Will Penguins-Capitals Follow A Familiar Script?

Will Penguins-Capitals Follow A Familiar Script? article feature image

I’m not sure if I’m looking forward to another chapter in the Penguins-Capitals rivalry or getting sick of seeing this matchup. I think more of the former, but the result has been tiring. This will mark the 11th postseason meeting between these clubs — the second-most of any non-Original Six teams (Blues-Stars). Amazingly, eight of the 11 have gone at least six games, and neither team has ever swept the other.

In regard to the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby era, this will be their fourth meeting in the playoffs. It’s not like the series haven’t been competitive, but the Pens have always found a way to win, usually in Game 7. The Penguins have a 4-0 record in Game 7s against Washington — two of which came within the last 10 years (2009 and 2017). The Pens went on to win the Cup in both of those years. Pittsburgh will be looking to defeat the Caps in the playoffs for the third straight year on its quest to become the first team to win back-to-back-to-back Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders won their fourth in a row in 1983.

While the Penguins have won three Stanley Cups since 2009 — believe it or not — the Capitals have not advanced past the second round since 1998. They did end up making it to the Stanley Cup Final that year, so maybe the time is right 20 years later.

In regard to the season series, the teams split four regular-season meetings, with the Caps edging out the Pens 13-12 in aggregate goals. Three of the four games had five goals or fewer. — Stuckey

Washington Capitals (-103) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (-117) 

Game 1: Thursday, April 26, 7 p.m. ET, Penguins at Capitals, NBCSN
Game 2: Sunday, April 29, 3 p.m. ET, Penguins at Capitals, NBC
Game 3: Tuesday, May 1, 7:30 p.m. ET, Capitals at Penguins, NBCSN
Game 4: Thursday, May 3, 7 p.m. ET, Capitals at Penguins, NBCSN
Game 5: Saturday, May 5, TBD, Penguins at Capitals, TBD
Game 6: Monday, May 7, TBD, Capitals at Penguins, TBD
Game 7: Wednesday, May 9, TBD, Penguins at Capitals, TBD

Key Injuries: The biggest injury concern in the series is Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins star will miss Game 1, and his status beyond that is not known. Pittsburgh will be without depth winger Carl Hagelin. The Capitals, meanwhile, will be without top-six forward Andre Burakovsky.

Capital Gains: Washington is a small favorite (-125) at home in Game 1, and only 34% of moneyline bettors were backing the Caps as of Wednesday evening. This has historically been a good spot to wager on the unpopular favorite. Since 2006, home favorites in the playoffs getting less than 50% of moneyline bets have gone 122-81 (60%) straight-up. A $100 bettor would be up $1,329 backing the home favorite. — John Ewing

Opening Dogs: The Penguins have played 161 playoff games since drafting Crosby first overall in 2005. Pittsburgh is 71-40 (64%) on the moneyline when listed as the favorite. As the underdog, Pittsburgh is 23-27 (46%) on the moneyline. In that span, the Pens have faced the Capitals 13 times as a playoff underdog, and the Birds have actually been really good at 8-5 on the moneyline. — Evan Abrams

Rivalry Renewed: Ovechkin and Crosby have faced each other 19 times in the playoffs. Crosby holds an 11-8 advantage, but Ovechkin has held the points (26-22) and goals (12-10) edge over Sid the Kid. —Evan Abrams

Player to Watch: The Capitals own the hottest power play in the playoffs at 33.3%, and their 4.5 opportunities per game trail only San Jose (5.0). The player most likely to take advantage is likely Ovechkin (99th percentile power play shots over the past month), but Evgeny Kuznetsov is an especially intriguing high-volume shooter (95th). He scored just one goal in four games against Pittsburgh the regular season, but last year in the playoffs, Kuznetsov found the twine four times and added three assists in their seven-game series. — Joe Holka

Player to watch: Kris Letang leads the Penguins in average Corsi For (a metric that uses shot attempts as a barometer for possession) over the past month, but sits fourth in average shots on goal (2.81). How is this possible? Letang has struggled to get shots through from the point, allowing far too many shots to be blocked, and he has also missed the net far too often on the man advantage. Generally, defensemen have lower effective shot rates than forwards (ratio of shots that are on goal to shot attempts), but Letang falls in the bottom-seven percentile over the past month on the power play specifically. — Joe Holka

Bottom Line: I’m not totally sure what to make of this series. Possession metrics, expected goals and scoring chances created/allowed all suggest the Penguins are better than the Capitals, but that was also the case in the latter’s series against the Blue Jackets. The Caps succeed thanks to their immense talent, and even if they can’t match the Penguins line-for-line, they can come close enough to make this a tight series that will likely be determined by goaltending (and luck).

Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray was up-and-down all year and didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in Round 1, while Braden Holtby was so underwhelming during the regular season that the former Vezina Trophy winner was the backup for Games 1 and 2 against Columbus. The Capitals lost both of those games before coming back to win four in a row — all of which Holtby started — to eliminate the Jackets.

Surprisingly, it was the Caps who owned the puck and generated more expected goals against Columbus, so maybe they’ve found their stride here. Either way, this series is quite tight, but I think the Capitals and Holtby have finally found their game. — Michael Leboff

Leboff – Capitals in 6

Photo Credit: Kelvin Kuo, USA Today Sports