You can’t blame the NHL and dozens of pundits for being excited about the prospect of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin squaring off in the second round of the playoffs. These are two of the most bankable stars in the game today, and the league has always stumbled over itself trying to paint this as a rivalry for the ages.
While it’s going to be a blast watching these two generational superstars trying to one-up each other in high-octane postseason games, there’s more to this semifinal series than “Alexander the Great” and “Sid the Kid.” Here are four storylines worth keeping an eye on that have nothing to do with No. 8 or No. 87.
Evgeny Kuznetsov vs Evgeni Malkin
It’s tough to know exactly what kind of matchups Mike Sullivan and Barry Trotz will pursue in this series. Will they allow it to be best-on-best the whole way? Or will we see them engage in a battle of wits to try and get their top superstars away from each other? As Game 1 wears on, it’ll be something worth keeping an eye on.
There’s a good chance that we could simply see both coaches roll four lines though, and that could lead to some spectacular action between the team’s second lines. Evgeny Kuznetsov centers Washington’s second unit, while Evgeni Malkin takes that spot for the Penguins.
Stars are made in the playoffs. We’ve seen it this year already with John Tavares, and players such as Drew Doughty and Victor Hedman really didn’t get their due until they were featured on live television broadcasts every other night for several weeks in a row. That kind of exposure can push a high-end player to another level of public awareness.
That’s the kind of opportunity Kuznetsov has in this series. Especially if Ovechkin and Crosby end up neutralizing each other by producing at similar rates. That will put more pressure on other forwards to produce, and it’s a situation we’ve seen Malkin deliver in before. He’s a proven commodity because of his past playoff showings. Can the super talented Kuznetsov elevate his game and hang with the savvy veteran?
If the answer to that question is yes, then the Capitals have an even better chance of winning this series. If the Penguins can keep the game-breaking talent at bay though, it could cause Washington some issues.
It’s the Matt Murray Show
Some fans in Washington have approached Matt Murray like he’s some run-of-the-mill backup goalie. They are used to seeing Marc-Andre Fleury in net, but he won’t be available for the start of this series as he’s still dealing with lingering concussion issues. If this were Jeff Zatkoff or some other mid-range backup, then the Capitals might be able to make Swiss cheese out of him.
Murray was outstanding during 13 regular season games though and didn’t miss a beat when the Penguins called on him in Game 3 of the first round. He largely outplayed Henrik Lundqvist, shut the New York Rangers out in Game 4 and made a whopping 38 saves in the series-clinching Game 5.
Lack of a track record may be a knock on other goaltenders, but Murray is not to be taken lightly by the Capitals, their shooters and the team’s fan base. He’s been considered one of the top goalie prospects around for several years now, and is already showing that he’s a capable NHL starter at the age of 21.
There’s also the idea that his high level of play is only buying Fleury more time, but it’s tough to imagine Sullivan pulling the plug on Murray if he’s still playing well once “Flower” can return. If the Penguins are winning and the goalie isn’t struggling, expect him to be the guy for Pittsburgh down the stretch unless his game falls off drastically.
Can the Penguins Forecheck Slow Washington’s Breakout?
At any given point in this series, there will be at least one or two highly talented individuals out on the ice looking to make plays. When you have defenders like John Carlson slinging passes to forwards like Ovechkin or Kuznetsov, there’s always the chance for an odd-man rush. That’s exactly what the Capitals are looking for whenever they are able to gather the puck in their defensive zone.
They use their team speed to make forecheckers hesitate while pressuring the puck carrier, and then spring their center and wings through the neutral zone with speed. It’s an aggressive system, and one that the Penguins will try to counter with their forecheck.
One of the things Sullivan did when he took over in Pittsburgh was install a more intrusive forechecking scheme — especially with the team’s third and fourth lines. Sometimes you’ll see squad send a checker in alone to apply pressure, but you won’t see the Penguins doing this too often. They almost always have great support when in pursuit of the puck, and they created serious issues for the Rangers’ slower defensemen.
So which system will win over the course of this series? The answer to that question could be the deciding factor. If the Penguins are able to grab early leads and forecheck the Capitals into the ice, they have a good chance of winning. If Washington can punch through Pittsburgh’s checkers and hit the neutral zone with speed though, it could be a quicker series than people realize.
Elite Special Teams Will Play a Large Role
We hear about special teams a lot around this time of year. So much so that it almost feels trite to point out the impact power plays and penalty kills will have on this series. Both of these squads are currently in top-five in both departments though, and power-play goals may be tough to come by.
The Capitals killed 95.8 percent of the power play chances they faced in round one, while the Penguins PK unit carries an 89.5 percent kill rate heading into Game 1. Pittsburgh also managed to crush it on the power play, converting on 38.1 percent of its chances. The Capitals are noted for their effectiveness with the extra man as well though, and scored on 29.6 percent of their opportunities.
As you can see from the numbers, both teams are playing at a high level on both the penalty kill and power play. While the Penguins have been getting the job done during the playoffs, they struggled on the power play for much of the year. They still excelled at killing off chances, but they can’t afford to take a step back in either area against Washington.
The Capitals finished with the fifth-best power play during the regular season and had the second-best penalty killers. Can Pittsburgh keep pace across what should prove to be a long series?