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Key matchup: The Penguins' power play vs. the Capitals' penalty kill

Key matchup: The Penguins' power play vs. the Capitals' penalty kill

The special teams battle looms large in most playoff meetings, and it figures to be absolutely huge in the Pittsburgh-Washington series, particularly when the Penguins are on the power play.

“They have very good personnel with high hockey I.Q. and high skill level,” Coach Barry Trotz said Wednesday. “When they do get moving around, they just sort of replace each other in a lot of areas but still get the job done [while] they give you a little bit of a different look.”

“And,” he added, “obviously they have great execution with some great pieces. And they have net front [presence] with [Patric] Hornqvist whom I know very well. They are hungry around the net.”

RELATED: 3 reasons to be optimistic Caps will get past the Penguins

Indeed, the Pens have been outstanding with the man advantage thus far in the postseason. Against Columbus, the Evgeni Malkin-and Phil Kessel-fueled unit struck at least once in four of the five games, connecting at a robust 33.3-percent rate (5 for 15), the best mark among teams still in the playoffs. (The Caps’ power play ranks second at 29.4-percent).

“They've got some good shooters in Kessel and [Sidney] Crosby on the flanks that can finish,” Lars Eller said. “And [Justin] Schultz on top, too. They have a lot of weapons but we are going to be well-prepared.”

Here are a few more numbers you should know about this critical matchup:

  • The Caps were no slouches on the penalty kill in the opening round. In fact, Jay Beagle, Eller and Co. killed off 83.3-percent of the shorthanded situations they faced, including five in a row in Games 5 and 6 against Toronto as they eked out consecutive 2-1 OT.
  • Two of the top three and three of the top 11-power play producers in the playoffs are Pens—Malkin (4 assists), Kessel (2 goals, 2 assists) and Schultz (3 assists).
  • In the teams’ four regular season meetings, the Pens' power play went 2-for-3 in their two wins but just 2-for-9 in their two losses.

Beagle, the Caps’ top penalty killing forward, says he always looks forward to the challenge of facing skilled, versatile power plays like the Pens’ unit.  

“They have an unreal power play,” Beagle said. “It’s been great for years. The thing with them is they always seem to have new looks. It’s always something different. They’re not going in with the one thing. They have their basic setups and stuff but they always have their different looks. That makes it a pretty special power play. It’s pretty cool actually to kill against that.”

But Xs and Os aren’t all the Caps will need to come out on top in this matchup. They’ll also need to do a better job of staying out of the penalty box. Among teams still in the playoffs, the Caps taken more minor penalties (25) than anyone else.  

“We are capable of playing games without taking many penalties,” Eller said. “In Game 6 [vs. Toronto] we took [two]. That’s the kind of game that we have to be prepared to play. I think the more you have the puck during five-on-five, the less you’re going to be chasing and the less chances you are going to have to take penalties. So it really starts with a good five-on-five game and then you’re really stacking the deck in your favor.”

Trotz added:  “You got to play with edge but you can’t go over the edge. I thought our discipline was good and got better as the [Toronto] series went on. It doesn’t mean you can’t hit, but you have to stay disciplined.”

MORE CAPITALS: 3 reasons to worry about the Penguins

Check out the latest edition of the Capitals Faceoff Podcast and subscribe on Apple podcastsAudioboom and Google Play!

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3 reasons to be optimistic the Caps will get past the Penguins

3 reasons to be optimistic the Caps will get past the Penguins

I know history says Alex Ovechkin and the President Trophy winning Caps will stub their toe against Sidney Crosby and the defending champion Penguins. But I’m here to tell you that this is the year things will unfold differently.

See 3 reasons to worry about the Penguins here

1. Bottom-six depth

A big story all season has been the Caps’ third and fourth lines and how they provided the scoring depth the team had lacked, particularly in last year’s postseason matchup against the Penguins. So far in these playoffs, Tom Wilson has three goals, including the OT winner in Game 1 vs. Toronto and two goals in Game 4, while Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky each have a pair of helpers. The fourth line, however, has yet to chip in offensively. Soooo…it's been a little hit or miss, to be sure. But this much is not up for debate: the bottom six is a lot better than it was a year ago. And I suspect this is the series where they'll flex their collective muscle and pop a couple of big goals, just as they did throughout the regular season.

