Penguins-Capitals Preview: Patrick Rivals Reunite
The rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin has largely defined the NHL over the past decade-plus. They’ve only met twice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins beating Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals both times. Ovechkin will get his chance for revenge starting this Thursday (7:30 PM ET, NBCSN) when the Capitals host the Penguins in Game 1 of their second-round series. At press time, the Caps are –120 to win the series, and they’re –140 to win Thursday’s opener.
The Penguins have been Washington’s playoff pitfall since well before Crosby and Ovechkin showed up. The former Patrick Division rivals met seven times between 1991 and 2001 inclusive, and it was the Pens winning six of those series, including a pair of Stanley Cups with Mario Lemieux leading the way. Then it was Crosby’s Penguins overcoming Ovechkin and the Caps 4-3 in the second round of the 2009 playoffs, and 4-2 in last year’s second round. The Pens won the Cup both times. Can Washington break the pattern and claim their first championship?
Best of the Best
2017 could be their best chance yet. From a stats perspective, the 2016-17 Capitals (55-19-3, 118 points) have outperformed every other team in the league, and every other Washington team since their inaugural season in 1974-75. They skate into the second round almost entirely healthy. No. 4 defenseman Karl Alzner is their only casualty, missing the last four games against the Toronto Maple Leafs with an upper-body injury.
We’ve seen better from the Penguins (50-21-6, 111 points). This is a superior team in many ways to the one that won the Cup last year, and even the champions from the Lemieux years. But injuries have taken their toll. First, it was top blueliner Kris Letang suffering a herniated disk in late February. Then they started dropping like flies. Left wingers Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin remain day-to-day with lower-body injuries, as does No. 1 goaltender Matt Murray (.923 save percentage), their Cup-winning savior.
It didn’t end up costing them against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Veteran Marc-Andre Fleury (.909 SV%) had three strong starts at home, and while he struggled in Columbus, his teammates picked up the slack – especially rookie forward Jake Guentzel, who scored five goals in five games against the Jackets while playing left wing on the top line with Crosby. It’ll take more of that to propel Pittsburgh to the Cup Final, but that’s a lot to ask for against the best team in the NHL.
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