Series Buzz: Capitals Advantage only on paper?

For Penguins – Capitals, when you breakdown a lot of areas between the two clubs, the Capitals enter Round 2 as the favorite but as the series begins Thursday night in D.C., there is certainly a pause surrounding who is the favorite in the series.

Washington has the goaltending edge, they have the better personnel on the blueline, a better power play and they draw more penalties.

Pittsburgh has the edge at forward and also have that special championship mystique about them that makes them such a daunting task to beat four out of seven times.

Not only are the Penguins defending champions, there is that history thing backing them where they have won eight of the nine all-time series between the clubs.

All of the pressure is on the Capitals this series.

Pittsburgh won that coveted second Stanley Cup of the Crosby era last summer that no longer that has a cloud around the Penguins previous playoff failures. Pittsburgh loses to Washington there will still be disappointment but with their injury situation and the fact it is so hard to repeat, there isn’t much pressure on them at all.

Crosby vs Ovechkin Round 3 and it is fitting that for the Capitals to finally break through they will have to try to go through Pittsburgh again and that’s how it should be.

Some of the Capitals top guns like Nicklas Backstrom are playing the underdog card already.

Pittsburgh and Washington played three overtime games last spring with Pittsburgh winning twice and Washington once. With a few lucky breaks, that could have been Washington not Pittsburgh making the Cup run in 2016 but anyone with neutral eye in watching that series knows Pittsburgh was the better team.

Identifying the areas that put the Penguins over the top last spring, was more speed and depth at the forward position and Matt Murray slightly outplaying Braden Holtby.

The waves Pittsburgh came at Washington saw Pittsburgh dictating most of the series and Washington doing the reacting.

The burning question is whether Washington is better equipped this season to combat the Penguins strength’s that overwhelmed them last spring.

On paper, yes, and the unpredictable element is out of the way as the Penguins style and speed they play with certainly won’t catch the Capitals coaching staff by surprise this time around like it did in 16 playoffs.

But, as the Toronto series showed again was a more skilled and faster team with a slew of high-end players giving Washington similar problems that the Penguins give them.

We’ll find out soon enough whether the Toronto series gave Washington a good tune-up for the Penguins or was a sign of problems to come for the Capitals.

Throughout the 16 series, Pittsburgh tormented Washington’s bottom-tier defenseman. Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov were a train-wreck and a problem for Washington wasn’t Brooks Orpik’s suspension but Karl Alzner playing badly injured throughout the series.

Their top-3 defenseman in Alzner, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen couldn’t cover enough for the rest of the group.

Washington’s blueline with the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk to the third pair and improvement from Orlov and Schmidt is much better to matchup against the Penguins this time, that is of course if Alzner is healthy enough to get through the series as he missed the final two games of the Leafs series.

However, the Penguins pose a bit different of a matchup game for the Capitals.

Their first and second lines are much more dangerous.

Evgeni Malkin is a different animal this time around than last post-season and the Penguins have a special second line developing around Malkin. The HBK line was great in 16 and had a cult following but the way Malkin is going and the linemates he has, it’s a much scarier combination for the Capitals to deal with, even if their personnel is better on the backend this post-season.

The dynamic the Penguins also have is options to make tweaks with their top-6 if needed and we’re already seeing it before the series has begun with Conor Sheary being bumped to the 3rd line and Patric Hornqvist moving to the top-line.

For Pittsburgh, there are three major contributors from last years second round series that are out of the picture right now.

Advantage Washington?

Kris Letang is out for the season, giving Pittsburgh no legitimate No. 1 pairing to matchup against the Capitals top-2 lines. You look at the Penguins personnel on the blueline and there’s no excuses for Evgeny Kuznetsov not to have a big series.

Matt Murray is not even skating yet and a longshot to play in the series at this point. Murray posted a .926 save percentage in the Capitals series and it was Murray not the Penguins speed game that Washington players credited for being the ‘difference’ in the series.

Can Marc Andre Fleury continue to play well over his season and career numbers like he did in Round 1? Whether he does or not will dictate where this series goes. The Penguins project to have to at least .925 save percentage goaltending to advance.

Washington will be a much more difficult task for Fleury in stopping second and third chances and we’ll find out soon enough whether Murray’s absence becomes a problem for the Penguins or not. Fleury surely answered the bell in Round 1.

Carl Hagelin’s performance vs the Capitals in 2016 can’t go unnoticed. He had 7 points in six playoff games vs the Capitals and was a huge factor combined with Nick Bonino on the third line that helped sway the series.

“He obviously increases our speed because of what he brings to our team,” Mike Sullivan said today of Hagelin who remains out.

The depth performances from Hagelin and Bonino last season saw Washington prioritize getting a little more skill and speed in their bottom-6 this season but was it enough?

They added Lars Eller who had 12 goals and 25 points on the season and Brett Connolly had a breakout season with 15 goals in a 4th line role.

There’s a bit more skill there that’s led to stronger possession numbers for Washington but that’s still an area where the Capitals don’t look fast enough against quick teams like Pittsburgh and Toronto for example.

“We’ve got plenty of speed throughout our lineup,” Mike Sullivan said of his hockey club. “That’s obviously part of the fabric of this team’s identity and its competitive advantage and we’re trying to play that.”

A key under the radar player for the Capitals in this series is going to be Andre Burakovsky. The speed and talent just never seems to match production but he can be that player against a Penguins D right now that is a bit slow footed and struggles with clean exits who gives Washington a speed and chaos dimension in their bottom-6 that poses the Penguins headaches similar to what Hagelin did to Washington last post-season.[/hide]