The Pittsburgh Penguins easily dispatched the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs winning four games and losing one. The Washington Capitals took slightly longer to beat the Philadelphia Flyers by winning four games and losing two.
However, these teams could not be more evenly matched. For the Penguins, captain Sidney Crosby is back to elite form and finished the season with 85 points in 80 games after being labeled a “has been” during the season. And for the Capitals, young center Evgeny Kuznetsov finished the year with 77 points in 82 games, while Alexander Ovechkin continued his dominance with his seventh 50 goal season.
Revisiting History Between Penguins and Captials
The last time the Penguins and Capitals faced each other in the playoffs was during the 2008-09 season when Pittsburgh took the series in seven games. This was also in the middle of the great debate of who’s a better player, Crosby or Ovechkin?
And to be perfectly honest, they’re two players that are hard to compare. Starting with the fact that they play different positions, but add on that both of their specialties are unique. Ovechkin is the greatest goal scorer in the modern NHL, while Crosby is the greatest point producer in the modern NHL.
This season, the Capitals have four former Penguins on the roster in Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik (currently injured), Taylor Chorney and Daniel Winnik. And while Pittsburgh might only have one former Capital in Eric Fehr, these two teams are bitter rivals who know just almost everything about how the other plays the game.
Also don’t forget these two teams faced off in the 2011 Winter Classic in Heinz Field in what was a brutally physical game. The Capitals emerged victorious in a 3-1 victory, but it’s been suspected that this game was where Crosby sustained a career altering concussion.
Looking Ahead to Pittsburgh Versus Washington
Statistically, it appears that Pittsburgh has the advantage in this season. They’ve played much better down the stretch and there were concerns whether Washington could crank up their intensity after finishing the season in lackluster fashion. However, after dispatching the Flyers with relative ease, it seems they’ve brought their game to an elite level again.
This graphic has not been updated since the Capitals finished off the Flyers, but here’s what the advanced math says about both Pittsburgh’s and Washington’s chances.
— MoneyPuck.com (@MoneyPuckdotcom) April 23, 2016
So why is this such a highly anticipated series and worthy of the Eastern Conference finals? Well we can start off by looking at the two teams records: Pittsburgh finished 48-26-8 with 104 points and Washington finished at 56-18-8 and 120 points. These figures represent the two best records in the Eastern conference and respectively the fourth and best records in the entire NHL.
Looking from the turn of the calendar year, the Penguins have an even-strength Corsi-For percentage of 53.3 and a goal differential of plus+37 and the Capitals have a Corsi-For percentage of 52.0 and a goal differential of plus+17. Pittsburgh’s record in that time is 29-11-4 and Washington is 28-11-5.
There is almost no difference between the way these’s teams have played since January 1st, except one way. If you look at the last 22 games played in the season, the Penguins are 17-5-0 and Washington is 11-7-4, and six of their regulation wins were one goal victories.
Pittsburgh has played very well down the stretch and they’ve done it without some of their best players like Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. Meanwhile the Capitals only major injury has been to defenseman Brooks Orpik.
I could continue to discuss statistics of these two teams, but the reality is this will be a series for the ages. You have the best overall team this year facing off against the hottest team in the NHL. As one scout told me prior to the season concluding “no one wants to face Pittsburgh in the playoffs right now.”
I’m sure the debate of who’s better, Crosby or Ovechkin will be reignited after this series, but from where I sit, this series will likely be better than the Eastern Conference finals. The winner of the series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders will be the underdog to either the Penguins or the Capitals.
Strap yourself in, it’s about the get bumpy.
Michael Pityk is an analyst who has written for numerous sites since beginning his professional career. He’s acted as a credentialed member of the media for the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Penguins. His work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, The Sports Journal, MSN, PensLabyrinth, Montreal Hockey Talk, ESPN Pittsburgh, The Hockey Writers, Todays SlapShot and The Bleacher Report. He formerly was the editor of Pens Labyrinth and an analyst for The Sports Journal. Michael presently acts as an NHL Analyst for The Hockey Writers