Make no mistake about it, this is the Stanley Cup Final.
The NHL’s divisional playoff format is an absolute joke. List the teams 1-8 for each conference and it is as simple as that. Then you don’t have to worry about things playing out exactly as they did this season. The stacked Metropolitan division sees a team as good as the Columbus Blue Jackets were, 4th in the entire league, gone in the first round and will also have the best or second best team in the league eliminated before the conference final. While the Atlantic division bracket will have the 9th or 12th best team in the league guaranteed a spot in the conference final. Anyone with a brain should be pissed about how mind-numbing this logic is, but at this point we should not be surprised by the NHL’s incompetence and willingness to lose as many fans as possible.
We have to live with it how it is, so we might as well enjoy the best series of the entire playoffs, even if it comes in only the second round.
With all due respect to the Rangers, Senators, Ducks, Oilers, Predators, and Blues, the two best teams in the entire league are about to square off and it is going to be marvelous.
The Washington Capitals, 59-19-8, with 118 points finished the regular season atop the league once again and took home their favorite piece of hardware, the President’s Trophy. However, the Capitals have made it abundantly clear that they do not care about regular season success any longer. That shiny regular season trophy means nothing to them as they stand nose to nose with the team that has made an annual tradition of ruining their journey to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The Capitals return nearly the same roster from last year as well, except they have added superstar defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to their blueline.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, 50-21-11, with 111 points and possibly an even more impressive regular season than the President’s Trophy winners, considering all of the injuries the Penguins endured throughout their campaign. This team has also been reported as saying that they wanted to play the Capitals again in the second round. They sure as hell are confident and want this challenge, & that should make you feel great as a fan of the team in black and gold. The Penguins also return almost the same roster as last season to the series, except they are without superstar defenseman Kris Letang and starting goaltender Matt Murray. The Penguins have added one invaluable piece in Jake Guentzel, however. It will be interesting to see if the Capitals have an answer to the young winger, who proved to be too much for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The first thing that sticks out to me is that the Capitals have added a great defenseman for this series, and the Penguins have lost one. That may tell the story of the series right there. These teams are both too deep and talented to say whether that will decide it or not, but it is definitely something to take notice of.
First, let’s examine the forwards of both teams.
Short and simple, they are both great. You won’t find more firepower anywhere in the league. I’ll save you the boring listing of all of their regular season stats and just compare how they stack up.
The most important position among forwards is obviously the center. The Penguins have the best center group in the league.
The Penguins number one center, the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby. The Capitals number one center, an incredible talent, Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom is a legitimate number one center and he’s one of the very best in the league, but there’s no contest here. Sidney Crosby is in a completely different league. Edge Penguins.
The Penguins number two center, the second best player in the world, Evgeni Malkin. The Capitals number two center, an absolute gem of a talent, Evgeny Kuznetsov. Seriously, you already knew this one as well. Geno is the top scorer in the playoffs and he only got healthier after these last few days off. The Penguins are boasting one of the best 1-2 punches in league history at center and I don’t think anyone can argue that. Edge Penguins.
The bottom six centers. The Penguins are stacked here as well, and I’m being as objective as I possibly can. Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen are about as good as you can get as your 3C and 4C in the salary cap era. Now, that’s not to say that Lars Eller and Jay Beagle are slouches, because they’re not. They just simply have not proven to be as good as the former. Bonino has a knack for scoring big goals and making big plays when it matters most and Matt Cullen could probably be a 3C on any other team. This is a wildcard, who knows, Eller and Beagle could come up this series and score some huge points, but for now I have to stick to my gut. Edge Penguins.
Left wing. The Penguins rundown goes like this: Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney. Jake Guentzel has already tallied a hat trick in his first playoff series ever. Bryan Rust has once again proved that he is going to go down as one of the best playoff performers in Penguins history. I think Rust is showing shades of Justin Williams in big games and it’s pretty cool that Williams will be on the other sides during this series. The Capitals trot out the best left wing in the entire league in Alex Ovechkin, followed by Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and Daniel Winnik. Having Alex Ovechkin alone gives the Capitals the advantage here. He is one of the greatest goal scorers of all-time and quite frankly he is tired of getting knocked out by Sidney Crosby every year. If the Capitals are going to win this series, Ovi is going to need to play the best hockey of his life and that certainly isn’t out of the question. Edge Capitals.
