It’s kind of amazing, while feeling completely inevitable, that we ended up here again. The Capitals were not supposed to be good, much less win the Metro again. The Penguins flirted with both ends of the spectrum this season, flipping between simply awful and simply brilliant sometimes game-to-game. So it was thought the Penguins might have lost by now, or that the Caps would. All of that conveniently forgot that the rest of the division has to wear a helmet both on and off the ice at all times, and were never going to get in they way of these two again. But for once, it’s probably the third-best and third-most anticipated series of this round instead of being the main event of the entire playoffs as its been the past two years. Could that lessening of the spotlight be what the Capitals need to finally get one over their black and gold clad tormentors?
Let’s run it through:
Goalies: The Penguins don’t have any questions. Matt Murray wasn’t excellent against the Flyers, but he didn’t have to be while the Flyers were recreating the Budweiser Frogs in net all series. He’ll probably have to be better here, you’d think. Ovechkin doesn’t tend to lose his mind and principles in the playoffs the way Claude Giroux does, and he comes with Kuznetsov, Oshie, Backstrom, and some spiky bottom-sixers. Murray beat them two years ago but was injured last year so it was left to Fleury to stand by and watch the Caps hilariously fold in on themselves. Murray wasn’t particularly good against the Caps this year, going 2-2-0 while turning around 12 times in four games. But then he wasn’t particularly good in the regular season overall and he still finds himself here.
It would appear the Caps are now settled on Braden Holtby, who gets the chance to make amends for what was a very disappointing season. The incoming hero seems to have brightened his mood, as he threw a .932 at the Jackets in five appearances. But the Jackets don’t come with anything like Crosby, Kessell, Malkin (if he’s healthy), Hornqvist, Guentzel, and a host of others who have proven to be dependable playoff scorers. But Holtby already knows this. He was excellent two years ago and it wasn’t his fault that the Caps lost three OT games. He was pretty awful last year and was a big reason the Caps lost. He’s going to have to at least split the difference here, and unless you play a Guy Boucher-trap-until-everyone-strokes-out system to protect your goalie, these Penguins just don’t get goalie’d.
Defense: The Penguins defense always seems to play above its head, no matter who’s in the lineup and who isn’t. Dumoulin, Letang, Maatta, and Schultz were mostly excellent against the Flyers, and they were under serious pressure at times. The Penguins do make it easier on their d-men where they’re not asked to connect on breakout passes all the time but simply chips into space in the neutral zone for their speedy forwards to latch onto. This certainly helps them. Ruhwedel and Oleksiak are limited but aren’t asked to do much, and the Caps don’t quite have the depth they used to to really get at them.
At first, it looks like John Carlson was adding to his UFA presentation package with nine points in six games against the Jackets. But all of them came on the power play and the Penguins are just not going to be as forgiving. That said, the Caps top four on paper matches the Penguins’, if not better. And that includes Michal Kempny which makes me want to put my fist through a wall and eat the drywall that ends up on the floor. Just like the Penguins, Orpik and Djoos have their issues on the bottom pairing, but the difference is that the Pens do have the forward depth to really expose them, at least if Malkin plays and Brassard isn’t asked for more. Home ice once again matters… or it would if this weren’t the Caps.
Forwards: At this point everyone knows the deal with the Penguins. A lineup loaded with fast, shifty wingers bolstered by perhaps the best center-depth in the league. That depends on the health of Evgeni Malkin. He won’t play Game 1, is a stretch for Game 2 but is probably back after that. Even without him, the Pens put up eight goals in Game 6. Brassard is a decent enough stand-in, though they leave him on the third line with Sheary and Rust and Sheahan fills in between Kessel and Hagelin. Either way, the Penguins can and do get you from everywhere, and expect Orpik to look completely bewildered at times.
This isn’t the Caps group you remember, as it is far top heavier than it was. If Ovie and Kuznetsov and Oshie don’t score in this series, at evens or the power play, the Caps are toast. Smith-Pelley and Eller and Vrana are the kinds of players you’d expect to provide support scoring, and they’ll need to. Even with all that, Tom Wilson is going to take a really dumb penalty or 12 that the Penguins will cash in on that will shift the series. It’s just what happens. There is more depth here than the Caps get credit for but it’s not the same as the past two years. And it wasn’t enough the past two years. If Malkin misses the first two games then Backstrom and Kuznetsov have to take advantage. As soon as the Caps lose a home game all the gremlins in their heads come out to dance again.
Prediction: There’s a part of me that really wants to pick the Caps here, just for something different. But everywhere you look, you can’t see where they’re markedly better than the Penguins, if better at all. You’re counting on something you can’t predict happening for them. Maybe Holtby plays incredibly. Maybe Ovechkin binges. Maybe Lars Eller goes off. Maybe their power play stays so hot. But when looking at things that are on the baselines for both these teams, everything for the Penguins just seems likelier. Pens in 6.