Pens-Caps: A familiar adversary in an exciting series

It’s the best time of year once again, ladies and gentlemen. April is almost finished, and it’s about to be May. The weather is starting to warm up, school is almost out, and the NHL playoffs are in full swing. And what better tradition to kick off your summer vacation than watching the Pittsburgh Penguins eliminate the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs for the third year in a row?

I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it’s just so perfect. The Capitals have been defeated by the Penguins in the second round for the past two years on the Penguins’ way to two consecutive Stanley Cup titles, and with how little the two teams have changed from last year to now, there’s not much of a doubt in my mind that the Pens are going to wipe the floor with the Caps.

History clearly favors the Penguins. This will be the 11th time the two clubs have met in the playoffs, and the Pens have lost to Washington in the playoffs only once, back in 1994. The Pens have made a tradition of beating the Capitals, beating them down in a playoff series en route to each of Pittsburgh’s five Stanley Cup victories.

And, with the way this Pens team looks, there’s little doubt that they have the talent and ability to grab a sixth cup. Captain Sidney Crosby was dominant in the first round of the playoffs, a six-game series over the Philadelphia Flyers, scoring an incredible six goals and totaling 15 points. He played mean and aggressive against Philly. Nobody could stop him in that series.

And even if they could stifle Crosby’s efforts, the Flyers just couldn’t contain the explosiveness of winger Jake Guentzel. Like Crosby, he scored six goals and had 13 points against Philadelphia, and he really came alive in an incredible four-goal effort to shut down the Flyers’ playoff hopes in Game 6 of the series.

In terms of goaltending, Matt Murray has been no slouch. He has already recorded two shutouts against the Flyers and has had moments where he’s looked incredibly dominant. However, he’s still going to be one of the Pens’ biggest question marks (along with their entire defense), thanks to a few shoddy performances in the Philadelphia series and a really weird, up-and-down regular season this year. Hopefully he’ll return to be the playoff Murray we know and love.

The Capitals have been no slouch of a team, either. They finished first in the Metropolitan division this season above the Pens and have the most complete team that they have in years. After a rough start to their first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets in which they lost the first two games at home, the Caps bounced back and defeated the Blue Jackets in the next four straight games, winning the series in six.

Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin scored five goals in the Caps’ efforts against Columbus, and they also saw the return to form of goaltender Braden Holtby, who had a rough enough end to his season to see him benched in favor of back-up Phillip Grubauer for a few games.

Don’t let my wild optimism fool you. This Washington team has the ability to take care of the Penguins. If Pittsburgh shows any of the signs of sloppiness or unpreparedness as they did during the regular season, they are going to get burned. However, when they are the Playoff Penguins, when they are on, they are dominant, and nobody can come close to the talent that they have.

If Thursday night was any indication, we’re in for a great series. 17 seconds into the first period, Ovechkin connected with Evgeny Kuznetzov on a two-on-one to put the Caps up to an early lead, and Holtby helped shut the door on the Penguins through the next forty minutes with some incredible saves. After Ovechkin ripped another shot into the back of the net 28 seconds into the third period, things looked bleak for the Pens, but they battled back.

Later in the third, defenseman Justin Schultz ripped a harmless wrist shot from the right faceoff circle and Patric Hornqvist put a stick on it in front of the net to sneak it in past Holtby to get the Penguins on the scoreboard and back in the game. Then the Penguins went to work to make the comeback.

Minutes later, 2:21 to be exact, Guentzel threw a cross ice pass through traffic that glanced right off the stick of Ovechkin and to the waiting Crosby, who rifled it through the wickets of Holtby to tie the game up at two.

Quickly after, it was Guentzel who put one home on a beautiful redirection from an innocent Crosby shot from the far side of the boards. Guentzel barely touched it, but the puck had eyes and snuck right under Holtby’s blocker arm, putting the Pens up 3-2.

After that, Pittsburgh went into shutdown mode. Murray made an impossible save on a Brett Connelly shot to keep the lead, reaching out with his blocker to deny Connelly a sure goal, and the Pens never looked back. The two teams battled for more goals, but time wound down and the Penguins took Game 1.

My prediction: I’d say Penguins in six. I’m hoping for four or five, but Washington is too good a team for things to not get interesting.