It wouldn't feel like springtime in Pittsburgh if the Penguins weren't facing the Washington Capitals in the Second Round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which the teams will do for a third-straight season. Pittsburgh won the first two meetings, eliminating Washington in six games in 2016, then following that up with a seven-game series win last spring.
Here are the main storylines to follow as the series progresses…
After Pittsburgh eliminated Washington from postseason play for the second year in a row last May, the Capitals were tired, frustrated and defeated. That malaise lasted for a long time, with Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post writing that head coach Barry Trotz even described his team as being in a "state of mourning" when they reported for training camp this fall.
It took them a while to move past it, but once they did, the Capitals eventually won a third straight Metro Division title - clinching it with their 3-1 victory over the Penguins on April 1.
And now, after beating the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games, Washington's reward is playing the Penguins yet again. The Capitals are still searching for their first Stanley Cup, and the Penguins are a prime reason they have not been able to win hockey's holy grail. This will be the 11th postseason encounter between the clubs, with Pittsburgh leading 9-1.
The Penguins have caused the Capitals and their fans so much pain and disappointment over the years. And while they have the weight of history on their shoulders, the Capitals say they're excited for the challenge. Alex Ovechkin said he "can't wait" for the series to start, calling this a huge opportunity for them to take a step forward. We'll see if the Penguins can continue their winning ways, or if the Capitals will be able to finally exorcise their playoff demons.
After two years of tough decisions surrounding their goaltending, the Penguins entered these playoffs with Matt Murray as their unquestionable No. 1 netminder. The net belongs to the two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender. Somewhat surprisingly, that choice wasn't as clear-cut for the Capitals.
Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby is one of the league's best at what he does, but he dealt with some individual struggles this season and was outplayed down the stretch by Philipp Grubauer. That led Capitals head coach Barry Trotz to name Grubauer as his starter for Game 1 against Columbus, saying that while it was a tough decision, the 26-year-old deserved the opportunity with the body of work he had put together. But in the unpredictable game that is hockey, Grubauer started to struggle as the series began, giving up eight goals before Holtby replaced him for the third period of Game 2.
Holtby re-took the net and didn't look back, helping his team rebound from a 2-0 series deficit to advance. He got better and better with each game, looking especially calm and composed in Game 6. His resurgence is the biggest reason they moved on, and he's re-gained the confidence that was missing at times during the regular season. Now the question is whether the veteran netminder can build on that against a team who's had his number and is coming off a high-scoring series against the Philadelphia Flyers, where it scored 28 goals in six games, tying a franchise record.
However, somewhat lost in all of that goal scoring was that it wasn't Murray's most consistent series. Though he definitely had some stretches of brilliance, exemplified by his shutouts in Games 1 and 4. And while at the end of the day Murray got the job done - just like he's done in every single series that he's played in his young career - the Pens are going to need the 23-year-old to be at his best against the Capitals. While he did not face them in the 2017 playoffs, he was terrific in 2016. In fact, that was the best performance of his playoff career. And that's the Matt Murray they Pens are going to need in 2018.
With the amount of star power on both sides, power plays are going to be crucial considering it's a chance to get all of that talent on the ice at once. Washington's power play was the difference in the First Round against Columbus. They scored at least one goal in all six games, converting 9 of 27 chances for a 33.3-percent success rate. While Alex Ovechkin is lethal as ever with his one-timer from the left circle and Nicklas Backstrom is always a threat with his playmaking ability, John Carlson may be the one to watch. He led all NHL defensemen in scoring this year with 68 points, 32 of those coming on the power play. He resumed quarterback duties following Kevin Shattenkirk's offseason departure, and it's paid off as he recorded eight of his nine points in the First Round on the man-advantage.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's power play - which finished the regular season as both the best in the NHL and Penguins franchise history - wasn't as consistent. When it was on, it was on. And when it was off, it was off. It ended up scoring five times on 25 chances, with three of those goals coming in Game 3. But it may be remembered most for the shorthanded score it gave up in Game 5, a turning point in the contest, which the Flyers won 4-2. It didn't help that the unit dealt with injuries to key members, with Patric Hornqvist missing two games and Evgeni Malkin sitting out one. But regardless of the personnel used, the Penguins have to make sure they do a better job in this area.
One area both teams are clicking in is the penalty kill. The unit had a rollercoaster ride of a season and their ups and downs were thoroughly documented, but right now it's coming up clutch. The Penguins finished the First Round killing off 19 of 21 power plays, which ranked third in the NHL. The unit has been led by Riley Sheahan, who's been an absolute beast. They're going to have a huge challenge against the Capitals.
Meanwhile, after giving up four power-play goals while losing Games 1 and 2, the Caps locked it down for Games 3-6. They didn't allow Columbus to tally on the man-advantage in any of those games. That being said, the Pens had plenty of success against them during the regular season, going 6-for-19 (31.6 percent). There's three areas the Pens are going to have to focus on if they want to build on that: 1) entries, as the Caps have been lining up all four skaters at the blue line and forcing their opponent to try and breach the line; 2) faceoffs, as fourth-line center Jay Beagle has been absolutely dominant on shorthanded draws; and 3) Holtby's stickhandling ability, as he's so good at collecting dumped pucks below the goal line.
THREE OF THE BEST
Hockey fans should consider themselves lucky that they will get to watch the most decorated trio of this generation battle it out on the sport's biggest stage yet again.
Since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin debuted in 2005-06, they are the top-two scorers in the NHL. Ovechkin holds a six-point advantage (1,122 to 1,116) while playing in 139 more games. Evgeni Malkin ranks fourth with 930 points, though he played one less season. In that 13-year span, Ovechkin has won seven goal-scoring titles while Crosby has won two. Crosby and Malkin have won two NHL points titles each while Ovechkin has won one. And overall, the three have won seven of the 13 Hart Trophies (Ovechkin, 3; Crosby, 2; Malkin, 2).
Even though all three of them have entered their 30s - Ovechkin is 32, Malkin is 31 and Crosby is 30 - they are all still all playing at another level. Ovechkin scored twice in Washington's series clinching Game 6 win to give him five goals entering the Second Round. Crosby's six goals and 13 points are tied with Jake Guentzel for the league lead, while Malkin collected three goals and five points in five games before missing Game 6 due to injury.
And while hockey is a team sport, not an individual one, the chance to watch these three playing at this level is something special.