NHL Second Round Playoff Preview: Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Cam Lewis
April 26 2017 10:49AM

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© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Stanley Cup Final. 

Well, not actually, because anything can happen, a key player can get injured, a goalie can get hot, and a surprise team can win, but the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins are clearly the two best teams in the NHL. They finished with the best and second best records during the regular season, their underlying numbers match it, and whoever comes out of this series will become the favourite to win it all. 

The Penguins have been the obstacle in the path to success for the Capitals forever now. Ever since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby entered the league in 2005-06, the Penguins have come out on top. Last season, Pittsburgh beat Washington in what was as tight and well played of a series as you'll see en route to their second Stanley Cup in the Crosby era. In fact, Washington has only even beaten Pittsburgh in a playoff series once in franchise history, and that came back in 1994. 

We ask every single season, but can this be Washington's year? Can Alex Ovechkin finally beat Sidney Crosby? This might be his best — and last — chance. 

Season Series

The Capitals and Penguins played four games this season, with both teams coming out with two victories on home ice. 

The Penguins won a 3-2 overtime game back on Oct. 13 in which they were outshot 41-30. The Capitals won the next two games by lopsided scores, 7-1 on Nov. 16 and 5-2 on Jan. 11. The final game was a wild one. The teams rallied back and forth in an absurd game that was eventually won 8-7 by the Penguins in overtime. 

Even though they each won a couple of games, it's pretty obvious that Washington was the better team in the season series. The tightest game in terms of shot attempts (with score effects considered) was the 8-7 thriller, while the Caps were the better team based on underlying numbers in the other three. 

Still, though, I wouldn't say that this indicates that the Capitals have the advantage in the playoffs, or anything. What it suggests is exactly what we saw with these teams in last year's playoff match-up, which is that the games are tight, and that even when the Capitals are playing better, the Penguins can quickly rally, capitalize on mistakes, and grind out wins. 

What it also indicates? This playoff series is going to be great. 

What the numbers say

Washington: 61.4 5v5 GF%, 51.8 5v5 CF%, 51.4 5v5 FF%,10.5 Sh%, 92.2 Sv%, 22.9 PP%, 83.8 PK%

Pittsburgh: 55.2 5v5 GF%, 50.1 5v5 CF%, 51.2 5v5 FF%,10.1 SH%, 91.5 SV%, 23.1 PP%, 79.8 PK%

Like I said, these truly are the best two teams in the league. Their records have them first and second after 82 games, and their numbers completely back their cases up. That said, Washington is in a league of their own. They truly are the NHL's best. Whether they can be the best over a seven-game series where the law of averages doesn't have the time and space to work itself out is up in the air, but this is a truly dominant Capitals team. 

They lead the league in goal differential at even strength because they outshoot their opponents in terms of volume and high quality chances, they have the league's best shooting and save percentage in all situations, and they have a top-ten power play and penalty kill. I mean, it doesn't get much better than that. 

The Penguins, being the league's second best team, come close in all of these major categories, but the one place where the Capitals really pull ahead is special teams. And that could be the key in this series. The Penguins and Caps both have great power plays, but while Washington is strong on the penalty kill too, Pittsburgh is well below average. If these two teams play at a standstill at even strength, which they likely will, Washington's advantage will likely come in exposing the Penguins penalty kill. 

Why you should cheer for Washington

They've never won. The Washington Capitals have existed since 1974, and they've never won. They made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, and that was the closest they've ever been. I mean, hell, they've only ever been to the Conference Final twice and never once during the Ovechkin era. 

Alex Ovechkin has been an incredible talent throughout his career. It's clear at this point that he isn't the dominant goal scoring power forward machine that he used to be, and based on Washington's cap situation and his age, this could be the last chance he has to win it all. After all he's done in the league, all of the great goals and moments, crazy celebrations and high energy play, how could you not want to see that guy lift a Stanley Cup? 

Why you should cheer for Pittsburgh 

Do you like dynasties? The Penguins won last season, and oddly enough, based on how good they are, nobody really expected it. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are an incredible core of players to watch, and nobody has won back-to-back cups since the Red Wings in the late 90s. 

Schedule 

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Prediction 

The Capitals finally get over the hump and win in six games. The Toronto Maple Leafs gave Washington a great warmup in the first round, being a speedy team with a lot of skill and energy, while the Penguins got a lot of good rest after dispatching the Blue Jackets in five games. The difference in this series will come down to special teams, which Washington has the advantage in. 

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Nation Network utility infielder. Twitter: @cooom, Email: cameron@oilersnation.com
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