Thursday, April 26, 2018

Second round playoff preview

Well, that was a bit of a letdown. After a first-round that saw just one Game 7, no significant upsets and only a handful of especially competitive series, we're onto round two. If you're keeping track, our round one picks were seven-for-eight, with three of those also nailing the correct number of games. That's not bad, but let's see if we can do better with a look ahead to round two.

Metro Division: #1 Washington Capitals vs. #2 Pittsburgh Penguins

In this corner: The Capitals (49-26-7, 105 points, +18), who survived a scare against the Blue Jackets, dropping the first two before winning four straight.

And in this corner: The Penguins (47-29-6, 100 points, +22), who beat the Flyers to make it nine straight series wins since the start of the 2016 playoffs.

Head-to-head: They split four games.

Injury report: The Penguins had to finish off the Flyers without Evgeni Malkin, and right now he's expected to miss Game 1 with his status for the remainder of the series unknown—obviously, any absence there would be huge. Carl Hagelin is also a question mark. The Capitals should have everyone other than Andre Burakovsky.

Dominant narrative: History. Every Capitals series has the cloud of past playoff failures hanging over it, and by this point the whole "How will it all go wrong?" story has probably been done to death. But with the Penguins waiting for them in round two, the past is unavoidable. The Caps have had home ice in a second-round meeting against the Penguins in each of the last two years, and each time they've lost in heart-breaking fashion. Stretching back further, they've lost seven straight series to the Penguins since 1995, and nine of ten going back to 1991. Four of those losses have come in seventh games, including last year's.

For the Capitals, the Penguins are basically the bully who stuffed you in your locker in grade school, if you'd been stuck in the same grade school for nearly 30 years and the bully kept showing up every few semesters wearing another Stanley Cup ring.

The big question: Who wins the goaltending battle? That's a big question in every series, of course, but it's especially relevant in this one. Heading into the season, you'd have figured that both teams were all set at the position, with Vezina winner Braden Holtby in Washington and two-time Cup winner Matt Murray in Pittsburgh. But Holtby struggled this year and actually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer for the first two games of the Columbus series. And Murray has been inconsistent, looking brilliant one night and shaky the next. Both these guys can steal games, but neither is inspiring much confidence right now.

One player to watch: Alexander Ovechkin. Sticking with our obvious theme, let's turn to Ovechkin. You may know him from such narratives as "never wins the big one" and "always disappears in the clutch." The first one has been kind of true, if we're being honest. But the second one hasn't been—he scored his 51st career playoff goal in the clincher in Columbus, and ranks near the top of the cap era leaderboard despite never playing past the second round.

But it doesn't matter, because nothing he does will matter until the Capitals win. If he lights up the scoreboard and the Caps lose again, he'll be the guy who only puts up numbers when it doesn't matter. If he has a quiet game or two, it will be because he's a choker. It's not fair, but that's sports. The good news is with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins showing up, Ovechkin's got yet another chance to have the sort of climb-on-my-back performance that wins the series and shuts up his critics once and for all. (At least until the next round.)

Key number: 1.10 – Career points-per-game in the postseason for Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel. That ranks second in the cap era among players with at least 30 playoffs games, trailing only Crosby's 1.15. In case you're wondering, Malkin ranks third, and Phil Kessel shows up 14th. The Penguins have a little bit of scoring depth.

Prediction: Capitals in five.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Ovechkin's big breakout finally comes, as he has two hat tricks in the series.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

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