When two superstar caliber players play in the same conference, one would expect to see them play one another in the playoffs numerous times. Well in the case of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, that has not happened as much as fans would like. In fact, the two superstars only squared off one time in an epic seven-game series which saw Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins advance in route to winning the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin and Crosby combined for 27 points in their first and only playoff meeting.
Seven years later, we get the long awaited rematch. Both teams are two of the best and most exciting the NHL has to offer, led by the two superstars.
Both the Capitals and Penguins scored the nets on the power play in the first round. Pittsburgh leads the playoffs with a power play percentage of 38.1% and Washington having the third best at 29.6. The two teams combined to score 16 power play goals. On the flip side of that, both teams were excellent in killing the power play, with Washington killing 95.8% and Pittsburgh killing 89.5%. The two teams combined to allow just three power play goals in the opening round.
Pittsburgh blitzed the New York Rangers and their phenomenal goal tender Henrik Lundqvist and average 4.2 goals per game. Washington, who started the playoff off hot, scored just two goals in the final three games against the Flyers and average 2.3 goals per game. That can obviously change as the Capitals have a high-powered offense. Washington will have to flex that offensive muscle if they want to advance.
The biggest key to this series will be how the two net minders fare. Braden Holtby was excellent in the regular season and that continued in the postseason. He had a goals against average of 0.84 and had a save percentage of .968%. The Pens, who are without starting goal tender Marc-Andre Fleury, have gotten great contributions from 21-year old rookie Matt Murray. He won his first three career playoff games and had a goals against average of 1.33 and a save percentage of .955. Whether or not Fleury plays in this series is still up in the air as he is dealing with concussion issues.
Neither goal tender faced very daunting offenses and that will surely change once the puck drops in Game 1 of this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal. If Holtby can continue to show why he was the NHL’s best net minder this year, the Caps won’t have to worry about their recent offensive struggles. For Murray, it will be interesting to see how he plays against a team like the Caps, being a rookie. Will he get rattled if the Caps score a couple of early goals or will he keep his composure and keep the Caps at bay? Only time will tell the answer to that, but the goalies are going to be the biggest, non-offensive x-factor of this series.
Offensively, the two obvious choices for series x-factors would be the two superstars, but there are other players that will look to take the load off their backs.
For the Caps, the x-factor will be Evgeny Kuznetsov. Last year Kuznetsov had a breakout playoffs and this year he led the Caps in points. However, he has just one point in six playoff games this season. If he can get back on track, it will alleviate the pressure on Ovechkin’s shoulders and the Caps will be in a better position to advance. This is the kind of series where Kuznetsov can prove he can handle the big-stage. Nicklas Backstrom will be another player to watch for the Caps. He scored the only goal of Game 6 against the Flyers to send Washington to the next round.
For the Penguins, their x-factor won’t be Crosby or fellow star player Evgeni Malkin, but instead it will be Phil Kessel. Last summer the Toronto Maple Leafs dealt Kessel to the Penguins. Kessel was their best player, but the team could never do anything around him, making the playoffs just once in his six years in Toronto. He has three goals and three assists in the playoffs thus far and Crosby said “He can change the game with one shot.” Kessel struggled to find his comfort spot with Pittsburgh but late in the season he found it playing on a line with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin.
Get your popcorn ready, folks. This series will feature numerous star players and a ton of drama. Can Ovechkin and the Caps finally make it to the Eastern Conference finals or will Crosby and the Pens get the better of Washington again? Either way you look at it, this series has the making to be another epic classic and that bodes well for not only the fans of the two franchises, but hockey fans everywhere.
Buckle up, we’re just getting started.