The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
In the movie, “Groundhog Day,’ Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors awakens in Punxsutawney to do a report on Punxsutawney Phil and the town’s Groundhog Day festival. Stranded in the small town, Connors goes to bed and wakes to what appears to be a rerun of Groundhog Day. The ritual of waking up every day to Groundhog Day will be repeated by Connors for what seems years, if not decades.
Playing – and losing – to the Pittsburgh Penguins has put the Washington Capitals in the unenviable role of Connors, spending every spring, it seems, having to face the Penguins and having to endure the disappointment of the same ending in what seems by now endless repetition.
Well, here we are again for the third consecutive season and for the eleventh time since the teams first met in the postseason in 1991. It has been 24 years since the Caps won their only series against the Penguins. Is it time for “Groundhog Day” to end?
Washington Capitals (49-26-7)
Pittsburgh Penguins (47-29-6)
Then and Now
The “then and now” with regard to these two teams is a bit different. Starting in 2009, these teams have met three times in the postseason, and the results in the second season bear little resemblance to those in the regular season.
At a high level, in those three seasons (2008-2009, 2015-2016, and 2016-2017), the Caps enjoyed an overall 7-2-3 record in the regular season. Alas, in the postseason the Pens put up, in the famous construction uttered by basketball legend Moses Malone, fo’ fo’ fo’. Four wins in each of the three postseasons to win each series and post an overall record of 12-8. Here is the recent postseason history of these clubs compared to regular season records in those years:
Breaking it down by year, the Caps did not have an overall losing record against the Pens in the regular season in any of the three years, and only in 2015-2016 did they lose games in regulation. It hardly needs repeating that the Caps had “no” winning postseason record in any of those three years.
And the differences between regular and postseason spread to both home and road records. The Caps earned the majority of available standings points both at home (9 of 12) and on the road (8 of 12) over those three regular seasons. The postseason was another story. The Caps had a winning record on home ice only in the 2016 postseason, and that was perhaps the product of not having the play a Game 7 on home ice, the series having ended in Pittsburgh in overtime in Game 6. They did win two of three games in Pittsburgh last spring, their only winning road record, but it was not enough to overcome a 1-3 record on home ice. The Caps had overall losing records both at home (5-6) and on the road (3-6) against the Pens in those three postseasons.
So…this season the Caps and Pens split four games, each team splitting games played on their respective home ice. Does that advantage the Caps? The Pens? Does it argue for a long, evenly matched series?
Here is the 2017-2018 season series summary...
And here are the regular season series scoring rankings for players on each team:
How Caps of you to notice…
The Caps have faced the Penguins ten times in the post season coming into this series. They won once, beating the Pens in six games in 1994. Since then, the Caps have beaten seven different franchises in the postseason – Boston Bruins (1998), Ottawa Senators (1998), Buffalo Sabres (1998), New York Rangers (2009, 2011), New York Islanders (2015), Philadelphia Flyers (2016), and the Toronto Maple Leafs (2017)… and lost to the Penguins…wait for it… seven times.
How Caps of you to notice II…
With his first point in this series, Alex Ovechkin will be all alone in second place in franchise history in points recorded against the Penguins in the playoffs. He currently has 26 points, tied with Michal Pivonka and Calle Johansson. Peter Bondra leads with 31 points. Ah, but here is the “how Caps of you to notice” part of that. Bondra…31 points in 39 games. Johansson…26 points in 36 games. Pivonka… 26 points in 31 games. Ovechkin? He has his 26 points in 20 games. He has points in 15 of those 20 games.
The Caps might have lost to the Pens nine times in ten postseason series, but they’ve never been swept, so there’s that.
Never Ever II
The Caps have played 30 playoff games in Pittsburgh. They have not once shut out the Penguins. In fact, they have never held the Penguins under two goals in any of those 30 games.
It just doesn’t matter…
The Caps have won Game 1 eight times in ten tries against the Penguins. They won a series only once. That’s OK, they lost both series in which they lost Game 1, too.
Singing for the Unsung
We had Tom Wilson as the possible unsung hero of the first round or a deep run. He has not disappointed so far, going 2-1-3, plus-3 (best plus-minus among forwards) on the team in Round 1. But as a team goes deeper, so more players need to step up. Who might we add to this list? One thing that the Penguins have gotten that the Caps have not in their recent playoff matchups is contributions from bottom six forwards. Recall that last season, the Caps did not get a goal in the entire postseason from Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, Jay Beagle, or Daniel Winnk. All but Winnik are returning with perhaps an eye at redemption. But another forward might be worth watching.
Chandler Stephenson got second line minutes late in the series against Columbus, but this seemed more a product of the injury that forced Andre Burakovsky to the sideline. He probably projects out more as a third-line player at this point. But the point here is that Stephenson gives the Caps a dimension they did not have with Beagle, Wilson, or Winnik last season – speed. It was on display in Game 6 against the Blue Jackets when he ran down a chip out by Jay Beagle with the Caps shorthanded and then seemed to surprise Cam Atkinson with his speed as he cut to the net and slid a backhand between goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s pads in the series-clinching win. If Stephenson can combine that speed and those soft hands often enough against the Penguins (and anything would be welcome considering last season), the Caps would be a better bet to move on.
