Washington Capitals (55-19-8, first, Metropolitan Division) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (50-20-11, second, Metropolitan Division)
Why you have to watch: Where to start? First of all, it’s the two best teams in the NHL from the regular season. In a parallel universe where the NHL isn’t using a broken playoff system, this is the conference finals. … Yes, it’s Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. That’s always compelling. But the matchup to watch will be Crosby vs. Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom has historically played Crosby tough. … Each Penguins Stanley Cup run has gone through the Capitals. So, if the Penguins are going to repeat, this series is a prerequisite. … As for the Capitals, what better way to prove this year is different than by beating the Penguins in Round 2? … The winner of this series is likely going to be the Eastern Conference team in the Stanley Cup finals and it also adds a chapter in the legacy of two of the greatest players of their generation.
Head to head: Both teams can claim two wins in their four-game regular season series, but both Capitals’ losses to the Penguins came in overtime. … The Capitals enjoyed a healthy 21-14 scoring advantage over the Penguins, inflated by a 7-1 win over the Penguins in November. …. These teams played in one of the most entertaining games of the regular season, a Penguins’ 8-7 overtime win in January that snapped the Capitals’ nine-game winning streak. During the second period of that game, the Penguins scored six goals in 11 minutes.
Injury fallout: D Kris Letang‘s injury might be the most consequential of the postseason. The Penguins defenseman is out four to six months after neck surgery. … In the 2016 playoffs, Letang exceeded 30 minutes of ice time in four of five games against the Capitals, including more than 35 minutes of regulation in Game 2 because of an Olli Maatta injury. … In the first round, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was deliberate allotting ice time among his defensemen, with all six getting 19-21 minutes against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Expect him to maintain that balanced approach against Washington. … The Penguins’ Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz both missed the first round with injuries, but could be close to returning. … Penguins G Matt Murray aggravated a lower-body injury during warmups before Game 1 of the first round and has yet to return for a full practice. … Capitals D Karl Alzner missed four games against the Toronto Maple Leafs with an upper-body injury. His replacement, Nate Schmidt, was an upgrade but he took a nasty knee-on-knee hit from Leo Komarov in Game 6 and could be hobbled.
Goalie advantage: The decision not to trade G Marc-Andre Fleury paid off during the first round, with Fleury seamlessly filling in for the injured Murray. Fleury stopped 70 of the first 72 shots he faced against the Blue Jackets before allowing nine goals in the next two games. Overall, he played well while helping the Penguins advance, finishing the first round with a .933 save percentage. … Even with Fleury’s success, the Capitals have an advantage because of G Braden Holtby, who is an outstanding playoff goalie. He faced more shots (213) and played more minutes (406) in the first round than any goalie. He finished with a .925 save percentage and has a career .936 playoff save percentage.
Coaching advantage: Sullivan has proven to be the perfect coach for the Penguins. He has them playing an up-tempo style that fits the personnel perfectly. He gives the stars the freedom necessary to create offense and gets the most out of his depth players. The Penguins won the Cup last year in part because of Sullivan’s constant tweaks throughout their playoff run. … Barry Trotz has rounded out the Capitals to be more structured and strong defensively. He has instilled a winning culture, the Capitals playing with a confident vibe that previous versions didn’t have. Trotz gets credit for that. But he’s never guided a team out of the second round, so you have to give the edge to Sullivan.
Prediction: The Penguins’ speed is going to give the Capitals trouble, just as it did last spring. But Pittsburgh’s injuries, especially Letang’s, might be too much to overcome. Washington is the deeper team and in a seven-game series, that will be the difference. Capitals in 7.