Right wing. The Penguins, once again, are loaded in this aspect. I truly don’t know if anyone else in the league could imagine having Phil Kessel on the second line and Patric Hornqvist on the third. Now, Hornqvist might play on the first line this series in the place of the struggling Conor Sheary, but that’s beside the point. This is the type of depth that you build in your NHL 17 franchise mode. Conor Sheary, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, and Tom Kuhnhackl. Good luck matching that, anyone else. Kessel and Hornqvist have both proved to be phenomenal in the playoffs and they both play very different styles. Kessel has proved he can score the most ridiculous goals as well as create offense at an elite rate through his incredible playmaking ability. Hornqvist, what can I say about the guy? He’s a beast. He’s the best net front presence in the league and his importance in a playoff series, especially one as tough as this one cannot be overstated. The Capitals right wing is pretty damn good in its own right, though. TJ Oshie, a proven playoff performer, who is also good at being a pain in the ass to Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Penguins star players. Justin Williams, nicknamed “Mr. Game 7” for his heroics with the Kings has not showed any signs of changing his big game mentality in Washington. Tom Wilson, one of the most hated names in Pittsburgh sits on the third line. Wilson has had a solid playoffs so far, and he has the first round pedigree to continue his success. It will be interesting to see if he decides to put more effort into helping the Capitals on the scoreboard or resorting to his usual and questionable antics. One way or another, Wilson will be one of the most noticeable players this series. Finally, flanking the fourth line is former 6th overall pick Brett Connolly. He has no points this playoffs, but he scored 15 goals in the regular season, and that’s pretty damn good for fourth line minutes. No disrespect to what the Capitals are bringing to the table on the right wings, they’ve got a ton of skill throughout all four lines, but the Penguins once again probably have the most skilled unit in the league. Edge Penguins.
Defense. With Kris Letang healthy, this could be debated. However, the Penguins will be rolling out a unit of:
Nothing to scoff at, and they played a pretty solid opening series against the Blue Jackets. However, the Washington Capitals are a different animal. They’ve got four scoring lines and they aren’t going to take a single shift off. Every mistake this unit makes will be exemplified and exposed. Columbus could not cash in on their mistakes, but Washington certainly will.
The Capitals defense corps will look something like this:
Wow. That right side is incredible. Seriously, if you can afford to put Shattenkirk anywhere but your first pairing, you are stacked. I think I made it abundantly clear in the forward comparisons that the Penguins are going to have a hefty advantage, but the same thing goes for the Capitals here. It is going to come down to the Penguins offense against the Capitals defense and it sure is going to be fun to watch. This is the series that all of the fans whose teams are at the golf course will be watching and for good reason. It’s a clash of the titans, part two. Edge Capitals.
Goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury played an incredible series against the Blue Jackets after stepping in for the injured Matt Murray and it will be interesting to see how he responds to a much better team in the Washington Capitals. Fleury is no stranger to facing Washington as any good Penguins fan would remember how brilliant he was against them en route to the 2009 Stanley Cup. Especially with his save on Alex Ovechkin’s breakaway in the opening minutes of Game 7. Fleury finished round one with four wins, one loss, a 2.52 GAA, and an impressive .933 save percentage. Across from his stands one of the very best goalies in the world, Braden Holtby. Holtby and Matt Murray play a very similar style. They are both technically sound and are rarely caught out of position. They do not have the high-flying, reactionary style that Fleury does, which helps keep them square to rebounds and in position at almost all-times. Holtby finished the first round with four wins, two losses, a 2.36 GAA, and a stellar .925 save percentage. I think this one is very up in the air, but going any other way would simply be showing my bias. Edge Capitals.
This is going to be one incredible series with some spectacular hockey being played night in and night out. I think both sides are very evenly matched and will run over any other team they face in subsequent rounds. I think the Capitals may take game one tonight as they so often do. Remember this stat, the Capitals are 8-1 against the Penguins in game ones, but the Penguins are 8-1 in those series. I think the Penguins have overcome so much adversity this season and I know they will be ready to play this series more than any other. They are still a special team and they will persevere.
Penguins in 6.