Second-round preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

Washington Capitals (1st seed, Metropolitan Division) versus Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd seed, Metropolitan Division)


When Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin met for the first -- and, as it turns out, only previous -- time in the playoffs back in the spring of 2009, we expected it would be the first of many such clashes between the two young faces of the NHL. It hasn't turned out that way, which is just another reason this second-round matchup will dwarf all the other series in terms of anticipation and star power. Seven years ago, the two captains combined for 27 points in an epic, seven-game punch-counterpunch encounter. This version should prove just as compelling, as Crosby and Ovechkin are leading two of the most exciting teams in the NHL. In short, this one should be a classic. Or should we say ... another classic?

How they win

Washington: The Philadelphia Flyers gave the Capitals a surprisingly difficult time in the first round, pushing them to six games. The Caps scored just two goals in the final three games of the series and will need to re-establish the offensive depth that helped them lead the Eastern Conference in goals per game. That said, the Caps did score eight power-play goals against Philly, so no one doubts -- or should -- that they can go off like a rocket. If goaltender Braden Holtby, who had a 0.84 goals-against average and .968 save percentage in the first round, continues to play as he did against Philadelphia, the Capitals won't need all that much offense anyway. It's worth noting, however, that the Penguins lit up one of the greatest goaltenders of a generation, New York Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist, in their first-round victory, so Holtby is about to face a whole different level of shooter in this series -- even if he is likely the best netminder in the playoffs right now.

Pittsburgh: The Penguins blitzed the Rangers from all areas in their five-game, opening-round series victory and sent Lundqvist to the bench in Games 4 and 5. They lead the NHL with an average of more than four goals per game and have the postseason's top power-play unit, which is operating at an unbelievable rate of 38.1 percent -- or almost twice the league average for power-play efficiency. Thanks to four solid forward lines that are all capable of putting the puck in the net, Pittsburgh can force Washington to open up its style of play. Defensively, the Penguins are backstopped by 21-year-old Matt Murray, who has stepped in seamlessly for injured Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray won his first three NHL playoff games and allowed just four goals along the way, turning in a .953 save percentage. Pittsburgh's penalty kill was excellent, as well, allowing just two power-play goals in 19 shorthanded stints in the first round -- including one that came on a 5-on-3.

How they lose

Washington: If the Capitals give Pittsburgh time on the power play, Washington will have a problem. And the Caps are going to need to get the offense going after it went dormant against the Flyers. The Penguins continue to pick up steam, having won three in a row and 18 of their past 21 games. Evgeny Kuznetsov had a breakout playoffs a year ago and then led the Caps in points this season but has only one point through the first round. He needs to have an impact. Brooks Orpik, the former defensive anchor for the Penguins who won a Cup with Pittsburgh in '09, has been out since being clocked by Flyers forward Ryan White in Game 3. The Caps are deep on the blue line, but Orpik has been such emotional ballast to the team that his absence will be keenly felt in a series that promises to be long and full of peaks and valleys.

Pittsburgh: Murray doesn't appear to have any crumble in him, but the Caps present an entirely different set of problems than the Rangers did in terms of offensive weaponry. With Fleury's status still up in the air as he attempts to recover from a concussion, the pressure will go up exponentially on the rookie. If Murray wobbles, it will be interesting to see when or if Fleury returns to action. Jeff Zatkoff started the series against the Rangers and split the first two games. The Pens have been getting superlative play from a handful of other youngsters as well. Rookie Tom Kuhnhackl had the game winner in Game 1; Conor Sheary had goals in two consecutive games; and Bryan Rust scored twice and had an assist in the series clincher. This is the first NHL experience for all three, so we'll see how they fare under the glare of the national spotlight that will shine on this series.

Fancy stats

16 and 3

Those numbers represent the combined number of power-play goals scored by Pittsburgh and Washington in the first round (16) and the combined number of power-play goals allowed (3). The numbers reflect the enormous skill set that will be collectively assembled in this series, and they also speak to the structure and coaching acumen that Washington coach Barry Trotz and Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan bring to the table.

Series MVP

Washington: The easy answer is Ovechkin, who made a brilliant play on the game winner in Game 6, but I'm going with the man who scored that goal, Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom is the quiet conscience of the Capitals, and I expect him to rise to the occasion in such an emotional setting. Backstrom leads the Caps with seven points.

Pittsburgh: Again, the easy answer is Crosby, who has eight points while playing mostly with Sheary and Patric Hornqvist, but the player to watch is Evgeni Malkin. There used to be bad blood between Malkin and Ovechkin, and it will be interesting to watch the physical battle between the two Russian stars. Malkin looked a little out of sync in his first game back after being out of the lineup since March 11 but has stepped back into beast mode since returning to action in Game 2. Malkin, who has seven points in four games, has the ability to single-handedly turn a game on its ear.

Bottom line

I had the Capitals going to the Stanley Cup finals in September, and I'm sticking with that pick. But I'll admit more than a little hesitation, given the Caps' slight wobble against Philadelphia and the high level at which the Penguins are playing. Either way, this should be a treat. Capitals in 7.