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4 keys to the series

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

There are many storylines to watch during the Pens-Caps Second Round series. Michelle Crechiolo did a great job of laying them all out right here. But hockey games are won on the micro level. It's the accumulation of small moments that equal results in tightly contested playoff contests.

Here are 4 things to keep on eye on as the games and this series unfolds. 

1. PITTSBURGH BREAKOUTS

If the Pens want to defeat the Capitals they must be better on their defensive zone breakouts. It is the major facet of Pittsburgh's game that it needs to clean up heading into the Second Round.

Losing Kris Letang has really hurt the Pens on their breakouts. His ability to one-man the puck out of the defensive zone was the kickstart to their speed game through the neutral zone. But Letang is out for the rest of the playoffs, so the Pens remaining defenders have to pick up their individual games.

Pittsburgh struggled mightily on breakouts against Columbus and its relentless forecheck. The Blue Jackets put intense pressure on the Pens and it caused poor decisions and execution. The result was long stretches where the Pens were trapped in their own zone and a lopsided advantage in shots and scoring chances in favor of the Blue Jackets.

The Capitals have a similar type of forecheck to the Blue Jackets. If Pittsburgh gets continually trapped in its zone, Washington will make it a very short series. The Pens were able to withstand the sustained pressure of Cam Atkinson, Brandon Saad, Nick Foligno and Alexander Wennberg. Trying to withstand sustained pressure from Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams is a recipe for disaster.

2. HOME COOKING

For the Pens to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the second straight year, they must win at least one game on the road by virtue of Washington's home-ice advantage.

But that will be a tall task for the Pens considering that Washington recorded the most home wins (32) in the NHL, including two dominating victories against the Pens. But Pittsburgh isn't so shabby at PPG Paints Arena. The Pens recorded 31 wins and tied the Caps with home point at 66.

Defending home turf is important. Whichever team finds a way to be successful on the road will ultimately advance beyond the Second Round.

3. POWER-PLAY FUNNEL

The Pens and Caps finished the regular season with the exact same conversation rate on the power play with a 23.1-percent clip. That put both teams in a tie for third place in the NHL. Both teams carried that success into the playoffs (Pittsburgh, 33.3%, 2nd ranked; Washington, 29.4%, 3rd).

Most people will focus their attention on Ovechkin and his booming one-timer from the right dot. And he deserves attention. Just look at his NHL best (tied) 17 power-play goals.

But the real key to the Capitals' power play is Backstrom. He funnels the entire unit. Backstrom had a league-best 35 power-play points during the regular season. His decision-making with the puck is what allows the play to unfold.

Ovechkin may finish most of the plays, but it's Backstrom that creates those openings. The Pens' PK focus will be on pressuring and shutting down Backstrom's options.

4. PRESSURE

All of the pressure in this series lies on the shoulders of the Caps. Their own general manager, Brian MacLellan, said the team had a "two-year window" to win a championship. That window closes at the end of this season.

MacLellan has a point. This offseason will bring many changes to the Caps' roster. Oshie, Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner are unrestricted free agents this summer. The team also has restricted free agents Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Dmitri Orlov.

The Caps won't have enough money under the salary cap to keep all of those players and their roster will look drastically different next season.

MacLellan also called the current Washington lineup the best in the Ovechkin era. The pressure is on for the Caps to win, and win now. There is no tomorrow. There is no next season. Their greatest chance to break their Stanley Cup drought is right now.

The biggest question, however, isn't if the Caps can win the Cup. They certainly have the talent and depth to win it all. But can they mentally handle the pressure and expectations of delivering the first championship in the Capitals' 42-year history?

The Caps are already trying to mentally deflect that pressure, as seen by Backstrom's claim that they, not the Pens, are the underdog.  

But make no mistake, the weight of the Capitals' franchise is on their shoulders. 

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