Key Matchup-

The obvious matchup to keep your eyes on is between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. I don’t think many people have forgotten the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals where in Game 2 both players had hattricks. They were the first players from opposite teams to do so in a playoff game in 13 years, since Trevor Linden (Vancouver Canucks) and Joe Sakic (Colorado Avalanche) in 1996. It has only happened four times in NHL history, and it hasn’t happened since. Crosby has said “We drove each other in that game.” and Ovechkin has said “That’s two leaders showing up.” about it, and that’s why I for one love when the best players play the best at their best; it pushes the game to a level beyond. Ovechkin had eight goals and 14 points in the series; Crosby had eight goals and 13 points, and the Penguins went on to defeat the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.

The mindset that these two have isn’t focused on each other, but instead they both have a team focus and a drive to win no matter who their opponents are. They are willing to put everything on the ice for their respective teams to win, and that includes a drive to outplay everyone on the opposing team including each other. These two men may be the most competitive in the league and their intensity is explosive whenever they face each other.

Ovechkin and Crosby have both won the Hart, Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies. Crosby has 938 points in 707 regular-season games. Ovechkin has 525 goals in 839 games. Crosby is all around skilled and consistent in how he plays; while Ovechkin is all about scoring goals and he does it with flare. Crosby has been the stronger player offensively this season, especially after Mike Sullivan took over on December 13th. If we just look at 5-on-5 play for the entire 2015-16 season, Crosby had 18 goals and 51 points in 1,209:47 of ice time, while Ovechkin had 27 goals and 40 points in 1,184:10 of ice time. Ovechkin scored 50 percent more goals while Crosby had more than 150 percent more assists. In terms of primary assists, Crosby is ahead 21-2. The amount of shots Crosby set up bridges the scoring gap between the two players. The Capitals outplayed their opponents 1,222 shot attempts to 1,074 when Ovechkin was on the ice, while the Penguins have a narrow edge of 1,290 to 1,077 with Crosby. Crosby is tied with teammates Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, and the Capitals’ John Carlson, for the playoff lead with five power-play points. Ovechkin has three power-play points. In the regular season Ovechkin and Crosby both had 24 power-play points. The only difference between their power play points is that Ovechkin contributes by scoring, while Crosby sets them up. Ovechkin is the more physical player with 225 hits ranked second on the Capitals in the regular season, behind Tom Wilson’s 253. Crosby had 90 hits, which ranked No. 8 on the Penguins. Crosby has the more established big-game reputation, having won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and the gold medal at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics. These are two phenomenal players and it’s difficult to decide who has the edge, but I will give it to Sidney Crosby with his playmaking abilities and skills as an all-around player. But I will also say that I don’t believe he would have that edge if he were still playing under Mike Johnston and not Sullivan. I don’t believe either that this matchup would be taking place if the Penguins were still coached by Johnston.

Pittsburgh Penguins –

There were moments that the Penguins were outshot in Round 1 by the Rangers and that should not be ignored, but in five games, the Penguins averaged more than four goals per game which is the most of any team in the first round, and not an easy task against Henrik Lundqvist. Pittsburgh had five forwards average at least one point per game in its five-game first round series. Crosby led Pittsburgh with eight points (three goals, five assists). After missing Game 1 of the series, Evgeni Malkin returned from recovering from an upper body injury and racked up seven points, including two goals and two assists in Game 4. His first two games weren’t his best, but he picked up the pace in the final two. The Penguins’ third line of Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel, and Carl Hagelin combined for 12 points (four goals, eight assists); while the fourth line of Matt Cullen, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Bryan Rust contributed three points apiece. Patric Hornqvist had five points, including a hattrick in Game 1 against the Rangers, and he is a key component of the Penguins power play with his ability to tip pucks and screen the goalie. Pittsburgh’s star players are a match for those of the Capitals, but a key factor is the team mentality and that the Penguins’ chemistry, skill, and speed that all complement each other.

