Pittsburgh Penguins

NHL playoff series digested: Washington Capitals – Pittsburgh Penguins (3-4)

Under the fratricidal breadth of playoff action, it doesn’t get much better than when the Presidents’ Trophy winners face off against the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Much less when both can throw a constellation of stars into the fray.

For the second consecutive postseason, Pittsburgh and Washington squared off in round two of the Stanley Cup playoffs and through peaks and valleys ended up on familiar locations: the Penguins preparing for the next stage of their trip and the Capitals headed to the greens after the ninth downfall in ten postseason confronts between the two franchises.

Series Results:

Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins 3 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 2: Pittsburgh Penguins 6 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 3: Washington Capitals 3 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins (OT)

Game 4: Washington Capitals 2 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 5: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 4 Washington Capitals

Game 6: Washington Capitals 5 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 7: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 0 Washington Capitals

 

Washington can’t turn thorough dominance into scoreline supremacy

A rundown of all major predictors of success in the NHL encapsulates how commanding were the Washington Capitals throughout the 7 game slate, yet hockey can be a pre-eminently chaotic game and you might as well just hang onto that notion to explain how a series like these could go the distance, much less tip Pittsburgh’s way.

In the balance of the tie, Washington outshot Pittsburgh by a 229-161 margin, a 58% share, and the discrepancy was even bigger at five on five (176-121, 59%). Moreover, encompassing all shot attempts, the Capitals controlled even more of the play, racking up a 61.41% CF%, which adjusted for venue and score still comes down to a preposterous 60.30%. This is almost uncharted territory in the most unbalanced of playoff series – for instance, no other team topped a 56% share of possession in round two – and if you inspect other metrics, such as scoring chances (65.74% at 5 on 5) or high-dangerous shot attempts (55.88%), things don’t look much brighter for Pittsburgh.

Washington administered the puck for most of the time but struggled to wreck Pittsburgh’s defensive wall (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

And still, Pittsburgh outscored Washington 20-18 overall and 16-13 at even strength to make the best of their limited opportunities and escape with unlikely victories in Game 1, when the Capitals wasted a 41-15 edge in scoring chances, or Game 4, when a Sidney Crosby-less Penguins squad survived a 13-39 shot attempts deficit in periods two and three.

Regression eventually seemed to be dawning in face of the victories secured by the Capitals in Games 5 and 6, yet they wouldn’t take much solace of that in a winner-takes-all Game 7, furiously responding to the Penguins’ ice breaker in the second period only to be abandoned to their own back luck once again. Washington would find their disheartening end after cracking in the third period, incidentally one of just five (in 22) periods over the series where Pittsburgh claimed a larger slice of the shot pie.

Bryan Rust watches as his shot sails into the net to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead in Game 7 (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Penguins’ resiliency shows up in crucial moments

Up two games to one in their 2016 series against Washington, Pittsburgh clawed its way to a vital home victory in Game 4 without the suspended Kris Letang to push the Capitals to the brink of elimination. Fast forward twelve months and Pittsburgh guts out a 3-2 triumph to tighten the grip on the series in an even more perilous situation, this time missing their ailing superstar captain Sidney Crosby in addition to Letang,

Finding ways to win against all odds are one of the hallmarks of Championship-calibre squads and the Penguins, no matter how ugly it got at times, proved they were masters at it. At least against a Capitals team that devises innovative ways to recoil when facing their biggest rivals…or when staring the prospect of advancing to round three of the playoffs.

In times of adversity, the Pittsburgh Penguins found a way to overcome Washington (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

And so, after 2009 and 2016, history inclemently strutted down the same trail, with Pittsburgh edging Washington as much for their mental toughness and fortitude as for their on-ice prowess. In between fluky bounces of the puck and incredible saves by Fleury, It happened in Game 1, when the Capitals momentum from recovering from two goals down was shattered by a backbreaking Nick Bonino tally with just seven minutes to go in the third.

It almost happened in Game 3, when Pittsburgh snapped out of the trance dictated by Sidney Crosby’s early injury to tie the score with two 6 on 5 goals in the closing minutes before falling in overtime while wielding a 3-0 sledgehammer. It would, obviously, happen in Game 4, as they withstood the Capitals’ barrage to manufacture Justin Schultz’s powerplay goal that would stand as the game winner.

