There is a common thread linking all five of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup–winning runs—each one included a playoff defeat of the Washington Capitals, including the past two postseasons, in both of which the Pens dispatched the Caps in the second round. Overall, Pittsburgh has won nine of 10 playoff series against Washington, and its only loss was 24 years ago. Pittsburgh-Washington is considered the NHL’s best rivalry, but it’s mostly been a one-sided bloodbath.
Beginning Thursday, the two teams are meeting for the third consecutive year in the second round. Will Sidney Crosby continue his playoff dominance of the Caps? Or can Alexander Ovechkin finally break his second-round hex? It’ll either be “Same Ol’ Pens” or “Same Ol’ Caps”—making lifelong Pens fan Cory McConnell or lifelong Caps fan Donnie Kwak either very happy or very sad.
Donnie Kwak: Let me first state that I’m not one of those fans who needs his favorite team to vanquish its arch nemesis in order to validate a championship run. Beating the Pens isn’t my Cup; winning the Cup would be my Cup. In fact, I wanted Pittsburgh to lose to the Rangers in the first round in 2016, and I rooted for Columbus (lol) to upset the Pens last year. I was a Flyers fan for the past two weeks. (Thanks for nothing, Philly.) All I want is a ring for Alexander Ovechkin, by any means necessary.
That said, on a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that this year’s Penguins will once again break Capital hearts?
Cory McConnell: I’m at about an 8, though a lot will depend on when Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin can return, and whether goalie Matt Murray continues to play well or slips back into his regular-season inconsistency.
Kwak: Friggin’ Hagelin. Of all the alarming stats for Caps fans heading into this series, this one was somehow the most unsettling:
The Washington Capitals have been eliminated by a team that has Carl Hagelin on their roster the last five times they've made the playoffs— Brandon (@Scout5231) April 17, 2018
McConnell: We got an amazing preview of what we’re likely to see in this series in the April 1 game, which provided a lot of profane yelling in Russian. Sidney Crosby will be relied on more than usual if Malkin misses significant time, but the Pens’ explosion of goals in Game 6 against the Flyers on Sunday shows they can still be productive in Geno’s absence (though the Caps’ defense will no doubt prove a tougher challenge than the Flyers’ blue line). If Crosby can avoid being a recipient of one of Matt Niskanen’s “hockey plays,” I see him continuing to lead the playoffs in points against his biggest rivals.
Let’s talk about the Caps, though: After last year’s second-round loss to Pittsburgh, there was a lot of talk about the “end of an era.” Yet Washington’s forward depth is still scary good and Braden Holtby is playing with a massive “How-wasn’t-I-always-the-starter?” chip on his shoulder. How do you see this year’s Caps as different than last year’s, and what does that mean for their chances in this series?
Kwak: I am cautiously optimistic about this team, but no more so than I was for the previous two iterations, both Presidents’ Trophy winners who flamed out prematurely against your squad. Last year’s Caps were stacked—on paper, the best roster in the Ovechkin era—but still couldn’t slay the dragon. And that’s why some idiots (like me) were ready to call “Rock the Red” dead last May.
This season, the popular narrative has been that the Capitals are under less pressure, since they didn’t breeze so easily through the regular season and are not prohibitive Cup favorites. Despite being the home team in this series, they’re underdogs against the Pens. Ultimately, I think it will all come down to Holtby, who underperformed in last year’s Pittsburgh series loss, and the Caps’ secondary scoring. Ovi and his fellow top-sixers will always get theirs, but will someone from the bottom-six forwards (Devante Smith-Pelly? Brett Connolly? Jakub Vrana?!) step up and produce? The Pens offense is so hard to stop because they get production all across their lineup.
Everyone knows Sid and Geno (if healthy) will also get theirs, but what’s so annoying about the Penguins is they seem to unearth an under-the-radar hero every postseason. You guys picked up Derick Brassard at the deadline, which scares me because he is a noted Caps killer. Who else do you think Caps fans should be wary of, beyond the All-Stars?
McConnell: On Sunday, when the Pens eliminated the Flyers, you know who led the team in ice time among Pittsburgh’s forwards? Riley Sheahan. Filling in for Malkin at second-line center, Sheahan performed admirably, winning faceoffs, netting an assist, helping to kill a 4-on-3, and most importantly, looking comfortable playing alongside Phil Kessel, the Pens’ most dangerous scorer. If Sheahan continues to center that second line while Malkin’s out, I could see him racking up a bunch of assists and chipping in a few goals during this series.
About Phil, though: It is concerning how lost he looked in much of the Flyers series. He recorded a solid five points in six games (including this beauty of an assist), but he shot the puck only nine times total for a 1.5 shots per game average, less than half of his career playoff average (3.3). In addition to Sheahan, look for Phil the Thrill to have a big series if he starts shooting the puck.
Kwak: Anybody but friggin’ Kessel. He still gives me (and probably Braden) nightmares for all of his playoff daggers against us the past two postseasons.
McConnell: You mean you see this when you close your eyes at night? For all his greatness, Phil comes with frustration too. His occasional unwillingness to shoot exemplifies the biggest complaint from Pens fans in recent years—that the Pens tend to overthink things. Forcing passes on the PP, committing lazy turnovers that result in goals, and trying to show off their high-caliber skill are bad habits for a squad that largely succeeds when they just throw everything they can at the net.
As you mentioned, the Pens have in previous years been lucky to get scoring contributions from young, scrappy players in the playoffs. I think that’s in large part because when they get the opportunity, rookies make the play that’s there instead of looking for a behind-the-back, no-look pass (although those are cool sometimes, too).
