Capitals Final Test for Penguins?

With 28 one-goal games and 17 overtime sessions, NHL fans may have just witnessed the most exciting first round in the history of the NHL. Other than a Game 7, the round offered everything from a dominating defending champion, a battle-tested top seed and a handful of shocking upsets.

Despite the unpredictability of it all, it’s still hard to look ahead and not feel as though the finals very well could be played in this round. The best two teams in the league – Washington and Pittsburgh – will square off once more, and the winner will become the heavy favorite to win it all.

That’s not to say the New York Rangers or Ottawa Senators won’t challenge either club in the next round. And there’s no doubt that dangerous teams remain in the western conference. But the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a Pittsburgh Penguins repeat could very well be the Washington Capitals.

Perfect First Round for Penguins

Sure, Pittsburgh fans would have loved seeing the Capitals forced to return home and play the Toronto Maple Leafs again in a Game 7 or even a Maple Leafs upset, but honestly, the Penguins couldn’t have asked for much more to go right in first round.

Although the Columbus Blue Jackets were a great test, Pittsburgh earned a 2-0 lead in the series and then a wild overtime winner in Game 3 to all but eliminate the Blue Jackets. Perhaps if Oliver Bjorkstrand’s disallowed goal would have counted, we’re looking at a much longer series, but ultimately, Pittsburgh advanced in five just as they did a year ago.

And just like last spring, it took the top-seeded Capitals six games to eliminate the east’s second wild card team. Even better for Pittsburgh was the fact Washington also played five overtime periods in the series. While the Penguins will enter the second round with a week’s worth of rest, it will only be three days for the Capitals, who also took some severe punishment to star players towards the end of the first-round series.

Furthermore, other matchups around the league went in favor of Pittsburgh as well. Before the playoffs, I considered the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks two teams the Penguins didn’t want to face this postseason for various reasons, and each were eliminated. Of the league’s top seven regular-season teams, only three remain with two in the east – the Penguins and Capitals. Pittsburgh possibly won’t see the third, or the Anaheim Ducks, until the Stanley Cup Final.

Home Sweet Home

Jake Guentzel
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

For the second straight year and third time during the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin era, the Penguins and Capitals will meet in the second round. Both of the previous matchups had similarities.

Washington held home ice in each matchup, but Pittsburgh’s dominant home record was the difference in both series’. The Penguins are 5-1 at home versus the Capitals in the playoffs with Crosby.

Home ice should be important once again in this matchup. Pittsburgh and Washington finished tied with the best home point percentage (.805) in the league this season. While they’ve been better lately, the Penguins weren’t as strong on the road as the Capitals, so holding serve at PPG Paints Arena and stealing one on the road is probably the best recipe of success for Pittsburgh once again.

Should the Penguins advance, they will have home ice throughout the rest of the postseason. With their playoff experience and dominant play at home, it’s hard seeing them lose a series to anyone else other than the Capitals. The same can be said about the Capitals, who, in addition to owning a share of the best home record,  posted the second-best road mark in the NHL this season.

History on Side of Penguins

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Capitals fans are tired of hearing about it, but like the Chicago Cubs except on a much smaller scale, Washington’s postseason failures will continue to haunt this team until they prove they can win by winning. Washington hasn’t made it past the second round since 1998, which was the only time the franchise ever went to the Stanley Cup Final. The series didn’t last long, though, as the Detroit Red Wings swept the Capitals that June.

With 11 free agents, including five unrestricted, there’s tremendous urgency for Washington to finally capture a title. Despite what they say about being the underdog, the pressure is mostly on the Capitals.

In addition to answering those demons, Washington’s had very little success versus Pittsburgh in the postseason. In nine previous postseason series’ between the two clubs, the Penguins have won eight of them. No other teams that have faced each other at least five times in the playoffs have had such a lopsided rivalry.

And all four times the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup, they beat the Capitals along the way. No disrespect to the other teams still remaining, but should Pittsburgh advance past Washington again, repeat is going to become a heavily discussed topic.