In recent years there has been a pretty solid strategy to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins. Get under their skin and watch them self destruct.
To say that the Capitals are trying to implement this game plan would be an understatement.
Tom Wilson on Kris Letang pointing to bicep in Game 1: ‘We’re going to stay on him and make sure he doesn’t have an easy series.’
— Chuck Gormley (@ChuckGormleyCSN) April 30, 2016
Kris Letang may be the most important player on the Penguins’ roster given the depth on the Pittsburgh blue line. In the past, Letang has been one of the players most likely to have a meltdown after some strategic agitation, and the Capitals have done their best to take advantage of this. But he hasn’t fallen for it. Sure, there have been some moments, such as pointing to his bicep and when he told the Capitals’ Tom Wilson to enjoy his 5-minutes of ice time, because that is all he usually gets.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 29, 2016
Letang has had an epic series thus far, and his teammates are following suit. They know that their bread and butter is a speed game focused on puck possession. From the first puck drop of the series, Washington has tried to pound them into submission, while attempting to goad them into penalties and bad decisions. The discipline of coach Mike Sullivan, combined with the sudden maturity of Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and the other veteran players are a big part of why the Penguins’ are in a great position to take control of the series in Pittsburgh.
Penguins Disproving an Archaic Theory
As the Penguins’ roster evolved during the 2015-16 season, one of the main criticisms from “hockey traditionalists” was that they didn’t have tough guys, or a true stay-at-home defensemen. General Manager Jim Rutherford made it his goal to build his team around speed and puck moving defensemen. People said that despite their success, their roster couldn’t hold up in the playoffs, especially if they got into a physical series with a team like the Capitals. Right now there are a lot of people that are being served humble pie.
Tom Wilson appears to knee Sheary. pic.twitter.com/KsrykjPaCc
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) April 29, 2016
Washington has thrown everything except the kitchen sink at the Penguins, but they just keep coming. Hammering and agitating Letang, Malkin and company have not helped the Capitals in any way. Pittsburgh controlled the majority of play in Game 2, and could have easily won Game 1 if a bounce or two had gone their way. All that Barry Trotz’s team is accomplishing is exposing themselves as dirty players.
The worst part of Brooks Orpik’s hit on Olli Maatta was that they are former teammates. Not that it would be any better to hit a stranger, but to be friends with someone and intentionally injure them in such a malicious way is very sad. There were many people in Pittsburgh that respected Orpik for his many years of hard work in black and gold, but I would wager that most of those opinions have changed a bit.
Washington is Better Than This
— hockeystats.ca (@HockeyStatsCa) May 1, 2016
The Capitals tried the same barbaric approach in the regular season, so their playoff strategy should come as no surprise. The sad thing is that they can win without lowering themselves to their current level of play. The above graph is what you get when you put a skilled team against a club focusing on hits, agitation, and dirty plays.
Washington features a roster with some of the most talented players in the league. They have the skill to out-play nearly every team in the league. But they are trying to force the Penguins off of their game, and only succeeding in disrupting their own play. The Flyers, and other teams have succeeded with mind games against the Penguins. But this is a different situation in Pittsburgh, and if the Capitals hope to win this series they need to adjust accordingly.
The Penguins are hardly a group of saints. Letang should have been suspended in Round 1 for removing Viktor Stålberg’s teeth. But the structure of the team is the way of the future. Eventually, the rest of the league is going to realize that the age of the enforcer is over. It’s ok to focus on speed and skill. It’s ok to entertain the fans. It’s ok to protect the players from brain damage. Let’s hope that they realize this sooner than later.
Until next time.
Greg is a Pittsburgh Penguins writer for ‘The Hockey Writers’.
He is a Pittsburgh area native who has written for multiple Penguins news and opinion sites. In addition to hockey writing, he is also an experienced YouTube creator.
Greg started with THW in 2015 as a Blue Jackets writer, and spent time as a Fantasy Hockey analyst.