Honestly, the thing that concerns me most in this series is how physically punishing it’s been every time these teams meet in the playoffs. As you know, a litany of misconducts and suspensions have long defined these teams’ distaste for each other. So, who loses their cool first, and how does it happen? (Trick question, it’s Tom Wilson, it’s always Tom Wilson.)
Kwak: Wilson owns real estate in almost every NHL city, so he’s undoubtedly going to goad someone in a black-and-yellow sweater. (Don’t sleep on Willy’s burgeoning offensive game, though.) On your side, Patric Hornqvist will be an unrepentant a-hole, per usual. I’m interested to see how Game 1 is called by the refs. In the Columbus series, there was very little consistency to how post-whistle scrums were adjudicated. I have a feeling that the refs are going to try to set a “no post-whistle B.S.” standard early on in this series. But even if they don’t, I think players on either side know that a face wash isn’t worth the risk of putting their opponents on the power play—both teams are way too deadly with the man advantage.
Let’s talk defense for a sec: Part of the reason our loss to you guys last season was so disappointing was because you were without your best defenseman (Kris Letang) and you started your backup goalie (Marc-Andre Fleury). Well, Tanger’s back and Murray is in net. Doesn’t this make your team exponentially better on the defensive end?
McConnell: You should know better than to disparage Fleury by calling him a backup! He shut out the Caps in Game 7 last year, and was a huge reason the Pens won that series.
Kwak: Believe me … I remember.
McConnell: Having two no. 1 goalies was a massive help to the 2016 and 2017 Pens on their way to those Cups. But Murray’s regular-season struggles this year have been well-documented and he’s never made it through the playoffs without an injury. His backup is an extremely green Casey DeSmith.
So this year’s playoff Pens are a bit weaker in net and on D than last year’s edition. In 2017, the Pens thrived with a combination of Justin Schultz’s scoring touch, Trevor Daley’s speed and puck distribution, and Ian Cole’s ability to swallow up huge minutes in every game. Schultz is still around and looking good running point on the PP, but I think they’ll miss Cole and Daley as the playoffs go on (Ron Hainsey, not so much).
Letang’s play has also taken a step back this year. I’m a huge fan of his, and no one could fault him for not looking like his former self post-neck surgery and after a scary bout with a stroke several years ago. Despite his reduced effectiveness, he’s still one of the most relentless, prideful players I’ve ever seen and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him step up in a big way this series.
What about the Caps blue line? What are their strengths and faults (aside from giving Brooks Orpik $5.5 million this year)?
Kwak: The much-maligned Orpik is persecuted mostly for his cap hit, not his actual play. On the ice, 44’s been a serviceable (if middling) third-pair defenseman and he was immense on the penalty kill against Columbus, who went zero for their last 16 PPs. Otherwise, the Caps’ blue line has been good enough, even without a traditional no. 1 defenseman: John Carlson racks up points on the PP while the Matt Niskanen–Dmitry Orlov pairing gets the toughest assignments. The addition of Michal Kempny, acquired from Chicago in February, has been critical in solidifying the lineup. Pittsburgh’s team speed killed us last year; even though we still have the plodding Orpik, overall I think our D is faster, which I hope will play a factor in keeping up with and neutralizing Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, et. al.
And yet … it’s the Penguins against the Capitals. Ewing’s Knicks never beat Jordan’s Bulls in the postseason, and sometimes I fear the same fate for Ovi vs. Sid. I’m not sure how many Caps-Pens playoff series you’ve lived through, but I’ve suffered through them all (except 1994, which was great). Be honest with me, Cory. You have no doubt you’re going to win, right?
McConnell: Here’s what I’ll say: The Pens, despite looking more vulnerable than in previous years, are still riding some serious playoff momentum. Mike Sullivan hasn’t lost a playoff series since coming to Pittsburgh. Same for Murray. Sid’s coming off consecutive Conn Smythes in an era when teams just don’t repeat as champions.
Kwak: I’m glad you brought up Sullivan, because many feel that the Pittsburgh bench boss thoroughly outcoached Barry Trotz last season, making in-series adjustments that exploited Washington’s weaknesses (the aforementioned slow D being one of them). Trotz’s contract expires when this season ends, and I’d be shocked if he returns if the Caps don’t beat the Pens. Against Columbus, Trotz finally seemed to make the tactical decisions that can turn a series around. He may still give too short a leash to younger players like Vrana, but at least he’s proved that he will shake things up (starting Philipp Grubauer for games 1 and 2 and relying heavily on rookies Chandler Stephenson and Christian Djoos) when necessary.
Of course, the Caps are objectively better than the Blue Jackets; they have yet to prove they are better than Pittsburgh. As much as Ovi’s legacy is on the line here, Trotz’s is too—both are regular-season masters with little material playoff success to show for it. I really thought it was going to happen last season, but alas ...
McConnell: I can remind you: Last year, the Caps came back from a 3-1 hole to tie the series in a 5-2 Game 6 clobbering of the Pens in Pittsburgh. Facing the prospect of having to go back to Washington and beat the Caps on their ice in Game 7, here’s what Malkin had to say:
“They think they can win Game 7. I say, ‘No.’”
The Caps faithful have a lot of reasons to feel good about the run they’re on, but at the risk of jinxing my team, I say no. And yet, it’s hockey. Our beloved sport, maybe more than any other, is prone to flukes, bad breaks, bounces, calls, series swinging on injuries, and the like. Anything could happen. What will definitely happen is that I’ll be speaking to you very little starting Thursday night.
Kwak: And I’ll be in your ear all series. Worst of luck to you, Cory. May the Capitals win.
McConnell: Pens in six. “Big taste” 2018.