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Round 2 Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Capitals

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, the NHL's top two teams from the regular season, will play each other in the Second Round of the postseason for the second straight year.

This marks the first time in the shootout era (since 2005-06) and the first time since the 2001 Stanley Cup Final that the NHL's top two regular-season teams will meet in a playoff series.

Here's a look at some of the biggest storylines…

BATTLE READY

The Caps had yet another terrific regular season, finishing with 118 points and earning themselves a second straight Presidents' Trophy as the league's top team. They're such a deep, talented and complete team and favored by many to win their first-ever Stanley Cup. But to do that, they will have to go through the defending champions.

The Pens know better than most teams about the weight of pressure and expectations, something the Caps are dealing with now after years of playoff disappointment - most of it coming at the hands of the boys in black and gold. This marks the 10th time these teams are meeting in the postseason, with Pittsburgh going 8-1 in the previous nine matchups.

Both clubs are so competitive and have such high expectations - Stanley Cup or bust. But only one can move on in their pursuit of that goal, while the other will end up disappointed. It's going to be a dogfight to determine who advances, considering that no NHL teams have won more games or scored more goals than these two clubs over the last two seasons.

"It is going to be a battle," defenseman Ian Cole said. "They are a great team and have a lot of great players and everyone here is excited for that. We ended up winning last year, which is great, but everyone here knows the margin of error is very small come playoff time. A couple bounces here or there and they very easily could have won that series. We know we need to be at our best every shift that we're out there."

ROOM TO IMPROVE

The Pens did a lot of good things to eliminate Columbus, who finished fourth overall in the league standings during the regular season, in just five games. That being said, there are a lot of areas in which the Pens need to improve in if they want to beat a team like Washington - beginning with their starts. The Blue Jackets outplayed the Pens when the puck dropped, outshooting them by a wide margin most nights and usually getting the first goal.

The Pens also struggled to get out of their end. The Blue Jackets are one of the better forechecking teams in the league and they use their size and speed to their advantage to put a lot of pressure on defensemen. Head coach Mike Sullivan said the Pens have to exit their end zone cleaner, which will be an even bigger challenge against Washington - who's strong on both the forecheck and counterattack. "They have different styles," Cole said. "They can get in the forecheck and go hard in the forecheck, but they can play a skill game. They are a team that can really hurt you in transition and counter attack game."

Finally, Sullivan wants his team to do a better job of handling momentum swings within games. He said they need to simplify their game and do a better job of not allowing their opponent to put them on their heels.

FLEURY VS. HOLTBY

After facing Vezina Trophy finalist Sergei Bobrovsky in the First Round, the Pens will go up against the reigning award winner - and finalist again this year - in Braden Holtby. The netminder shared the NHL lead with 42 wins while his nine shutouts ranked first. He was in the top-five for both goals-against average (2.05) and save percentage (.925).

Holtby struggled to start the postseason, allowing four goals in each of the first three games. Caps head coach Barry Trotz characterized his play as "fine," adding that it didn't help Holtby was dealing with a lot of bouncing pucks. However, Holtby got his game back on track when it counted the most, stopping 61 of 63 shots in Games 5 and 6 to help his team advance. They'll need him to continue playing at that level against a team like the Pens, whose best offensive players have been just that in addition to rookie Jake Guentzel having a breakout performance with five goals in the First Round. 

Marc-Andre Fleury was fantastic in the First Round, where he got the emergency start in Game 1 after Matt Murray suffered an injury in warmups and went on to have one of the best series of his career. The veteran netminder won four of his five starts and posted a .923 save percentage. He gave his team a chance to win every night, making clutch and timely saves at key moments and keeping them in it when the Blue Jackets had momentum - especially early in games. They're going to need Fleury to continue that against the Caps with the depth Washington has on offense.

Overall, both goalies will have their work cut out for them with all of the superstar and All-Star talent on the ice - and we saw that in the crazy matchup between the teams on Jan. 16 at PPG Paints Arena, where Pittsburgh topped Washington 8-7 in overtime led by Evgeni Malkin's hat trick. The Pens finished the regular season with the NHL's top-ranked offense (and continued that goal-scoring ability into the First Round), while the Caps finished third in that category.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Going off that, with all the offensive firepower these teams have, man-advantages are going to be crucial considering it's a chance to get all of that talent on the ice at once. Pittsburgh's power play was a difference-maker in the series against Columbus, scoring five times on 15 tries. Phil Kessel tallied two of those while Evgeni Malkin assisted on four, and he said the biggest reasons for their success is familiarity and simplicity.

"It's the same guys," Malkin said. "Phil, Sid, me, we lost 'Tanger' (Kris Letang) and we start to practice with 'Schultzy' (Justin Schultz), but it's about just moving the puck. We're not trying to do so many things. We just work a couple things and it's worked. Phil is the most dangerous guy on our power play because he has great hands, he uses his hands, he can shoot, he can pass to me or 'Sid' (Sidney Crosby), he's our guy. We give him the puck and after we see what he does."

Washington also scored five power-play goals in the First Round on 17 tries, with three of those goals being scored by - you guessed it - Alex Ovechkin. He's so dangerous with that one timer from the left circle. But Nicklas Backstrom is just as much of a threat with his playmaking ability. Backstrom finished the regular-season series against Pittsburgh with an eye-popping four goals and 12 points in four games. They also acquired Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline from St. Louis, who's stepped in as the quarterback.

It's going to be a huge challenge for the Pens' PKers to shut that unit down, and the biggest key is going to be staying out of the box. They did a terrific job of being disciplined against Columbus - we'll see if that can continue against Washington.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

* There's a few Pens in particular to watch during this series - starting with Conor Sheary. The young winger experienced a scoring slump in Round 1, posting just one assist. That prompted Sullivan to move him onto a line with Nick Bonino and Scott Wilson, and the head coach's message for Sheary was to not be so hard on himself and just play. He said Sheary is still playing good hockey and as long as he keeps his mindset and focus in the right place and doesn't dwell on circumstances he'll be fine. We'll see if he takes that to heart in Round 2.

* Guentzel was the breakout star of the First Round, scoring five goals in five games. He's certainly going to have the Caps' attention in the Second Round, and the rookie winger is well aware of how tight it's going to be out there and how little room he'll have to work with. "I've just got to try and play my game and create chances, I think that's the biggest thing now," he said. "It's tougher to get to those areas, but you just have to embrace it."

* Patric Hornqvist slotted into Sheary's spot alongside Guentzel and Crosby in Game 5 against Columbus, and has been practicing there the last few days. He certainly brings a ton of energy, compete and battle level to that line and will be looking to make Holtby's life miserable - especially since Hornqvist said most goals in the postseason are scored around the blue paint. "It's tight games and it's hard to find scoring chances out there," he said. "And if you throw the puck you may get lucky every once in a while, get the bounce or rebound and score goals. I think around the crease is going to be a big key to this series."

* Crosby and Malkin finished the First Round red-hot. Crosby had two goals and seven points, while Malkin - coming off a lower-body injury that forced him to miss the last 13 regular-season games - exploded for an NHL-leading two goals and 11 points. Depth scoring is incredibly important, but in order to beat a team like Washington, the Pens are also going to need their best players to continue being just that.

* Finally, I'll leave you with this: BONINO! BONINO! BONINO! Does anything more need to be said?

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