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Round 2 Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Capitals

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins vs. Flyers Round One Schedule:

Wednesday, April 11 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Friday, April 13 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Sunday, April 15 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 3:00 p.m. - NBC
Wednesday, April 18 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Friday, April 20 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Sunday, April 22 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - TBD - TBD
*Tuesday, April 24 - Tampa Bay at PITTSBURGH - TBD - TBD

Pittsburgh Penguins
Overall: 48-26-8
VS Washington Capitals
Overall: 56-18-8
Home: 29-8-4

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals
Gm 1 Thursday, April 28  8:00PM
Gm 2 Saturday, April 30 8:00PM
Gm 3 Monday, May 2 8:00PM
Gm 4 Wednesday, May 4
Gm 5 *
Saturday, May 7 TBD
Gm 6 *
Tuesday, May 10
Gm 7 *
Thursday, May 12
Games marked in BOLD indicate home games.
* If necessary
All times EDT
  F Beau Bennett, undisclosed
F Pascal Dupuis, IR
G Marc-Andre Fleury, concussion
F Kevin Porter, ankle surgery
F Scott Wilson, lower body
  D Brooks Orpik, undisclosed


Here are the main storylines to follow as the Penguins play the Capitals in the Round 2 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Pens used the term ‘the past is the past’ so often in the First Round when discussing their history with the Rangers, who had eliminated them two years in a row. The Caps are surely using that same phrase when discussing their history with the Pens. Pittsburgh enters this matchup having won seven of the first eight series between the teams, including the dramatic 4-3 upset in 2009.

That year, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin put forth breathtaking performances. Both players scored eight times, with Ovechkin totaling 14 points and Crosby 13. In Game 2 of that series, the pair had matching hat tricks, the first of eithers’ playoff career.

Following Washington’s Game 2 win, the Capitals held a 2-0 series lead. But the Penguins won the next three, before a David Steckel overtime goal in Game 6 at Mellon Arena set the stage for a dramatic conclusion. Crosby struck for two goals and three points in Pittsburgh’s 6-2 Game 7 victory, including the game’s opening goal. Ovechkin had a chance right before Crosby’s goal to put the Capitals ahead, but he was denied on a breakaway by Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Evgeni Malkin was also dominant for the Penguins in 2009, leading all players with eight assists Among his 10 points. He scored the overtime goal in Game 5 at the Verizon Center. Malkin went on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring. Pittsburgh blueliner Kris Letang had six points (3G-3A), while the Capitals’ Nick Backstrom had eight points (3G-5A).

A total of nine players from that series will be potentially involved in this one. Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury and Chris Kunitz remain with Pittsburgh. Ovechkin and Backstrom are still with Washington. Two players – the Pens’ Eric Fehr and the Cap’ Brooks Orpik – will switch sides this time around. Fleury missed the Penguins’ entire series win over the Rangers, while Orpik sat out the last three contests of Washington’s series, both due to injury.

After a seven-year wait, the hockey Gods finally delivered fans a second playoff matchup involving three of the NHL’s generational talents of the 2000s – Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.

Crosby and Ovechkin were the first of the trio to play in the NHL, making their debuts in 2005 06. Since then, they are the top-two regular-season scorers in the league. During that span, Crosby ranks first in points per game (1.33), with Ovechkin third at 1.15. Right in between the two? None other than Malkin at 1.18. In addition, Crosby (1.20) and Malkin (1.12) rank Nos. 1-2 among active players in average playoff points per game while Ovechkin averages 0.96

All three enter this series playing phenomenal hockey. Crosby rebounded from a five-point October that saw him tied for 148th in the scoring race at the end of the first month to a third-place overall finish with 85 points. He outscored all NHL players from Dec. 12 through the end of the season, tallying 66 points. Overall, Crosby tallied points in 20 of his final 21 games to carry the Pens from the outskirts of the playoff field to home-ice advantage in the opening round. And in that first round, Crosby led the Pens with 8 points (3G-5A) in Round 1 – which ranks tied for third in playoff scoring.

Malkin was the Pens’ most consistent producer throughout the first half. Unfortunately, Malkin was forced to miss 25 of the Pens’ last 33 games (and 15 straight) due to injury. He returned in Game 2 and ended up tallying seven points (2G-5A) in just four games played. His best effort came in Game 4, where he exploded with two goals and two assists in the Pens’ 5-0 victory.

Meanwhile, Ovechkin continues to be the NHL’s best goal scorer at age 30 and just won his fourth straight Rocket Richard Trophy after reaching the 50-goal mark for the third consecutive season and seventh time overall. He recorded five points (3G-2A) in six games during the first round, but perhaps more importantly, he was an absolutely punishing physical presence against the Flyers. Ovechkin loves using his 6-foot-3, 239-pound frame to wear down defensemen, and the Pens’ blueliners have to be ready for that.

Despite all of the superstars that will be on the ice, the players are adamant that it’s about the name on the front of the jersey – not the one on the back. As Pens head coach Mike Sullivan put it, “I know there’s a lot of storylines surrounding this series, but for me, it’s about two good hockey teams going at each other. With all due respect to all the individual players, they’re great players, they’re entertaining, they’re fun to watch, they’re terrific players. But for me and from our standpoint, this is about two teams playing against one another.”

And what a couple of teams they are. The Capitals are the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy winners, finishing the regular season with 120 points, 16 more than the Pens – who finished with the second-best record in the East. Both clubs finished near the top of most team statistical categories.

They can both put the puck in the back of the net, as the Caps had the NHL’s second-ranked offense while the Pens shot up to third. Washington’s defense also ranked second, while Pittsburgh’s was sixth. And when it came to special teams, these clubs were dominant.

The Capitals had the NHL’s second-best PK unit (85.2%) and the Penguins iced the fifth-best unit (84.4%). Washington’s 21.9% conversion rate (55 for 251) on the power play ranked fifth overall in the NHL, and while the Penguins came in at just 18.3% (48 for 261) – the 16th-highest total –Pittsburgh was much better under Mike Sullivan. From his first game through the end of the regular season, the Penguins went 33 for 165 (20.0%) on the man-advantage – a success rate that was eighth in the NHL during that span.

Both teams carried over all of that success into the postseason, and that in itself would make this a heck of a series. Factor in the existing rivalry, and fans better buckle up.

Pens assistant coach Jacques Martin, who oversees the team’s penalty kill – which finished the regular season ranked fifth in the NHL – will have his work cut out for him this series. Washington’s power play was second in the league and the biggest reason they defeated Philadephia in the first round.

The Caps went 8-for-27 in the series, which included an outburst of five power-play goals in a 6-1 Game 3 victory (although Washington did go 0-for-10 in the final 3 games of the series). A player to watch will be John Carlson, the lone defenseman on that first unit – as he scored three of those markers against Philly and has a tremendous shot from the point. But of course, Washington’s most dangerous threat is Ovechkin – who scored 19 of his 50 goals on the man-advantage and is so lethal with his wicked release from the left circle. And those two get pucks fed to them by Backstrom, who runs the entire operation.

That all being said, Pittsburgh’s power play is actually operating at a slightly higher level than Washington’s heading into the second round. The Pens scored at least once on the man-advantage in all five games against the Rangers, scoring eight times in 21 chances for a league-high 38.1-percent success rate.

Evgeni Malkin settled in back in his spot on the first unit, collecting five of his seven points on the power play – which tied Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel for the team lead. Nick Bonino starred on the second unit and in 4-on-3 play, finishing with three assists. They’ll be going up against a penalty kill unit that finished second in the league.

The Pens are certainly facing their share of world-class netminders so far this postseason. First Henrik Lundqvist, now Braden Holtby – who is a favorite to win his first Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender after a terrific regular season that saw him equal Martin Brodeur’s single-season record of 48 wins. Holtby carried that strong play into the first round against the Flyers – giving up just five goals in six games and posting two shutouts.
After dominating the Pens during the 2014-15 regular season, Holtby was the starter in all five games against Pittsburgh in 2015-16. He went 2-2-1 with a 2.90 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. Among teams he faced more than once, the only club that he had a higher GAA against was the New York Rangers (3.48). Holtby is 5-7-1 in 13 career games against the Penguins.

At the other end, if Matt Murray remains the Pens’ starting netminder in Round 2 he’ll do so having already played two games against the Caps at Verizon Center this year. Murray got the call for the Penguins on March 1, a 3-2 Washington comeback win. He stopped 34 of 37 shots in the setback – Murray’s only road loss thus far. One month later, Murray avenged that defeat by helping the Penguins secure home-ice advantage in the opening round by leading Pittsburgh to a 4-3 overtime win where he made 27 saves on 30 shots.

Murray will enter this round having won 10-straight decisions (regular season and playoffs) since that loss to Washington on March 1. In those 10 games, Murray has a 1.87 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage and two shutouts. Overall, Murray has combined regular season and playoff totals that include a 12-2-1 record, a 1.87 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage.

Three players in the series will flip sweaters and go against their long-time former team. Pens forward Eric Fehr, who finished Round 1 skating on a line with Evgeni Malkin, played nine of his first 10 years with Washington. Fehr, who scored the game-winning goal in Pittsburgh’s Game 4 win against New York, had 19 goals for Washington just one season ago – the second-highest total of his career (21 in 2009-10).

Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik played more games for the Penguins (703) than any other defender in franchise history. The long-time alternate captain and the first core building block of Pittsburgh’s massive early-2000s rebuild helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009, and make a Cup Final appearance the previous spring in ‘08. He was named the team’s Players’ Player Award winner each of his last four seasons with Pittsburgh. The award is chosen each year by the players themselves. However, Orpik did miss the last three games of the first round due to injury.

Matt Niskanen rehabilitated his NHL career in Pittsburgh, going from a bottom-pairing defender when he arrived to one of Pittsburgh’s best two-way threats by the time he left in the summer of 2014. Much of the credit for Niskanen’s revival should go to current Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden, who helped nurture Niskanen during his run with the Penguins. In his final year in Pittsburgh, Niskanen stepped up to replace the injured Kris Letang, leading all Penguins blueliners with a career-best 46 points (10G-36A).

Washington’s roster also includes versatile forward Daniel Winnik and defenseman Taylor Chorney, who both played for the Penguins during the stretch run last year, and during the first-round loss to the New York Rangers.
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