The Washington Capitals successfully won the first playoff round 4-2. Still, they will need better defense if they want any hope of getting past the current round.
Washington took home the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs after winning 2-1 in overtime on April 23. Still, for the Presidents’ Trophy winners, the series against Toronto wasn’t all that impressive. In every game that the Caps won in the series, they won by only one goal. Three of those were overtime wins too.
For the Capitals, the challenges aren’t anywhere near the end in sight. The Caps now face the Pittsburgh Penguins — the defending Stanley Cup champions. Currently, Washington is trailing 1-0 in the series. Against a team that has had considerable playoff success in the past decade, the Caps will need much more than just luck to advance.
Washington hasn’t fared too well in the playoffs since its inception. The only two times that the Caps got past the second round of the playoffs were in 1990 and 1998. In 1998, the Capitals Washington even got as far as the Stanley Cup Final, but weren’t able to overcome the Detroit Red Wings.
A Tough Obstacle to Overcome
Rivalries are a big part of the NHL and the competition between the Pens and the Caps is just one of many. Apart from the 1-0 deficit, things overall aren’t in Washington’s favor in the current series.
Historically, Washington hasn’t had too much success against Pittsburgh in the playoffs. To date, the Capitals have faced the Penguins nine times in the playoffs. The most recent encounter happened just last year, where the Caps lost 4-2. Still, the only time that the Caps ever won a playoff series against the Pens was in 1994. That year, Washington got past Pittsburgh 4-2 in the first playoff round before dropping the second round 4-1 to the New York Rangers.
Pittsburgh won’t let its guard down too easily either. As of today, the Pens have not missed a single playoff for 11 straight seasons. More impressively, three of those 11 seasons ended in a Stanley Cup appearance, where Pittsburgh came out on top twice. With that being said, it’s perfectly fair to say that the Pens are up against a powerhouse team in the league.
There’s also something else the Capitals need to watch out for: the Penguins’ scoring lines. Sidney Crosby led the league in goals during the regular season with 44. During the Caps’ last game against the Pens, Crosby had two goals in one game. Crosby isn’t alone. Teammate Evgeni Malkin has been a capable scorer since his league debut and had 33 goals during the regular season. This was the same number as Capitals leading scorer Alex Ovechkin.
During the Pens’ last series against Columbus, Jake Guentzel also proved himself an asset. On April 16, he recorded his first career hat trick. His five goals are currently the most of all players in the playoffs.
Vamping Up the Defense
If the Caps want to stand any chance of beating Pittsburgh, then they’ll need to somehow strengthen their defense.
Offensively, Washington hasn’t been lacking in any way. During the last series against the Maple Leafs, the Capitals scored a total of 18 goals. Of all the playoff teams, only Pittsburgh had more with 21. Just like during the regular season, the team’s various scoring lines brought depth to the attacking zone. Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, Justin Williams and T. J. Oshie each recorded three goals against Toronto. Clearly, the team can generate enough offensive pressure.
On the other side of the rink, the Caps weren’t anywhere near as effective. Washington allowed a total of 16 goals against the Maple Leafs—the third-most of all teams. Against a team like Pittsburgh, defense will be critical. Capable scorers like Malkin and Crosby will make it tough for the Capitals in their zone.
Washington might be down 1-0 in the series, but with the right strategy, the Capitals still have a fair chance.
I am a Vancouver-based sports journalist currently reporting for The Ubyssey, the campus newspaper of the University of British Columbia. Sports I have covered before include hockey, basketball, football, baseball, volleyball, rugby, field hockey, swimming and track and field.