Like tourists flocking to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom, the Pittsburgh Penguins making a trip to Washington in the playoffs has become a rite of spring.
The Penguins and Capitals will face off in the second round for the third consecutive year with the core groups changed only slightly from past battles. Back-to-back Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh still has playoff MVPs Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Washington still has stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom trying to make the Eastern Conference final for the first time.
“We faced each other for a lot of games, and we should know each other right now inside out,” Backstrom said. “That's just how it is. It's usually tight series and one-goal games. We're excited about this one.”
It's hard not to get the “Groundhog Day” feeling about these teams meeting for the fourth time in the past 10 years. The Penguins won the previous three series despite not having home-ice advantage, twice winning Game 7 in Washington on the way to capturing the Stanley Cup.
But this year is different in many ways, most notably on the Pittsburgh injury front. Malkin and winger Carl Hagelin will miss Game 1 on Thursday night in Washington. Coach Mike Sullivan said Malkin will travel, making him a possibility to play in Game 2 this weekend after missing the end of the Philadelphia series with an apparent lower-body injury.
“I think guys have to step up in different roles maybe,” Crosby said. “I don't think anybody has to put too much pressure on themselves. Collectively we can find ways and those are guys who aren't easy to replace, but that's what we're faced with.”
A year after the last series between these two division rivals, gone from the Penguins are forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, defensemen Trevor Daley, Ian Cole and Ron Hainsey and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Gone from the Capitals are forwards Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Daniel Winnik and defensemen Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.
“They have different personnel, we have different personnel,” said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, who's back after missing the 2017 playoffs because of neck surgery. “The series is going to play out differently. The game is going to be won differently. You don't know how it is going to go.”
Pittsburgh, trying for a rare championship threepeat, has won nine of 10 all-time series against Washington, many of which predate current players and coaches. But Capitals coach Barry Trotz said it's “fitting” his team must again go through its nemesis to advance.
Asked why this year the outcome will be different, Ovechkin said: “I don't know. One day, it have to happen. If we want to get success, we have to beat Pittsburgh and move forward.”
Sid vs. Ovi
Crosby has won 44 of the 70 previous games against Ovechkin in the NHL regular season and playoffs, world junior championships, world championships, World Cup and Olympics. There may not be another dueling hat tricks game like the one in the 2009 playoffs, but Crosby and Ovechkin are red hot going into their latest showdown. Crosby is tied at 13 points with linemate Jake Guentzel for the scoring lead in the playoffs, and Ovechkin's five power-play goals helped Washington beat Columbus in six.
“This year I think he's playing his best, but it's good to see,” Backstrom said of Ovechkin. “Hopefully everyone can raise our level here in the second round.”
The Penguins relied heavily on their top-ranked power play unit to land a 12th straight playoff berth — the longest active streak in the NHL — but their title bid will rely heavily on a penalty kill that's been uneven at best. Pittsburgh was a middling 17th during the regular season (80 percent) but killed 90.5 percent of Philadelphia's power plays in the opening round. Washington scored just once with the man advantage in four regular season meetings with the Penguins, who kept Ovechkin in check.
“You have to reduce his time,” Letang said. “You don't want him to have all kinds of time to really use that puck.”
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray won the Cup twice as a “rookie” by NHL standards after backstopping the Penguins to titles in 2016 and 2017. He missed all of Pittsburgh's playoff series against Washington, however, while recovering from a lower-body injury. The 23-year-old has been up and down against Washington in his brief career and is coming off a Philadelphia series in which he flip-flopped between great (two shutouts) and not-so great (allowing four-or-more goals twice). Still, Murray has never lost a playoff series he's played in, and even after giving up four quick goals in the first 21 minutes of Game 6 against Philadelphia, he limited the Flyers to just one the rest of the way to give his teammates time to rally.
Holtby dialed in
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby allowed six goals on 35 shots through the first two games of the Penguins series last year before getting his game back together. He has only allowed 10 on 137 shots in four-plus games since replacing Philipp Grubauer this time around and looks like a goalie who can match Murray save for save.