Sports Interaction oddsmakers as of now believe that the winner of the Penguins-Capitals Eastern Conference Semifinal series that begins Thursday will take home the Stanley Cup, and I tend to agree. This is clearly the marquee matchup of the second round featuring the two most talented rosters remaining as well as arguably the two greatest players of their era in Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. The Caps are slight series favourites to knock off the reigning Cup champions.
Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals, Game 1
Pittsburgh would have home-ice advantage against any other team in the playoffs as the Pens finished the regular season with 111 points, second-most in the NHL but seven behind the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals in the Metropolitan Division.
I projected Pittsburgh to eliminate Columbus in six games in Round 1 but it only took five. There was shocking news during pre-game warmups for Game 1 of that series as Penguins starting goalie Matt Murray, who was so terrific in leading his team to last year’s Stanley Cup, was ruled out with a lower-body injury. He hasn’t even resumed skating yet, so it’s doubtful Murray will play soon.
Thankfully for the Penguins, they have one of the better backups in the NHL in Marc-Andre Fleury. He was just so-so in the regular season with an 18-10-7 record, 3.02 GAA and .909 save percentage, but the “Flower” stepped up his game against the Blue Jackets with a 2.52 GAA and .933 save percentage. It helped his cause that the Penguins blocked 18.8 shots per game. The big concern for Pittsburgh backers would be if Fleury were to get injured because his backup is Tristan Jarry, a 21-year-old from Surrey, British Columbia. He has one NHL start in his career, a meaningless April 9 loss at the Rangers in which Jarry allowed three goals.
Penguins winger Evgeni Malkin missed the final month or so of the regular season due to injury but looked 100% in form vs. Columbus with a team-high 11 points (2G, 9A). Crosby added seven points (2G, 5A). Bryan Rust led the team with four goals, which was more than 25% of his regular-season total.
There are two additional injury concerns for the Pens among the forwards. Chris Kunitz is a game-time call for Game 1 but has been practicing. He hasn’t played since March 31 due to a lower-body injury. Kunitz had nine goals and 20 assists in 71 regular-season games. Carl Hagelin (lower body) isn’t taking contact yet so is unlikely for the start of the series. He has been out since March 10 and had six goals and 16 assists in 61 games.
Pittsburgh and Washington split four regular-season meetings. Malkin (5G, 1A) and defenseman Justin Schultz (6A) each led the Pens with six points, while Crosby (1G, 4A) had five. Fleury played in three and was 1-1-0 with a 4.02 GAA and .884 save percentage.
Toronto Maple Leafs fans might be disappointed at their team’s first-round loss to Washington, but that was one of the most exciting series in recent memory and showed that the Leafs are going to be a major force sooner rather than later. I projected the Capitals to win in five, but it took them six and five went to overtime – there were a record 18 first-round OT games overall. The Caps trailed in the series 2-1 and won the final three, the last two by identical 2-1 OT scores. Marcus Johansson scored his second goal of Game 6 past Frederik Andersen at 6:31 of OT.
T.J. Oshie led Washington with seven points (3G, 4A) against Toronto, with Ovechkin chipping in three goals. Braden Holtby, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy after winning it last year, had a 2.36 GAA and .925 save percentage.
This will be the third postseason meeting between Ovechkin and Crosby. In those 13 head-to-head games, Ovechkin has 21 points (10G, 11A) to Crosby’s 15 (8G, 7A), but Crosby won both series and the Penguins went on to win the Cup each time. Last year, the Pens ousted the Capitals in six games with Murray in net for all of them.
Washington overcame a three-goal deficit in the final 22 minutes of regulation to force OT in Game 6, but Nick Bonino scored the clincher off a rebound of Hagelin’s shot past Holtby 6:32 into overtime. Ovechkin has never advanced past this round.
The main injury concern for Washington is to defenseman Karl Alzner, who went through a full practice Tuesday but is questionable for Game 1. Alzner missed the final four games against the Maple Leafs because of an upper-body injury.
While the Caps and Penguins split four regular-season meetings, Washington outscored Pittsburgh 21-14 thanks largely to a 7-1 win in November. Both Capitals losses were in overtime. Nicklas Backstrom led the Capitals with a whopping 12 points (4G, 8A) in the four games, Oshie had 10 (3G, 7A) and Ovechkin five (3G, 2A). Holtby was 2-0-1 with a 2.74 GAA and .912 save percentage.
Penguins vs. Capitals Predictions
This should be the highest-scoring conference semifinal series as Pittsburgh was No. 1 during the season in goals and Washington third. Both teams had just two losses during the year when leading after two periods so that’s key.
The Capitals are deeper and healthier than the Penguins. Fleury has a bit of a checkered playoff history, so the advantage in net goes to Holtby. He came into this postseason with the best playoff save percentage in NHL history among goalies to play at least 20 games. The Leafs shook him early in the series, but then Holtby was back in form.
Washington wins in seven and faces the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals.