Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: Series Roundtable

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Apr 20, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; The Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate a goal by center Scott Wilson (23) against the Columbus Blue Jackets during the third period in game five of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena. The Pens won the game 5-2 and the series 4 games to 1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Penguins

What is the key to the Penguins beating the Capitals? 

West:  If the Penguins end up trading chances or relying on shot blocking as much as they did against Columbus, they’re likely doomed against the Caps. So much of the Penguins’ success under Mike Sullivan stems from puck possession and fast, opportunistic forechecking. There’s no Kris Letang on the blueline this year, so it’s more critical than ever for the team to defend 200 feet from its own net rather than 20.

Rodrigopulle: The Penguins offense has been rolling as of late, and we’re going to need more of this against the Caps. The Capitals are just as offensive, so we will definitely need each and every forward to step up in their own ways. Other than the usual Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, we’ve gotten a lot of guys stepping up like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist. We’ll need more of this.

Stevenson: The Penguins have to be relentless and they have to play smart. Few teams make you pay for mistakes more than the Washington Capitals. They also can’t let them get clean zone entries and have to make quick exits out of their own zone. Pittsburgh’s forecheck needs to be very active, as the Maple Leafs did damage when pressuring the Capitals. 

Are this year’s Penguins better equipped to get past Washington than last year? Why or why not?

West: I liked the Penguins’ chances against Washington in 2016 primarily because of their deep and well-rounded roster. They just controlled 5v5 play by rolling lines and pairs at times. From the Lars Eller trade through the Kevin Shattenkirk acquisition, Washington went out and improved its own depth and skill. I think it took away one of the biggest mismatches in the 2016 series. With the Penguins’ injury troubles, I’d say depth actually favors the Caps.

Rodrigopulle: That’s hard to say honestly. If the Penguins were healthy, I would say without a doubt they were better equipped. However, injuries have been a big problem for the second half of the season. Nevertheless, the Penguins surprised many by still proving that they can be a second place team in the league. Considering this and the emergence of key depth players, I’d say the Penguins are still looking to be the top contender for the Cup as of now.

Stevenson: No, because they don’t have Letang. He’s tormented the Washington Capitals throughout his career. When Letang’s healthy, very few defensemen are better than him. However, I’ll say this. Last year’s Penguins don’t beat the Caps without him. This year, Pittsburgh has a below 50 percent but still viable chance of beating the Capitals. Their overall defensive depth is better.

Who is the Penguins’ X-Factor for this series?

West: It seems ridiculous to call Evgeni Malkin an X-factor, but that’s what I’m going to do. If Crosby gets the toughest matchups again, he’ll presumably have a hard time imposing his will. The Caps are just too good to let it happen. But if Geno goes beast mode while Crosby keeps Backstrom busy, Washington might find itself short on effective shutdown options.

Rodrigopulle: With Matt Murray out due to an unexpected injury, I would say Marc-Andre Fleury is the Penguins X-factor in this series and playoffs. Many people wanted the Penguins to trade him at the deadline because of the risks the expansion draft poses, however it looks like it was a good thing that he wasn’t traded. Fleury was a major factor in the first round match-up against Columbus and you can only expect that he will come up big again in round two.

Stevenson: It’s incredible how much a year can change things. Justin Schultz was an afterthought as a trade deadline acquisition last season. This year, there’s a good argument he was robbed of being an All-Star. Schultz is the Penguins’ best hope of replacing what Letang brings to the table offensively. Keep an eye on Jake Guentzel as well.

Series prediction?

West: Capitals in six. I think the series will be very close. Washington needs to break Fleury’s spirits early in the series. (I also thought Penguins would lose to Columbus in seven, so what do I know.)

Rodrigopulle: The two best teams in the league this season, who are both storied rivals. I can only imagine this series being intense and hard-fought. I’ll have to go with my gut here and say Penguins take it in seven.

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