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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Series Preview: Washington Capitals - 2016 Eastern Conference Semifinals



The Washington Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy with 120 points this season, but they may very well be an underdog in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against a red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins team. It'll be the first time the NHL has gotten a Crosby vs Ovechkin showdown in the postseason since 2009, when the Pens defeated the Capitals in 7 games en route to the franchise's 3rd Stanley Cup championship. Due to the divisional brackets, the Eastern Conference's two best teams won't battle to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Finals but rather to face the winner of the Lightning-Islanders series for that right.

Possession


The Penguins have been an entirely different team under Mike Sullivan than they were under Mike Johnston, and they've steadily become a more and more dominant puck possession team as time progressed. The Rangers were able to control play at times in the first round, though a combination of a conservative gameplan with Jeff Zatkoff in net in Games 1 and 2 and building big leads in Games 4 and 5 likely helped contribute to that. The Capitals were an above average possession team during the regular season, ranking 10th in the league with a 52.0 SACF%, but they've begun to hit their stride late in the year and ousted the Flyers in 6 games while posting a 54.3 SACF%.

Scoring Offense/Defense


Like possession, the Penguins have been a different team offensively under Sullivan, and they've seen their scoring increase steadily to the point where they're just shy of a 4.0 goal per game average over their past 25 games, and they've been trending in the right direction towards preventing goals too in recent times. Though the Capitals are allowing a similar number of goals as the Pens, their offense has been steadily trending downwards recently to the point where they barely have a positive goal differential.

Shooting/Save Percentages




Like in scoring defense, the Pens and Capitals have posted a similar save percentage, but like with goal scoring Washington has been trending downwards with their shooting percentage while Pittsburgh has continued to improve under Mike Sullivan. It's a series that could come down to who's able to do a better job putting the puck in the net, and recent results would favor the Penguins. 

Season Series Results

October 27, 2015: PIT 3 - WSH 1
December 14, 2015 - WSH 4 - PIT 1
March 1, 2016 - WSH 3 - PIT 2
March 20, 2016 - PIT 6 - WSH 2
April 7, 2016 - PIT 4 - WSH 3 OT


Washington might have won the Presidents' Trophy, but Pittsburgh won the seasons series by taking 3 of 5 games against their division rival. The Capitals beat the Pens in Mike Sullivan's first game as head coach, and they also were the last team to beat Matt Murray when they come back from a 2-0 hole against a tired Pens team in the beginning of March, but the Penguins have managed to find success on the scoresheet and driving play that not many teams have seen against the Caps this year.

Projected Lines



Marc-Andre Fleury is still feeling the effects of the concussion he suffered off a James Neal shot March 31st against Nashville, but the way Matt Murray is playing in net he can take his time getting healthy. After dominating the AHL over the past two seasons, Murray is continuing his strong play at the NHL level. He posted a 0.930 SV% and 2.00 GAA in 13 starts during the regular season, and he was even better against the Rangers in the first round with a 0.955 SV% and 1.33 GAA to shut the door on New York's season with 3 consecutive wins to clinch the series for Pittsburgh. He won't carry the better postseason numbers into the second round though, as Braden Holtby completely shut down the Flyers in the first round, allowing only 5 goals in the 6 games played en route to a 0.968 SV% and 0.84 GAA. Though he cooled after a start to the season that had some wondering if he could find himself in the Hart Trophy conversation, Holtby still finished the regular season with a 0.922 SV% and 2.20 GAA, numbers that combined with his 48 wins for the Presidents' Trophy winner will likely see him earn a Vezina Trophy nomination.

He wouldn't be the only award winner on the Capitals, as Alexander Ovechkin has already wrapped up his 4th straight Rocket Richard Trophy, and 6th overall, with 50 goals during the regular season. It's the 7th time Ovechkin has reached that mark in his career, and it makes for a strong top line that also includes Nicklas Backstrom (20g, 50a) and T.J. Oshie (26g, 25a). The 2nd line is no slouch either as Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team in scoring with 77 points, and the 3rd line saw Jason Chimera (20 goals) and Marcus Johansson (17 goals) pitch in good secondary scoring from the bottom 6.

Washington will also see some offense from their blue line, and they're led by John Carlson. Despite missing 26 games with a lower body injury, Carlson led the Capitals' defensemen with 39 points in 56 games. If the rest of the Washington blue line looks familiar, it's because they've spent a decent bit of time in black and gold. Brooks Orpik had been a career Penguin before signing with the Caps during the 2014 offseason, and while his best days are comfortably behind him he's still called upon to play significant minutes for Washington. He'll be questionable to start the series though after taking an awkward hit into the boards from the Flyers' Ryan White in the first round. Matt Niskanen spent three full seasons with the Pens after coming over from Dallas in the James Neal and signed during the same 2014 offseason as Orpik after Pittsburgh couldn't find the cap space to keep him. Taylor Chornay has found a niche on the Washington blueline after a surprising stretch run with the Penguins last year, appearing in 55 games after only seeing action in 68 NHL games the previous 6 years combined.

Not all the familiar faces play for the Capitals though. Eric Fehr signed a 3 year, $2 million AAV with Pittsburgh in the offseason after 10 seasons in Washington. Offseason elbow surgery put Fehr behind the 8 ball this season, as well as a knee injury after the All Star break, limiting him to 55 games (8g, 6a), but Fehr has begun to find his stride in recent weeks and will enter the series as the RW on Evgeni Malkin's line. The Penguins can roll four lines that match what the Capitals can do at forward, they have a defense that is a good fit for their desire to aggressively attack the other team's zone, and Matt Murray is starting to show that he can out-duel anyone in the league. They'll look to increase Caps fans' anxiety and send their top seeded team to another early tee time.

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