And who might that be for Pittsburgh?
It’s hard to find an “unsung” player on a team seeking a third consecutive Stanley Cup. The assistant trainer’s assistant has had feature stories about him at this point. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin might qualify, though. He has a goal and an assist in six games this postseason, second among Penguin defensemen in points (Kris Letang has seven). His 1-5-6 scoring line is precisely the same as last year’s the difference being that he compiled that goal and five assists in 25 games last season, while doing it in six game thus far this postseason. More important, perhaps, is his ice time. He is second on the club among defensemen in both total ice time per game (22:27) and in even strength ice time per game (18:47). H averaged only half a shift per game less than Letang in the first round. He will get big minutes, and one would think they have to be productive, or at least not a liability in his own end, for the Pens to keep their hopes of a three-peat alive.
Specialty of the House
As we noted in the first round preview, “special teams are always a fertile area for consideration as a deciding factor in a series.” With the Caps and Blue Jackets, the focus was on both power plays being productive down the stretch of the regular season. In the second round, the focus might be on the irresistible force (the Caps’ top-ranked 33.3 percent power play in the first round) versus the impenetrable object (the Penguins’ third-ranked 90.5 percent penalty kill).
There might be a bit too much dependence on the power play for the Caps, though. In the first round (pending results of Game 7 in the Boston-Toronto series), no team had more power play opportunities than the Caps (27), and no team had more power play goals (nine).
However, the Penguins found themselves shorthanded quite often in the first round series against the Flyers, their 21 instances being fourth-most in the opening round. The odd part of the Penguin penalty kill in the first round was that it was perfect on the road – 13 for-13 – while among the worst at home (6-for-8/75.0 percent, tied for 12th among 16 teams).
The other end of the special teams match-up pits a mediocre first round power play (Pittsburgh, at 20.0 percent, is ranked eighth of 16 teams) against an average penalty kill (Washington is tied for seventh at 83.3 percent). But again, the odd part is the Penguins’ performance on the road versus at home. On home ice, their power play is a woeful 1-for-13 (7.7 percent), while it is a blistering 33.3 percent (4-for-12), the small population of instances aside. Those differences might be exacerbated in the second round, considering that the Caps are a perfect 11-for-11 in road penalty kill, but only 9-for-13 at home (69.2 percent), second-worst among the 16 teams in the first round. That fact must be tempered, though, by the Caps switching goalies in Game 2. Braden Holtby is 19-for-19 in saves while shorthanded, replacing Philipp Grubauer, who was juts 6-for-10.
You have to be this tall to ride this ride
We noted in the opening round preview that “rookies can make a mark in the post season, but it would not be the way to bet.” Our view on the Caps’ rookies, Jakub Vrana in particular, still holds. But what about the Penguins. So far, only two rookies have dressed for the Pens, and only one – Zach Aston-Reese – dressed for all six games of their opening round series against the Flyers. Reese was productive in limited work in the regular season, going 4-2-6, plus-2, in 16 games, one of his goals a game-winner. He had one point (an assist) and was minus-1 against the Flyers in Round 1, giving the impression that his contributions are likely to be modest. Not that the Penguins are in any particular need of rookie production.
The Tender Mercies of ‘Tender Tendencies
We will say this right up front. This series is as likely to turn on the play of Braden Holtby for the Caps, if not more, than any other factor. Consider that in his postseason career, Holtby is 5-8, 2.57, .908, with no shutouts against the Penguins in 13 appearances. Those are not awful goals against average or save percentage numbers, but in 51 playoff games against everyone else, he is 28-23, 1.85, .937, with three shutouts. And those number differences are not a postseason aberration, either. In 20 career regular season appearances against the Penguins, Holtby is 8-9-2, 2.90, .911, with two shutouts. Against everyone else, he is 217-80-33, 2.38. .920 with 30 shutouts in 341 appearances. You have to wonder just what the Penguins have on Holtby.
Holtby has tended goal in some overall bad luck, too, or at least without a lot of support. Among goalies with at least 25 postseason games played, a goals against average of 2.25 or less, and a save percentage of .920 or better, only Patrick Lalime has a win loss record closer to .500 (21-20 in 41 games) than Holtby (33-31 in 64 games).
As for Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray, he has an interesting postseason history of his own. Before this season, two postseason appearances, two Stanley Cups. But there is where the similarities in those two seasons begins and ends. He was very good in his first trip to the postseason, appearing in 21 of the Penguins’ 24 games in the 2016 postseason, posting a record of 15-6, 2.08, .923, with one shutout. Only three rookie goaltenders since the 2005-2006 season had a lower GAA (one of them being Braden Holtby: 1.95 in 2012), and only Ilya Bryzgalov in 2006 had a higher save percentage (.944, minimum: 10 games played). Part of that record came at the Caps’ expense, against whom Murray was 4-2, 2.40, .921 with one shutout.
