's always a big deal when two of the game's biggest stars go head-to-head. Crosby led the NHL with 44 goals during the regular season and tied for second in points with 89. He followed up with seven points (two goals, five assists) in the first round against Columbus. Ovechkin's 33 regular-season goals were his fewest in a full season since 2010-11, when he had 32, but he had three in the first round against the Maple Leafs.

Video: CBJ@PIT, Gm2: Crosby lights lamp, notches two assists

'Flower' power: Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was set to begin the first round against the Blue Jackets in same place he was when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup last season -- on the bench backing up Murray. But Murray was injured in warmups before Game 1. In a reverse of last season when Murray was excellent while Fleury was out because of a concussion, Fleury carried the Penguins at times against the Blue Jackets, including a 49-save performance in a 5-2 win in Game 5. He finished the series with a 2.52 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. With no indication that Murray is close to returning, the Penguins net still belongs to Fleury.

Video: CBJ@PIT, Gm5: Fleury stops 49 to help Pens advance

Missing Kris Letang: The Penguins were able to get by defensively without Letang in the first round with Fleury covering up for many of their mistakes. They were outshot in four of the five games and gave up an average of 38.8 shots per game against the Blue Jackets after giving up 28 per game in the playoffs last season, when Letang led Pittsburgh with an average of 28:52 of ice time per game. The Penguins trying to fill in for Letang by committee with the ice time spread fairly evenly among Justin Schultz (21:16 per game), Olli Maatta (20:57), Trevor Daley (20:22), Ian Cole (19:56), Ron Hainsey (19:44) and Brian Dumoulin (19:44).

Depth charges: Ovechkin's seven points (two goals, five assists) were more than Crosby (two assists) and Evgeni Malkin (one goal, one assist) had combined in last season's series, but the Penguins prevailed because of their depth. Pittsburgh's third line of Carl Hagelin (three goals, four assists), Nick Bonino (two goals, three assists) and Phil Kessel (two goals, four assists) had 18 points. Although Hagelin remains out because of a lower-body injury, the Penguins have gotten contributions from others, such as Jake Guentzel (five goals, one assist) and Bryan Rust (four goals). The Capitals had 11 forwards score at least 12 goals in the regular season, but they were top-heavy again against the Maple Leafs, other than a surprising three goals from Tom Wilson.

Man up: The Penguins and Capitals were tied for third in the League on the power play during the regular season (23.1 percent), and each has been even better on the man-advantage in the playoffs. The Penguins went 5-for-15 (33.3 percent) and the Capitals went 5-for-17 (29.4 percent) in the first round. Kessel (two goals, two assists) and Malkin (four assists) each had four power-play points for the Penguins, and T.J. Oshie (one goal, two assists) and Kevin Shattenkirk (three assists) each had three to lead the Capitals.

Video: TOR@WSH, Gm5: Oshie puts home rebound for PPG


By the numbers

11: The League-leading number of points Malkin (two goals, nine assists) had in the first round against Columbus.

15: The number of goals the Capitals and Penguins combined for in their last regular-season game on Jan. 16 at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins won 8-7 on Conor Sheary's overtime goal.

0.49: The number of goals per game Kessel and Ovechkin each has averaged in the playoffs in his NHL career. Kessel (0.4902) leads Ovechkin (0.4889) by three ten-thousandths for the most goals per game among active NHL players (at least 40 postseason games).

In the spotlight

Capitals: Braden Holtby, goaltender -- In last season's series, Holtby (2.57 GAA, .923 save percentage) was outplayed by Murray (2.40 GAA, .926 save percentage). He'll need to be the better goaltender in this series. Holtby, last season's Vezina Trophy winner and a finalist again this season, had to battle through some tough bounces against the Maple Leafs before settling down in the last two games and finishing the series with a 2.36 GAA and .925 save percentage.

Penguins: Justin Schultz, defenseman -- With Letang injured, Schultz has the most skill offensively among Pittsburgh defensemen. He had three points (all assists) in the first round after his 51 points (12 goals, 39 assists) were tied for seventh in the League among defensemen during the regular season. Schultz, 26, played a limited role for the Penguins in their Stanley Cup run last season, averaging 13:00 of ice time per game, but he'll have a much bigger role in this series and will need to play well at each end of the ice.


Keys to victory

Capitals: Sustained pressure. That's the best way to take advantage of the Penguins' deficiencies on defense without Letang. The Capitals need to work the Penguins physically in their end and pressure them into turnovers that lead to scoring chances, something that eventually paid off against the Maple Leafs. The Blue Jackets did a decent job of this against the Penguins in the first round but had trouble finishing. The Capitals have more skill to take advantage of those chances.

Penguins: Speed. Their depth of speed and skill at forward gave the Capitals trouble last season, and it has the potential to do so again. The Capitals also struggled at times against the Maple Leafs' speed in the first round. If the Penguins can pressure the Capitals with their speed and force them to defend for long stretches, it will also help cover up their own issues defensively. 

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