Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: Eastern Conference Semifinal, Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

On Thursday evening, the Washington Capitals will open their second-round series in the 2017 postseason by hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins.  In the postseason history of the Capitals, they have faced no team more often than the Penguins.  In 244 postseason games in franchise history, the Capitals and the Penguins faced off 55 times (tied with the New York Rangers). 

It is a history dominated by the Penguins, who have won eight of nine series against the Caps and have a game record of 34-21.  Adding insult to injury, in each of the Penguins’ four Stanley Cup seasons, they defeated the Caps on their way to the championship, twice emerging victorious in a seven-game series, both times on Washington ice.  This is the historical baggage that the franchise carries into their second-round series against the Pens. 

History makes for interesting discussion, not to mention a fair amount of trolling, if you are the club on the winning side of the divide.  But it goes only so far.  As far as this season goes, it was an interesting four games between the clubs…

Four Snowflakes…Each One Different

The Caps had little problem finding the back of the Penguin net in the season series, averaging 5.25 goals per game over the four games.  They didn’t even have that much of a problem keeping the Penguins off the board, except for a bizarre 11-minute stretch of the second period of the contest between the teams on January 16th in which the Penguins scored six goals on ten shots in what would be an 8-7 overtime win to end the season series.  That barrage pushed to the background the fact that over the rest of the series, the Caps held the Penguins to seven goals on 125 shots (a .939 save percentage).

It was one of two extra time wins the Pens posted in the season series, the other coming on Opening Night, when the Pens celebrated their Stanley Cup banner-raising with a 3-2 Gimmick win over Washington.  In between, the Caps turned the Penguins into sea lion chow with 5-2 and 7-1 wins at Verizon Center.

While each of the team won their games on home ice and lost on the road, the progress over the course of the season suggested the ice tilting in the Pens’ direction.  Washington out-shot the Penguins and out-attempted them at 5-on-5 in the first two games, which the teams split.  The Pens won those possession number comparisons in the last two games of the season series, also split by the teams.

The Caps were more efficient on offense over the course of the series, putting a larger share of their shot attempts on goal and scoring goals on a larger share of their shots on goal.


The Caps scored 21 goals in the four games.  In doing so, they had remarkable balance, albeit among a small (or perhaps smaller than expected) group of players.  Six skaters combined for 19 of the 21 goals, led (again, perhaps unexpectedly) by Nicklas Backstrom with four.  Five other skaters – Justin Williams, Lars Eller (another surprise), T.J. Oshie, Alex Ovechkin, and Andre Burakovsky – each had three in the season series.  Brett Connolly and Dmitry Orlov rounded out the goal-scoring, Orlov being the only defender to record a goal in the season series for the Caps.

The setting up of goals did not exhibit quite the same balance for the Caps, and it had a substantively different mix of players.  Backstrom and Oshie led in assists with eight and seven, respectively.  The assist totals drop off from there, defensemen Matt Niskanen and John Carlson with four and three, respectively.  Marcus Johansson also had three.  The result was a scoring profile that was weighted to the top line.  Backstrom (12), Oshie (10), and Ovechkin (5, tied with Burakovsky) leading in points in the season series. 

On the other side, Pittsburgh finished the season with 13 goals in the four games, but more than a third of that total was recorded by Evgeni Malkin, who had five.  No other Penguin had more than two (Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist).  On the helper side, Justin Schultz led the club with six assists and tied Malkin for the team lead in points.  To the extent he could be contained, Sidney had five points (1-4-5) in three games, missing the Opening Night contest won by the Penguins, 3-2, in a Gimmick.

The Caps might have had a single goal from its defensemen in the season series, but Dmitry Orlov’s goal was still one more than the entire squad of nine defensemen to dress for the Penguins in the season series.  In addition to Schultz’ six assists from the blue line, Pittsburgh got helpers from Trevor Daley (3), Olli Maatta, and Kris Letang.

So…who are the obvious and the
not-so obvious key skaters for Washington?

Last year, the Caps got precious little in their series against the Penguins from Evgeny Kuznetsov, despite finishing tenth in the league in scoring.  It is part of a longer scoring drought Kuznetsov has had in the postseason, going 2-3-5, minus-5, over his last 19 postseason games.  He has not had much success against Pittsburgh over his career.  In 21 regular season and playoff games against the Penguins, Kuznetsov is 2-6-8, minus-5.  Kuznetsov started the 2016-2017 season slowly, going just 3-16-19, plus-5, in his first 36 games.  But starting with a four-point performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 6-5 overtime win on January 3rd (1-3-4), Kuznetsov went 16-24-40, plus-13, in his last 46 games and was in the top 20 in overall scoring over that period. If he can approximate that level of performance and reverse his sparse production against the Penguins, the Caps will be formidable.

The not-so-obvious, if still obvious player is Kevin Shattenkirk.  He is, quite literally, the “X-factor” for the Caps in this series.  He did not have a particularly productive series against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the offensive end of the ice (no goals, three assists, all on the power play).  However, he is 2-2-4, plus-1, in nine career regular season games against the Penguins.  That career scoring line includes an assist this season, but it also includes a no-point, minus-4 performance in a 4-1 Penguin win over the St. Louis Blues on February 4th.  What he has not done is face the Penguins this season as a Capital, having joined the Caps on February 27th via trade, after the season series against the Penguins had been completed.  Shattenkirk adds an offensive dimension to the Caps blue line – an ability to score goals – that was not present from the Caps this season against the Penguins.  His presence has to be accounted for and could open up things among the forwards.

And for the Penguins?

It would be borderline cliché to put Sidney Crosby’s name in the “obvious” category, but it fits.  In last spring’s series against the Caps, Crosby was held to a pair of assists in six games and was a minus-3.  He had just one power play point in the series.  This from a player who, in his other 123 career postseason games, is 51-91-142, plus-12.  And that includes a 2-5-7 scoring line in the Penguins’ opening round win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.  No Penguin has more career goals or points against the Caps in the postseason than Crosby, who is 8-7-15, plus-1, in 13 career playoff games against Washington.  Crosby does have a knack of rising to the occasion, but it is as often as not a performance that comes in the context of what are generally strong and deep teams (the Penguin Stanley Cup-winning teams, Team Canada).  In this series, even if the Penguins get some of their injured back, they will be a somewhat depleted bunch.  Crosby’s production is not a luxury in this series.  The Penguins have to have it.  If he is more the player he was when he faced the Caps in 2009, when he was 8-5-13, plus-4, in seven games, the Penguins could advance.  If he is held to a pair of assists, or something close to it, as he was last spring, it is hard to see how Pittsburgh moves on.

The not so obvious choice is Justin Schultz.  In the absence of the injured Kris Letang, the Penguins have a considerable dropoff in terms of threats that can keep defenses from cheating up on Penguin forwards.  Schultz, who led the Penguins’ defense in ice time per game in the opening round series against Columbus, did not have an even-strength point in that series (he had three power play assists, the only power play points among Penguin defensemen).  Schultz does not get mentioned often among the best offensive defensemen in the league, but he was one of just nine defensemen to record at least 50 points this season (12-39-51), and his plus-27 was sixth-best among league defensemen.  He is going to have to more closely approximate that level of production in this series than his career postseason line of 0-7-7, plus-1, in 20 playoff games.

What about the goaltending?

The opening round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs was a tale of two series for Braden Holtby.  In the first four games he was 2-2-0, 3.02, .907.  But in the last two games, after an off-day fine tuning session with coach Mitch Korn that might end up being a key moment in this postseason,  he stopped 61 of 63 shots, allowed just one goal in each game, and was the wall he has been for the Caps over the last two seasons.  Holtby is as money a postseason performer as there has been at the position since he became the Caps number one netminder.  In the modern era (post-1967 expansion), Holtby has the best goals against average (1.93) and save percentage (.937) of any goaltender appearing in at least 20 postseason games.  But here is your odd Holtby stat.  If the Caps should find themselves in the position of closing out the Penguins, it is a scenario that has been cruel to Holtby.  In 14 games in which he tended goal in a game in which the Caps could end a series, he has a record of 4-10.  But that comes with a 1.94 goals against average and a .931 save percentage with a shutout thrown in. 

With Matt Murray an iffy proposition for this series,  the nets would appear to belong to Marc-Andre Fleury for the foreseeable future.  And if it seems odd to think of Fleury as an unknown, consider that he has appeared in just a dozen postseason games over the last three seasons (only two in last year’s Stanley Cup run), over which he is 5-6 (one no decision), 2.40, .926; and he has not faced the Caps in the postseason since 2009.  He was 4-1 against the Blue Jackets in the first round with a 2.51 goals against average, but his .933 save percentage was solid.  What he has not been over most of his postseason career is a game-changer on the road.  He is 27-23 in 51 road playoff games, but his 2.88 goals against average and .902 save percentage could be a problem against what was the most successful team on home ice during the regular season.

Frustration Redux?

Last spring, the Caps held Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby largely in check, only to have the line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel – the “HBK Line” – account for seven of the 16 goals the Penguins scored against the Caps, two of those goals being game winners, including the series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 by Nick Bonino.  That group has had a harder time of it so far this post season, combining for three goals, but two of those were scored by Kessel on power plays.  The question is, can Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust be the “who are these guys” guys for the Penguins this time around?  Guentzel (5) and Rust (4) combined for nine of the 21 goals scored by the Pens in the first round against Columbus.  The Caps can’t have another set of heretofore unsung players being heroes in this series.

Rediscovering the magic?

The trio of players that comprised the third line for the Caps for much of the season – Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Brett Connolly – combined for 39 goals this season, a respectable output considering they did not start the season together.  However, after March 1st, this trio combined for just five goals, and in the first playoff round against Toronto did not record a goal.  One of the most important factors in last spring’s loss to Pittsburgh in the second round was the lack of production among the bottom six forwards, especially given the production the Penguins got from theirs.  If this group can recapture the magic they had at midseason, it will make for a steep hill for the Penguins to climb to reach the conference finals.

In the end…

Some might say the Caps took the Toronto Maple Leafs lightly, or that they were nervous about their exalted status as a pre-playoff favorite to go deep into the tournament.  Whatever one thinks of those interpretations, the Caps advanced, and the team they take into the second round seems constructed for the singular purpose of pushing past the Penguins.  Pittsburgh brings a wealth of postseason experience and the confidence having won the Cup provides, but they are thin on defense, they are lacking a certain level of production from players who provided it in last year’s Cup run, and there is perhaps just the faintest sense of uncertainty over how Marc-Andre Fleury will fare in goal against a team with more weapons than the Columbus Blue Jackets brought to bear in the first round. 

On the other hand, Alex Ovechkin did not have a particularly dominating series against Toronto, and his production is needed in this round.  Strangely, given the strength at forward both teams bring to the contest, it could come down to which defensive squad has the better series, both in moving the puck out of their own end and in contributing offense at the other end.  The absence of Kris Letang will be keenly felt in both areas, and Washington will take advantage of it.

Capitals in six