April 26 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Capital One Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and FAN 106.7 FM
Game 1, Eastern Conference semifinal series.
If it’s late April/early May, it must be Pittsburgh.
For the third straight spring and for the fourth time in the last decade, the Capitals and the Penguins will tangle in the second round of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Fresh from winning their first-round series over Columbus with four straight wins – three of them on the road – the Caps will open at home against the Pens on Thursday night at Capital One Arena.
Both the Caps and the Penguins needed six games to get through their first-round series, and both won three road games in the first round. The Caps eliminated Columbus after losing the first two games of the series at home and in overtime. Washington made history in that series, becoming the first team in league history to win a playoff round after dropping the first two games at home and in overtime.
Pittsburgh eliminated cross-state rival Philadelphia in six games, pouring 28 pucks past a trio of beleaguered Flyers goaltenders. The Pens scored eight goals in Sunday’s 8-5 series-clinching win in Philly, half of them coming off the stick of winger Jake Guentzel. Both Guentzel and Pens captain Sidney Crosby scored half a dozen goals in Pittsburgh’s first-round series. Eleven of the dozen goals Guentzel and Crosby combined to score came at five-on-five; that’s just one less than Washington’s entire team managed to score in its six-game set with Columbus.
To the surprise of virtually no one, the Caps and Pens meet again in the second round.
“The way the playoff system is set up, it’s going to be that way until it changes,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. “That’s just the way it is. I don’t think it’s a surprise to any of us that this would be another match-up that could come. But we didn’t think too much about it, we were just focused on getting into the playoffs and beating Columbus. And now it’s on to the next step, and that’s the Penguins in round two.”
“I think there is not a person in our locker room or our coaching staff that doesn’t want to play the Penguins,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “It’s probably fitting. We’re actually quite excited about it. They’re two good teams, they always have been, and you get another match. It’s all good.”
Players are competitive. They want to play against the best players and the best teams, and they want to beat them. Minutes after Washington finished off the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Monday, Caps captain Alex Ovechkin gushed that he “couldn’t wait” to face the Penguins in the second round.
“It’s just fun,” Ovechkin said after Wednesday’s practice. “That’s why we work so hard all year to be in this position. Obviously you want to move [through the] first round, second round, third and fourth, but it’s hard. It’s a big challenge for us, especially against Pittsburgh. It’s always a rivalry, always lots of attention on this series, and it’s fun.”
Pittsburgh eliminated the Caps in each of the last two Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Pens went on to win the Cup both times. The Pens have won nine of 10 playoff series from Washington over the years, but every year offers new hope, and the Caps are undaunted by anything that happened before this season.
“I don’t know,” admits Ovechkin, asked why he believes the outcome could be different this time around. “But one day it has to happen. If we want to get success, we have to beat Pittsburgh and move forward. They are the most experienced team right now in the league. There are lots of great players over there, and it’s a huge challenge.”
“We haven’t been past the second round,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, “so it doesn’t really matter who you play. If you’re going all the way, obviously you’ve got to beat all of them, so it doesn’t really matter. We’ve just got to get prepared for this. It’s a new year and a new team, so it will be exciting.”
The Caps are coming in hot, having won four straight games after those two overtime losses to start the set, and they concluded the regular season by winning 12 of their last 15 games, including a 3-1 triumph over the Pens in Pittsburgh on April 1. Washington also won its final five road games of the regular season, and then won all three of their road games in the Columbus series.
“They’ve had our number,” says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. “They’ve had our number in the last couple of years, and I think everyone is pretty aware of that. I think probably on paper, maybe our team last year was better and was maybe more dangerous. But this year, I feel like we’re playing pretty good team hockey and we have different elements on every line. The structure of our team is built a little bit differently this year than it has been in years past.”
Four of Washington’s first-round games went into overtime and were obviously one-goal decisions. They had to battle back from an 0-2 hole and their Game 3 win wasn’t achieved until the middle of the second overtime, so they’d like to get a leg up in this series against the Penguins.
“We got pushed against the ropes there after losing the first two at home, and it’s not an easy position to be in,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “We found a way to play better, and got good results because of it. We started rolling. If you can find a way to get through those tough patches or a tough situation, you’re going to be better for it for sure. But this is a new series too; a different set of challenges with different people. So we’re going to have to be ready to go from the start hopefully this time. That would make it a little easier on ourselves to start in Game 1.”
Pittsburgh dispatched with the Flyers with relative ease, but lost a couple of key performers in the process. Center Evgeni Malkin finished with 42 goals and 98 points in the regular season, placing fourth in the league in both categories. Winger Carl Hagelin missed only one game during the regular season and his speed and penalty-killing acumen have made him a valuable cog on Pittsburgh’s consecutive championship teams.
Sometimes linemates, both Malkin (lower body injury) and Hagelin (upper body) will miss Thursday’s series opener. Hagelin did not travel to D.C. with the Pens, but Malkin did, fueling belief that he could be ready to return for Sunday’s Game 2.
With Malkin and Hagelin out for at least the opener, Pens coach Mike Sullivan installed Riley Sheahan and Dominic Simon on a line with Phil Kessel. Sheahan and Kessel played together some during the regular season, and Sullivan wanted to keep the Connor Sheary-Derrick Brassard-Bryan Rust intact.
“I think we’re trying to find complementary skill sets – guys that have shown an ability to work together and be successful,” says Sullivan. “And so we have some history to draw on. Based on that history, we’re trying to make decisions that we think make us the most competitive. But as I always say, nothing is etched in stone. So we practiced a certain way today, and we will discuss it – whether or not we like it. And if we adjust it, we’ll adjust it.”
Speaking of adjusting, the Caps are hoping to use the experiences gained in their previous playoff disappointments at the hands of the Penguins to come out on top this time around.
“You watch the Philly series and you look at the series [Pittsburgh] has played against us in the past – [the Pens] are a momentum-driven team,” says Wilson. “They’re like sharks on blood. When they feel that, when they score, it’s [trouble]. And we know that now. You learn. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes and your past.
“The guys in this room that have played them before know how they operate, and I think guys have come in here this year and done a phenomenal job. We’ve talked through the whole year about how we have a lot of new faces and we’re working on getting that team identity together. And we’ve taken on a different identity than we’ve had in years past. We’re a new team, and I think that’s going to be beneficial in this series. We’re feeling pretty good going into this one. It’s exciting. We feel like we’re going to have a real good shot to take this series, we’ve just got to execute our game plan.”
“We don’t want to look back at last year,” says Ovechkin, “and which team we had last year and in previous years. This is our team, we hope it is going to be our year, and we are going to try to do it.”