Here We Go – The battle of Eastern Conference titans gets underway on Thursday night at Verizon Center when the Capitals host the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the two teams.
The NHL’s very own official Instagram feed was lazy enough to pimp the tired and hackneyed “Sid vs. Ovi” storyline on the morning of Game 1, but there is far more to this series than two guys whose careers began at the same time (thanks to an owner-orchestrated lockout, by the way) and who happened to be among the best players in the game for the last decade.
The Caps and Penguins played five times during the regular season, and they combined to score 29 goals in those contests. Only one of those goals came off the stick of Crosby or Ovechkin, and it was the last of the 29 Crosby’s overtime game-winner in the final meeting between the two teams on April 7.
“I know there is a lot of storylines surrounding this series,” says Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, “but for me it is about two good hockey teams going at each other. With all due respect to all the individual players, they’re great players. They’re entertaining, they’re fun to watch, they’re terrific players. But for me and from our standpoint, this is about two teams playing against one another.”
That’s what sets hockey apart from golf and tennis, if you hadn’t noticed. It’s two teams playing against one another, as Sullivan sagely points out. Both teams have star power up and down their lineup, so it’s sort of silly to pick two guys out and make the series about them.
“If you’re looking for star power,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “If you’re looking for speed and creativity, if you’re looking for physicality, if you’re looking for good goaltending, if you’re looking for strong special teams, you’re probably going to see all those elements in this series because both teams have those elements. From that standpoint, coming into it, it should be a pretty appealing series.”
“I think we’re pretty confident obviously,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. “We’ve been pretty confident all year, but the little between series was kind of perfect. [We got] enough to rest but not enough to get your mind completely away from the game. It’s good that we’re still focused in here. We’re prepared to play a very good team and get this thing started on a good note.”
Hoping To Go –
Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik missed the last three games of the first-round series against Philadelphia after suffering an upper body injury in Game 3 of that series. Orpik has been practicing with his teammates this week but hasn’t yet been given the green light to play tonight against his former team, the Penguins.
His availability for tonight’s game may be a game time decision.
“Game time,” says Trotz, when asked for an update on Orpik’s status this morning. “Obviously you see him out there, he’s been out for a couple of days. He’s feeling good. I haven’t talked to our trainers yet; he just got off the ice. But it looks like there’s a good chance. We’ll see. You’ll have to watch warm-up instead of being in the press room.”
Taylor Chorney came off the ice earliest after Thursday’s morning skate while Mike Weber lingered longer on the ice, so Chorney would be the likely fill-in in the event that Orpik is not quite ready to go yet.
Caps defenseman Karl Alzner was not on the ice for either of Washington’s practice sessions this week, but those were characterized as maintenance days. He took the ice for Thursday’s optional morning skate.
“I feel good,” says Alzner. “I just took a couple of days, had a lot of bumps and bruises; tough series. I feel fine. I feel happy now. It’s like All-Star break; you get a few days off and come back and feel refreshed. It’s all good.”
Vezina Nominee –
Holtby was named on Wednesday night as one of the league’s three nominees for the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s best netminder. The league’s general managers are tasked with voting for the award, and the winner will be announced at the league’s annual awards show in Las Vegas in June, after the completion of the playoffs.
“It’s pretty cool, obviously,” says Holtby of the nomination. “It’s an honor, but it’s one of those things that don’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things. We had a great regular season as a team, and now we’re trying to do that in the playoffs.”
Holtby tied Martin Brodeur’s record for most wins (48) in a season, and suffered only nine regulation setbacks in 66 games started. He also fashioned a 2.20 GAA and a .922 save pct.
“I think for him, other than the recognition,” says Trotz, “it’s validating what he’s been doing as a goalie, the adjustments we asked him to make as a goaltender to enhance what he does really well. And that goes to [goaltending coach] Mitch [Korn], not me. And them working together, him having an open mind and them working together. And then having obvious talents to go with all that.
“And then it’s a team concept. Not too many guys can win the Vezina without their teammates and I think Braden will be the first to say that as well. It’s good on the group, it’s good on our backbone and that’s been Braden all year.”
Special Delivery –
Not much separates the Caps and the Pens on paper, so the team performing the best on special teams in this series might be able to carve out at least a slight edge for itself as the series wears on.
Pittsburgh’s power play is operating at a 38.1% efficiency rate in the playoffs, tops in the NHL. Washington’s extra-man success rate of 29.6% is third in the league. Both clubs have also been excellent on the other side of the special teams coin. The Capitals rank second and the Penguins are fourth in the league among all playoff teams in penalty killing efficiency.
For the fourth straight season and the sixth time in the last eight seasons, Washington finished the campaign with one of the league’s top five power play units.
“They’re one of the best power plays in the league,” says Sullivan of Washington’s extra-man unit, “so it’s going to be a big challenge for us.
“I think it starts with our own discipline, that we don’t give their power play too many opportunities to be the difference. But when the opportunity does come, our penalty kill has to find ways to get it done. We have some ideas on how we think we want to defend against them, and we’ll do our best to limit their opportunities. They’re a tough power play in the sense that they have a lot of threats. So it’s not that easy to key on any one particular threat, because there are multiple threats with the look that they present.
“But our guys I think have done a great job all year regardless of what the challenge has been with some of the better power plays in the league. I know they’ll be up to the task.”
During the regular season, Pittsburgh finished 16
overall in power play prowess with an 18.4% extra-man success rate. The Penguins were 30-4-4 during the regular season in games in which they scored on the power play, including a perfect 16-0-0 in their last 16 games of the season in which they managed an extra-man tally. The Pens were 18-22-4 when they were blanked on the power play.
Against the Rangers in the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Pens went 8-for-21 (38.1%) with the extra man. They scored at least one power-play goal in each of the five games of the series.
“They’ve got some tremendous players back there obviously with [Evgeni] Malkin and Crosby,” says Trotz. “Those guys make phenomenal plays; they make plays through people. [They have] Letang on the back end and snipers like Kessel. They have multiple weapons, they really do. They’ve got a net presence in Hornqvist who is very good, and I know him very well.
“And they’ve got multiple people who can function in a power play setting and be very efficient in it. It shows in their stats; I think they’re [No.] 1 or 2 right now in the playoffs. So that is going to be a concern because their numbers prove that it should be a concern, just as our power play’s numbers are a concern to them I’m sure. But they have multiple weapons that they use that are probably a little different than Philly’s power play.
“Philly was heavy on the net presence but also some of the low plays. I’m not saying that [Pittsburgh] isn’t; [Pittsburgh] has a great net presence. Hornqvist is one of the best guys in the league at that. They’ll give us multiple types of looks I’m sure, and we’ll have to adjust as we go along.”
All Lined Up –
Here’s how we expect the Capitals to look for tonight’s Game 1 against Pittsburgh at Verizon Center. We’re basing our guess on Orpik being in the lineup; if not, it will likely be Chorney:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
25-Chimera, 10-Richards, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
Projected Pittsburgh Lineup
43-Sheary, 87-Crosby, 72-Hornqvist
14-Kunitz, 71-Malkin, 16-Fehr
62-Hagelin, 13-Bonino, 81-Kessel
34-Kuhnhackl, 7-Cullen, 17-Rust