Right now, Braden Holtby is on top of his game. But in the opposite crease will be rookie sensation Matt Murray. Murray’s calm through any storm has given his team confidence in front of him. Something a team doesn’t usually get from a rookie making his playoff debut. His demeanor has even garnished praises from legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur. But make no mistake, Holtby is playing like the best tendy in the league right now. He’s playing like “King Henrik” use to. But in all fairness, in the 6 game series against the Flyers, Holtby only had two games where he faced over 30 shots. In fact, one game he only faced 11 total shots against. So the question is, has the Capitals top goaltender really been playoff tested? The answer is simple…No! On top of not being tested, Holtby has not seen the likes of the Penguins speed and firepower. The Capitals’ netminder still has to prove his worth against a team like the Penguins, who are averaging 30 shots on goal per game, in order to be considered battle tested. As for Matt Murray, he doesn’t have to prove anything which the beauty of his situation. Murray could look out from the blue paint and realize he’s in the big dance and panic. But the Penguins coaching staff has given him moderate expectations. He knows he’s not the number one starter. He knows that no one would blame him for anything because he’s a rookie, as long as he gave his best. So Matt Murray gets the opportunity of a life time and just go out and play some hockey and let the guys who are getting paid 5-10 million more than he is, take care of business. All he has to do, is play some simple hockey. Murray doesn’t have to steal the show (even though he already has). He just has to go play and when an athlete gets that opportunity at this stage, in his position, it makes for a very lethal combination for the opposition to beat.
When it comes to the Capitals’ defensive core, it has been slightly diminished with absence of former Penguin Brooks Orpik. Orpik eats up a lot of penalty kill minutes and is always a solid shut down defenseman. This means rookie Taylor Chorney or Mike Weber may be in the lineup. This lack of experience or slow-footedness will be something the Penguins forwards can take advantage of with their speed. One of the biggest difficulties for the Penguins on the Caps blueline will be another former Penguin Mats Niskanen. Nisky will no doubt be a bit of a nemesis for the Black and Gold, just for the fact that he’s played with most of the Pens superstars. He will know their tendencies and their weaknesses. But the great thing is, the Pens are too deep and so the Caps will not be able to match Niskanen up against all of the top goal scorers on the Penguins roster. On the Penguins blueline is one of the top four defenseman in the league in Kris Letang. And then there are the “other guys”. Which really shouldn’t be said like that. Throughout the season Doumolin, Lovejoy, and Cole have logged the most minutes against Ovi and keeping him scoreless against the Pens in all of this season’s meetings. But expect the match-ups to be power against power, which means Letang and his partner will be out against the Ovi line. The Pens blueliners have the capability to move the puck quick or control the pace. Being in control is something they will have to do, as the WSH team will hit them hard every chance they get. If they Pens D avoid turnovers at the blue-lines and clear the second and third chances for Matt Murray, they will likely spend significantly less time in their own zone. Which means giving up less chances and shots to the Caps. Allowing the Caps 35+ shots per game this series will not end well for Pittsburgh. The Caps will get hot and begin to finish more often this series. So protecting “The House” will be absolutely key for the Penguins defense.
Now on to the forwards. By no means are the Capitals a slow team. They are fast, but they are not Pittsburgh Penguins fast. The Penguins forwards will need to utilize their speed to their advantage in order to dictate the pace of the game. Sidney Crosby is at his best right now when he’s shooting the biscuit. Three plus shots, that is the key number that equals Crosby goals. Now with Sheary joining Sid’s line most of the time, the speed and ability to hold on to the puck while Hornqvist disrupts Happy Hour in front of the net will be difficult for the Capitals to defend against. Malkin is beginning to find his rhythm again and his new linemates have really helped with that. Also, Geno is always on his game for a Russian vs Russian, #1 over all vs #2 overall matchup. He’s always eager to show the motherland who’s better, him or Ovechkin. Phil Kessel my well known least favorite player in the NHL right now, needs to show up every night for this series. He’s speed and shot sniping will be needed now more than ever. Kessel, taking a night off and just playing the perimeter without generating shot chances will easily contribute to a series lose for the Pens. As for the rest of the forwards, many of which are rookies, need to just play their hearts out and continue to do the little things right like they have been since being called up. As for the Capitals, the key forward of course is always Alex Ovechkin. The Great 8 is a threat in some form anytime his steel cuts ice. But let us not forget about the other Russian in the Capital City, Evgeny Kuzentsov. While Kuzentsov only has one goal so far these playoffs, he is bound to have some breakout games. So the Penguins cannot go to sleep on him or he will show why he was a 20 goal scorer. Other major threats up top are Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie. Ovechikin, Oshie, and Backstrom on the Caps top point getters out of all the forwards. They have contributed significantly more than any other forward on the team. The Pens will have to limit the chances of Oshie and Backstrom down low where they tend to gather many of their points. And when it comes to Ovi, The Russian Tank is oddly predictable and like tank are to stop. Keep Ovechkin to the outside and by no means allow him quality scoring chances. Make him work and exhaust himself for every opportunity he gets. Doing so will pay off in later periods and games. We’ve seen it before where Ovi works so hard that the tank runs out of gas and his performance plunders and most likely will take a stupid penalty.
Speaking of penalties, did you know that the Capitals have the best penalty killing percentage of teams that are remaining in the playoffs? It’s true! But also did you know the Penguins have the best power play percentage in the league? That’s also true! The Pens are converting on 38% of their power play chances. The league average in the playoffs, 19.4%. Yeah, I’ll let you savor that one for a minute.
As I previously mentioned, the Caps are averaging 1 goal against per game right now. But the Pens are right behind them with 2 goals against. The Penguins are also scoring an average of 4.2 goals per game while the Caps dominate scoring has dwindled to only 2.3. The Caps goal scoring is coming from limited few people, while the Penguins are getting consistent contributions from top to bottom. As for the bench bosses, Barry Trotz is a great coach. But he’s never done what he needs to in order to get his teams past the second round. And by the looks of it after 1 round, Mr. Trotz might not have the answer for his team’s dip in production. He also may not have an answer for flurry of skaters that the Penguins bring. As for like-new coach Mike Sullivan, he has shown the ability to make the adjustments to his team’s strategy and lineup as needed in order to gain the most beneficial outcome possible. Something previous coach Mike Johnston never did and Dan Bylsma stopped doing after he gained tenure. If Mr. Sullivan continues to make the adjustments as needed, he will keep the Capitals guessing and off balance. In the end I believe if and when it comes down to it, all stats and numbers and strategies aside, the Penguins have the greater willpower to win. The Capitals were given the President’s curse early, winning the best record in the regular season. So they had nothing to compete for. Since they their play has dipped and not returned to is lethal self.
Good talk…see ya out there! #LetsGoPens
Feel free to talk hockey anytime with me on twitter @coachhagmaier2
Good talk…see ya out there!