Pittsburgh scored on eight of 21 power-play opportunities against the New York Rangers in the first round. They scored at least one power-play goal in every game, including two in Game 2 and three in Game 4. The Pens penalty kill was 17-for-19. The Rangers scored a 5-on-3 power-play goal in Game 1, and a late power-play goal in Game 5. The Penguins power play unit will have a challenge against the Capitals whose penalty kill in the first round against the Flyers was 23-for-24.

The Penguins have a healthy and efficient defense with plenty of depth. Kris Letang’s five points led Pittsburgh’s defensemen against New York, and his 51.87 shot attempts percentage, and average of 27:17 of ice time were the highest on the Penguins. Olli Maatta had difficulties being effective early on against New York, but played better as the series progressed and averaged 18:27 of ice time. Trevor Daley averaged 22:41 of ice time, and had three assists in the first round and his partner, Brian Dumoulin who is one of the Penguins’ best skaters. Completing the Pittsburgh defense, Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole lead the Pittsburgh defensemen in shorthanded time on ice.

Marc-Andre Fleury will not be in the crease in Game 1 as he is still suffering from concussion symptoms. Matt Murray will be the likely choice to start the round. He took over playoff goaltending duty in the final three games against the Rangers after missing the first two with an upper-body injury. He allowed four goals on 89 shots for a 1.33 GAA and .955 save percentage. He had a 31-save shutout in Game 4, and made 38 saves in a 6-3 win in Game 5. Jeff Zatkoff has also proven himself by making 35 saves in a 5-2 win in Game 1 against the Rangers, and will likely be Murray’s backup in Game 1.

Coaching has been an important facet of why the Penguins are in this position. They were floundering under the guidance of Mike Johnston, and when Mike Sullivan took over the position it truly showed what a difference a coach can make. Sullivan wasn’t a complete stranger to this team as he knew Sheary, Rust, Kuhnhackl, and Murray from their three months together with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. He earned the respect of the whole team by asking them to play a fast paced game which is conducive to their skill and preference, and he seems to have an open dialog with the players allowing for them to thrive rather than be dictated. Under his mentorship the Penguins were 33-16-5 in their final 54 games of the regular season.

Washington Capitals-

The Flyers were expected to be a fairly easy matchup for the Capitals, but Washington’s offensive machine seemed to have some issues during the first round. If it weren’t for Nicklas Backstrom’s Game 6 goal, the Capitals could have been pushed to seven games against the Flyers. Pittsburgh is going to be a more difficult team to beat than Philadelphia, so it will be important that the Caps produce more offensively. The Capitals only allowed six goals against in a six-game series with the spectacular talent of Braden Holtby and the Washington defense holding their ground. One of the Capitals greatest strengths is their power play boasting the fifth best power play in the league during the regular season. The Capitals scored on eight power plays of 27 against the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1. Ovechkin scored two power-play goals. In Game 5, Ovechkin had eight shots on goal and eight hits. The two-way dominating Nicklas Backstrom had seven points (two goals, five assists). There were moments against the Flyers that Ovechkin and Backstrom couldn’t make anything happen, and the third and fourth lines weren’t helping matters in those moments. It will be crucial that the third and fourth lines start producing more in this series.

John Carlson scored three power-play goals in the first round and led Washington defensemen with six points (five on the power play) and averaged 24:58 of ice time. Matt Niskanen averaged 25:32 on the ice, while Karl Alzner averaged 22:43 minutes. Top penalty-killer, Brooks Orpik, was injured in Game 3 and it’s unclear when or if he’ll make an appearance in the second round.

The Flyers weren’t much of a test for Braden Holtby only scoring six goals in the first round against him. Five were against Holtby and one was into an empty net. The Capitals’ netminder had two shutouts, 2-0 in Game 1 and 1-0 in Game 6. Holtby leads NHL goaltenders remaining in the playoffs with a 0.84 goals-against average and .968 save percentage.

The Washington penalty kill was a key component to their success. Out of 23 tries, the Flyers scored only once on the power play. The Capitals went 5-for-9 on the power play in a 6-1 win in Game 3 and were 8-for-27 with the man-advantage in the series.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

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Read our analysis of the Capitals and the Penguins Round 1 matchups to learn more about these teams.