A Second Round Preview?
The Penguins and Capitals meet for the fifth and final time of the regular season tonight. The teams have split the series so far 2-2.
For the Penguins they can clinch second place in the Metropolitan Division with a win. The Capitals with the President Trophy wrapped up are playing for nothing when it comes to the standings.
Still, this is a mighty important game for the Capitals.
The Penguins last two meetings vs Washington, a 3-2 loss and a 6-2 win in the month of March, have given the Penguins new found confidence in that they can not only compete with the Capitals in a seven game series but can beat the NHL-leading Capitals. They don’t scare Pittsburgh.
The Rangers failed in the month of March in keeping the Penguins down with three losses to Pittsburgh when the Rangers had a major physiological edge that now looks gone.
Washington will still be favored in a potential second round matchup, regardless of tonight’s outcome, but if you’re the Capitals, there’s no question you want to make a statement and cast some doubts into the Penguins with a physically imposing performance.
In the 6-2 thrashing of the Capitals, Pittsburgh was able to dictate the pace by getting the puck up quickly and getting the Capitals out of their structure in the neutral zone. By turning the game into a game of foot races, Pittsburgh created multiple odd-man situations and it was the same story for the first 20 minutes or so in the Penguins 3-2 loss at the Verizon Center on March 1st.
A couple key others to watch tonight:
The Penguins have been so good under Mike Sullivan with their ability to beat the first wave of the forecheck from the opposition. Where the Capitals will look to cause the Penguins trouble is with pressuring the puck and establishing a strong cycle that will get them in position to out-physical and out-muscle the Penguins down low and in the net-front area.
How the Penguins counter that will probably tell the story of which team dictates the play, and four of the last six periods between these two clubs have seen Pittsburgh be the team that is dictating the pace and tempo.
The Ottawa game was not the Penguins finest performance by any means. Ottawa had some success early in game in beating the Penguins with speed through the neutral zone and pressuring the Penguins well on the forecheck that led to scoring opportunities.
Any team, though, that sends two skaters deep on the forecheck against the Penguins and gets beat, will have these type of rushes going the other way against them.
Having puck movers on the backend to beat the first wave of the forecheck, to go with speed on the wings in a system that is always thinking attack up the ice, has been the perfect storm for the Penguins.
The Penguins are always heading up the ice and these type of reads from Justin Schultz is where he’s finding a nice niche with the Penguins in jumping up in the play and what should be a 3-on-3 rush is easily turned into a 4-on-3 advantage for Pittsburgh with Carl Hagelin flying down the left side with great speed.
This is the Penguins identity and they are burning teams who have aggressive 2-1-2 forechecks because of the ability to make that critical first pass so quickly out of the zone.
Except they have one defenseman currently dressing who hinders the Penguins breakout greatly and that’s Ben Lovejoy.
Lovejoy continuing to play over Derrick Pouliot might say more about how flawed the coaching staff thinks Pouliot’s game is than anything else.