RELATED: Alzner's status for second round remains unclear

2. How the Caps responded when challenged in the first round

The Caps feel they are hardened mentally and emotionally after enduring a difficult first round series that saw them play five OT games and rally from a 2-1 series deficit in the Toronto-pressure cooker. Remember the third period and overtime of Game 6, after the fortuitous bounce that led to Auston Matthews’ go-ahead goal? The Caps’ response felt different than what we might have seen in previous years. There’s also reason to believe Ovechkin and Co. are better prepared from an Xs and Os standpoint because of the similarities between Toronto and Pittsburgh. “It was a good warmup because they play an up-tempo game,” Coach Barry Trotz saidWednesday. “They’ve got some dynamic forwards. They’re quick. They play that pressure game which the Penguins do.”

3. Goaltending

Braden Holtby is ready to steal a game (or three) after an uneven first round. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner returned to form in Games 5 and 6 of the Toronto series, stopping 61 of 63 shots to help the Caps eke out a pair of 2-1 OT wins. He he’ll need to be a difference maker against the Pens, whose offense is tops in the playoffs at 4.20 goals per game. Holtby will also need to be the Caps’ best penalty killer against a versatile Pittsburgh unit that has goals in four of its five postseason games and is clicking along at 33.3-percent. It’s a huge task. But Holtby's playoff history—and strong finish against the Leafs—suggests to me that he’s ready for it. 

MORE CAPITALS: Alzner: "It's the biggest series I've ever played"

Check out the latest edition of the Capitals Faceoff Podcast and subscribe on Apple podcastsAudioboom and Google Play!

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3 reasons to worry about the Pittsburgh Penguins

3 reasons to worry about the Pittsburgh Penguins

The Capitals welcome in the Pittsburgh Penguins to Washington on Thursday for Game 1 of last year’s rematch. Washington may have home-ice advantage after beating out Pittsburgh for the Metropolitan Division, but there are still plenty of reasons to be nervous about a matchup with the Penguins.

1. History

The Caps and Penguins have faced one another nine times in the playoffs. Washington’s record? A paltry 1-8 with their lone win coming in 1994. Does the fact that the Caps lost to Pittsburgh in 1996 have any bearing on this series? No, but the Caps and Penguins have faced twice in the Alex Ovechkin/Sidney Crosby era with Pittsburgh emerging victorious both times including in 2016. The 2017 Penguins return many of the key pieces that not only helped them beat Washington, but win the Stanley Cup as well.

RELATED: Alzner's status for second round remains unclear

2. Washington’s third defensive pair

The playoffs have a way of revealing a team’s weaknesses and one certainly emerged in the first round for Washington. Most people dismiss +/- as an antiquated stat, but while it may paint a very limited picture of an individual’s performance, it can be very telling in terms of lines. Through the first round, Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk are tied for dead last on the team with a minus-4. The fact that they are a defensive pair makes this a very telling stat. Las year’s Penguins team was able to exploit the Caps’ third pair as the Caps cycled in Orpik, Dmitry Orlov, Taylor Chorney and Mike Weber. An Orpik-Shattenkirk pair is certainly stronger than what the Caps rolled out last year, but it does not appear that they are as strong as many had hoped.

3. Did you see what Pittsburgh did to Columbus?

The Columbus Blue Jackets finished the regular season with the fourth-best record in the NHL. Yet, their postseason lasted just five games as Pittsburgh beat them like a drum. The Caps are a better team than Columbus and appear to be a tougher matchup, but one can’t help but be impressed with how quickly and decisively the Penguins dispatched the Jackets. Plus, for a team dealing with a handful of injuries, getting a few days off after a short series allowed them more time to get healthy.

RELATED: STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF POWER RANKINGS

Check out the latest edition of the Capitals Faceoff Podcast and subscribe on Apple podcastsAudioboom and Google Play!