Murray’s second trip to the postseason ended the same way, with a Stanley Cup, but he spent a good portion of it watching, not playing. He missed the last 11 games of the Penguins’ run to the Cup with a lower body injury. He was on his way to putting up better numbers, posting a 7-3, 1.70, .937 record with three shutouts before going down to injury.
This series matches two goalies who are among five having appeared in at least 25 postseason games, posted a goals against average of under 2.00 (both are at 1.99), and recorded a save percentage of .925 or better (Holtby is at .931, Murray at .926) with at least four shutouts (Murray has six, Holtby has four). San Jose’s Martin Jones is the only other active goalie on that list (Patrick Lalime and Dominik Hasek are the others (numbers from hockey-reference.com).
There is the good news and the bad news about Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. The good news is, Trotz is the only head coach in team history to lead his team to the second round of the postseason in four consecutive years. The bad news is, in Nashville and in Washington, Trotz teams have gone no further. Five times – two with Nashville and three with Washington – Trotz’ teams failed to move to a conference final after winning their first two series. And, of 32 coaches with at least 90 games of postseason coaching experience in the NHL, Trotz has the second-worst win-loss percentage (.453/43-52). Only Jacques Martin’s record is worse among that group (.450/50-61).
At the other end of the spectrum is Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan. His early coaching career was not the stuff of legend. In one full season with the Boston Bruins (2003-2004) he did reach the playoffs, but the Bruins were eliminated in the first round by the archrival Montreal Canadiens. Fast-forward 11 years to the 2016 post season, and Sullivan, who was an in-season replacement for Mike Johnston, led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup, duplicating the in-season replacement to Stanley Cup journey of Dan Byslma in 2009. After repeating with the Pens last season and winning in six games in the first round this postseason, Sullivan is 39-23 as a playoff coach. Among 39 coaches to have coached in at least 30 games but fewer than 75, that is the most wins, and his .629 winning percentage is also best among that group.
The Caps will win if…
They can keep from getting hurt by forwards not named “Crosby,” “Malkin,” or “Kessel." Last season, the Penguins got goals from nine different forwards in their series against the Caps, and they had points from 12 of the 14 forwards who dressed in the series. In 2016, it was goals from nine forwards and points from 11 of 13 forwards to dress. It is one thing for Crosby or Malkin to get their points, and frankly the Caps did a pretty good job of containing them, if not shutting them down. But the Pens have had game-winning goals from Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino (two, including a series-clincher in overtime in 2016), Eric Fehr (ugh…), Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel. The “un-star” performances have done in the Caps more than they have been dominated by Crosby or Malkin. Keep that from happening this time around, and perhaps the Caps get to go to the third round for the third time in team history.
The Penguins will win if…
The continue to make Braden Holtby look ordinary, especially at even strength. Of the four goalies to dress for the Caps against the Penguins since they met in 2009, Holtby has the best goals against average (2.57) and the best save percentage (.908), but that only serves to illustrate one reason the Caps have had so little success against this team in the postseason. Those are not, by the standards Holtby has set in the playoffs since he came into the league, good numbers. But where things take a turn is at even strength. Of 31 goalies to have appeared in at least ten playoff games since 2012, Holtby’s .938 save percentage at even strength against teams other than Pittsburgh would be fifth best in the league over that span. But against the Penguins, that even strength save percentage is .908. Only two in that same group of 31 goalies have worse even strength postseason save percentages over that span. If Holtby cannot improve on that even strength save percentage, the Penguins will dish out another helping of disappointment with a side of bitterness to the Caps.
In the end…
There is a curious lack of pressure on either of these teams. The Penguins are playing with house money, in a way, having won the Stanley Cup in each of their last two seasons. Yes, a third-straight Cup in the salary cap era would put them in the conversation of most impressive dynasties in the expansion era, but being the first team to win consecutive titles since the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998 is quite an accomplishment.
For the Capitals, this was not supposed to be a season with a deep postseason run. Expectations of a much deeper team weighed heavily on them the past two seasons, but this club, having lost a half dozen skaters from the squad that lost Game 7 to the Penguins last spring, was thought to be a borderline playoff team by many prognosticators and on no one’s short list of Cup contenders. Within the context of this season, the Caps are playing with house money, too.
However, the Caps do have one thing in common with the fictitious Phil Connors. Those repetitions might have permitted them, by sheer repetition, to figure out a way to either beat the Penguins on the basis of x’s and o’s, or beating them on the basis of the cumulative level of experience that they obtained in playing them. For Caps fans who think this tale never ends differently, just remember. In the end, Phil got the girl and broke the spell.
Capitals in six…that’s right, six.