Series Buzz: Will cracks in the Penguins game finally haunt them in Round 2?

As discussed the other day, the Washington Capitals on paper are more equipped to match up with the Penguins than they were last season and when you factor in the Penguins injury situation with players who were so valuable to Pittsburgh winning last postseason, there’s no excuses for the Capitals not to get the job done and finally breakthrough vs Pittsburgh.

The fascinating thing to watch in this series will be whether those areas the Penguins high-end talent has been able to cover up over the last month or so finally comes to an end.

  1.  The Penguins possession numbers have been average for a long-stretch now but it hasn’t had much of an impact because of Pittsburgh’s ability to create high danger chances near an elite level.

Pittsburgh was at 46% in driving possession vs the Blue Jackets, 2nd-worst mark among the 16 playoff teams in Round 1. Pittsburgh, though, was at 55% in high danger chances, the Blue Jackets at 45%, 3rd worst among the 16 playoff teams. The Grade-A chances is what often wins out.

Washington, though, is a different animal.

Toronto was at 55.3% in high danger chances vs Washington in Round 1. Washington just 44.7%.

Offensively there’s a good chance the Penguins numbers will be right around there again in Round 2 but the Capitals defensively are very good at closing out those key second, third chance opportunities, much better than Columbus in that area and at the other end, Washington also has the type of high-end talent who need just one shot and have more talented players who can bury type of rebound chances Columbus wasn’t able to convert.

This is more likely than not going to be a series where possession starts mattering for the Penguins than it has.

— 2. Does the Penguins blueline finally crack and will struggles on the breakout doom Penguins in Round 2?

Some will say the Penguins were playing with fire last series.

The commitment from the forwards defensively in Games 1 and 2 were at an elite level that hid a lot but games 3-5, the Penguins personnel started to be exposed.

Pittsburgh went from giving up 12 high danger chances combined in Games 1 and 2 to a combined 38 in Games 3-5 (5 vs 5 play).

If the Penguins stick with the Brian Dumoulin – Ron Hainsey pairing to start the series, which based on Wednesday’s practice they will, it’s their best bet to matchup against the Ovechkin line.

The pairing has been above average in limiting high quality chances and the numbers on Hainsey matching up vs Ovechkin have been solid the last couple years.

There’s a lot of focus on Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov as to whether he shows up or not will dictate who wins Round 2 but the Penguins without Kris Letang have a daunting task to contain Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. You can’t blame Ovechkin for the Capitals failures vs the Penguins. He has 10 goals (21 points) in 13 playoff games vs the Penguins.

Backstrom was dynamite vs the Penguins this season, with 4 goals and 8 assists in four games. The Penguins getting consistent back pressure from their forwards on the backend is going to be a must.

How the Penguins withstand the loss of Letang against an elite line like Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie is one of the top storylines that will be fun to watch play out.

The other area with the Penguins blueline is whether the struggles on the breakout can be rectified. It was a big problem vs Columbus that was covered up by the Penguins high-end talent upfront.

Another burning question is how committed Penguin coaches are to the current top-6 on the blueline. There’s still not enough puck movers among the group.

Will Justin Schultz be a factor in the series?

Columbus did an effective job against Justin Schultz with an aggressive forecheck and then shadowing him through the neutral zone up the ice. Washington will have the same playbook. Penguin coaches have to find a way to get Schultz favorable matchups and dictating the transition game.

“They’re a good forechecking team,” Mike Sullivan says of the Capitals. “They can create offense off the rush,” Sullivan said. “They’ve got some dynamic forwards in their lineup and we’re going to have to be aware when they’re on the ice.”

Can Fleury outplay another Vezina Winner?

3. Marc Andre Fleury outplayed a Vezina trophy winner and 16/17 finalist Sergei Bobrovsky in Round 1. Can he really do it again Round 2 vs Braden Holtby, another Vezina winner and finalist this season?

I just don’t see it happening here and it’s much more likely Fleury’s play starts trending down than not  but what’s also getting overlooked is Holtby has not been good enough of late vs the Penguins.

There’s pressure on both goaltenders in this series.

For Washington they have the goaltending edge coming in and Holtby needs to back it up with a better blueline behind him this season. Last year in Round 2 he was good but not good enough as Matt Murray slightly outplayed him.

Round 1 vs Toronto, Holtby was good in posting a .925 save percentage but he can be better. Holtby allowed 4 goals in three straight games (2-4) with the Capitals going 1-2 during that stretch. He was lights out in Games 5 and 6.

Over his last 12 games vs the Penguins (including playoffs), Holtby has a .909 save percentage.

Fleury, meanwhile, had an .889 save percentage vs the Capitals this season. Matt Murray’s s not close to returning and this will certainly be Marc Andre Fleury’s series.

If Pittsburgh finds a way to take out Washington, then a storybook ending for Fleury may happen after all and his tenure in Pittsburgh could even get extended.

The Penguins have always assumed Fleury would be gracious in one way or another and not use his no movement clause to block the Penguins from being able to protect Matt Murray in June’s expansion draft.

A league source says don’t be so sure.

One scenario that hasn’t got talked about enough is [hide] if Fleury leads the Penguins on a deep run back to the Stanley Cup Final, the door then opens for Fleury not to be so willing to move on like so many, including the Penguins, have assumed.

Series Prediction: Capitals in 5 games.

— A tightly contested series that could have easily went seven games see’s things for once not go the Penguins way and Washington breaks through in getting past the Penguins by winning the type of games that went the Penguins way last season in Round 2 with timely goals and better goaltending — [/hide]