Second-round preview: Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have a fraught relationship. They have met twice on the sport’s biggest stage and, both times, sparks flew. Then the Penguins went on to bigger and better things, while the Caps went home despondent and alone.

In their two playoff meetings during the Crosby-Ovechkin era, the Penguins beat the Capitals and then went on to win the Stanley Cup. But this time, Washington is a deeper team, boasting a stunning body of talent.

At the trade deadline, the Capitals added defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to the blue line. T.J. Oshie has developed into a 30-goal scorer. Bottom-six forwards like Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky, Jay Beagle, Daniel Winnik, Tom Wilson, and Lars Eller all present scoring threats. Goaltender Braden Holtby has established himself as an elite goaltender. Justin Williams isn’t mortal. From top to bottom, this team has every layer of skill, winning pedigrees, youth, and grit to win. But then the Maple Leafs series happened.

It is fair to question whether the Capitals have an extra gear. The closest they came to demonstrating a higher level of play was in Game 4 when they shot out to a 4-1 lead. But even in that stretch of play, they seemed only slightly better than their opponent. Also, as stacked as Washington is, it is concerning that Toronto was the faster team in the series by a noticeable margin.

Washington surrendered egregious turnovers because Toronto was able to pester them and explode into the shooting and skating lanes. And during some intervals of play, the Capitals didn’t seem fully engaged. They can win the one-on-one battles on the forecheck, but too often they seemed a little too slow closing in on the retrieving defenseman or the recipient of his first pass.

These flaws will spell trouble against a Pittsburgh team that exploits every miscue. And while Toronto was prone to allowing those long stretch passes when the Capitals whipped the puck across the ice vertically and horizontally, those will mostly be intercepted and turned into a counterattack against a hyper-aware Penguins’ squad. To my surprise, the Capitals struggled at times to rip through the coverage of the Maple Leafs and would settle for a dump-and-chase or playing on the perimeter. And this was against one of the worst teams in the NHL at allowing shot attempts during the regular season.

Against the Penguins, the Capitals need to simplify. The defensemen are going to need help on breakouts, and that means shorter, decisive passes in their own zone. While a skater stationed in the neutral zone is a helpful mechanism for facilitating offense, the primary focus needs to be controlling the puck, and the Capitals defensemen are going to be hounded by an insatiable Penguins forecheck. Passes need to be quicker in the neutral zone and offensive zone, too. The creative players should be circumspect with their toe drags; swift shot releases are paramount. The Penguins are too fast and too smart for Washington to get cutesy with the puck. There is a difference between protecting the puck well and hubris. The Capitals have the skating and skill to skate and pass the puck on the Penguins. But delayed decision-making and making the extra pass will doom them.

The Capitals want to implement the Kings’ playbook. They have the talent to shoot and retrieve endlessly. And by controlling the territorial advantage, they neutralize the Penguins’ stars and put duress on a possibly vulnerable team defense. After all, Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray is M.I.A. and the defense doesn’t have Kris Letang. By keeping the puck in the offensive zone, they simultaneously put the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the defensive, and they also make it more likely that they will draw a penalty and not commit one. Both teams have incredibly dangerous power plays, so that component is very important.

Unlike last season, Washington will need to puncture the middle slot, and that means their creative puck-handlers and shooters must work in concert below the goal line and in the off-slot to find that space and opportunity on the cycle. They are nifty at the play where a distributor drifts low in the off-slot and a shooter retreats away from the net for a quick pop-out one-timer. Ample opportunity should be given to the likes of Oshie and Justin Williams for that. Speaking of Williams, the faceoff play they ran for him to win the series is a prime example of simplifying. Williams receives the puck from Carlson, drives the puck at net, and Marcus Johansson gets inside position and scoops it in.

That’s the game plan for the cycle. On transition, the Capitals will need numbers and support. If they don’t have that, they will get crushed because Pittsburgh will isolate them in non-shooting areas and strip them of the puck. The defense will need to be involved as a second wave, but the Capitals really need to be careful when passing on the rush. Long, lazy east-west passes will be gobbled up. Same goes for casual vertical passes. Keep it simple; if the passing lane to John Carlson isn’t there on the weak side, drive it at the net and let the player on the center-lane drive try to win the battle for the rebound.

Finally, can the Capitals run more action for Ovechkin at even-strength please? They have the greatest catch-and-shoot scorer of all time and somehow he is not utilized despite possessing a half-dozen quality passers on the team. Plant Ovechkin in the off-slot, allow him to stay idle or move toward the puck as he sees fit, and feed him as the other skaters try to attack from the other side of the ice. Ovechkin should have at least six more shot attempts than he’s been averaging so far, and while he obviously needs to be an active member of the forecheck, he can also be deployed as a redoubtable long-distance bomber and spacing tool. Get creative.

The Penguins basically need to keep doing what they have been doing. They are so freaking clever with how they open up space on and off the puck, and their structure in all three zones is impeccable. The Penguins get scoring from all four lines and Crosby and Malkin are firing on all cylinders. If Pittsburgh plays well, there should be questions raised about how good a passing team the Capitals are and whether they play fast enough to succeed.

For Pittsburgh, it’s all the about excelling in the basic clichés: winning races, tracking well on the backcheck, winning the individual battles, supporting the puck and retrieving it. Couple that with the individual talent and they win. If the Penguins can escape the Capitals’ forecheck and exit the zone cleanly with minimal time spent in their end and few shot attempts, the reigning Cup champs will beat their toughest opponent in the East. That will happen. The elite players for Pittsburgh are just too good and too well coached.

Penguins in seven

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