A (flightless) Penguin helps a Capitals’ player hover the ice in Game 6 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

And despite looking devoid of answers to counteract Washington’s physical pounding and clean up the bundle of turnovers that crippled their breakout in Games 5 and 6, it happened for Pittsburgh in Game 7, assembling a sturdy, unassuming road performance to shut down a desperate Washington team.

Braden Holtby gets outshined…again

During the 2016 encounter between these teams, Washington’s Braden Holtby was outplayed by rookie Matt Murray, but he still came out with the reputation unscathed since his final numbers looked respectable (2.57 GAA, .923 save percentage). Not this time though, as the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winner shoulders much of the blame for his team’s demise in view of a pedestrian 0.887 Sv% (and matching 0.887 EV Sv%).

While it’s never easy to perform on such a light workload – the Pens wired an average of 23 shots on goal per game -, Holtby is rather accustomed to backstopping an elite team that suppresses opportunities and he still whiffed way too much in the series. For instance, the Canadian goaltender got beat below the blocker in Nick Bonino’s partial breakaway that decided Game 1, was pulled in the second intermission of Game 2 after allowing three goals in just 14 shots, and couldn’t muster an additional save in Game 4 to bail out his team in a crucial match.

The puck shot by Matt Cullen sneaks by Braden Holtby’s body in Game 2 (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Capitals’ netminder improved alongside his teammates later, shining in the third period of Game 5 to preserve the Capitals lead, but it all came crashing down in Game 7. Down 1-0, that weak, fluttering backhand from Patric Hornqvist which handcuffed the 27-year-old simply couldn’t fly past him. Not in the third period of a match where so much was at stake for the franchise. In that moment, an already deflated Capitals team capitulated for good.

Conversely, Marc-Andre Fleury, who filled in for the injured Matt Murray, had a series to remember, as much for his overall output (2.57 GAA, 0.921 Sv%, 0.930 EV Sv%, 1 SO) as for seizing the opportunity to recapture his playoff pedigree. Stepping up to the task brilliantly during the first four games, he then rebounded from getting light up in Games 5 and 6 to shut the door in Game 7. In the process, ghosts of years past were eradicated from his head. Maybe Holtby and the Capitals took notice.

Best players in the series

Evgeni Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals)

The Russian center found some redemption for the disappointing performance of last year’s postseason, when a single assist picked up in six games ascertained his status as one of the patsies of another Capitals’ letdown.

Evgeni Kuznetsov celebrates Washington’s go-ahead goal in the third period of Game 5 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Kuznetsov’s 7 points tied Nicklas Backstrom for the team lead and his four goals, all obtained at even strength, seemed to pop out in important junctures: the 25-year-old momentarily levelled the score in the third period of Game 1, scored in back to back games in Pittsburgh, and later found a gap short side to substantiate the Caps rally in Game 5.

A dangerous presence who generated regular offense (24 SOG, 61.0 adj. CF%, 65.31 SCF%) regardless of the matchup against Evgeni Malkin or Nick Bonino, the 25-year-old’s contributions could have been even more significant had his linemates, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, been able to find the mesh in the many chances the play of Kuznetsov generated.

Marc-André Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins)

The 32-year-old goaltender was Pittsburgh’s stabilizing force on so many occasions over the 7 games that it is impossible to name them all, but in Pittsburgh’s collective memory one instant will certainly linger. The moment when the shaft of Fleury’s stick deflected an Alex Ovechkin bullet billed for the top corner in the second period of Game 7, preserving the precious one-goal advantage.

Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury denies Evgeni Kuznetsov with a spectacular save in Game 3 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Fleury certainly savoured all the big saves on what was his greatest playoff series performance since 2009 – and final one in a Penguins sweater – yet some of his teammates also chipped in decisively.

Rookie Jake Guentzel amassed a series high +5 and 8 pts (4+4), while Evgeni Malkin (3 + 4) drove the Penguins’ group that drew closest to positive territory in the possession front (47.97 adj. CF%) and remarkably compiled a 17-10 advantage in high dangerous shot attempts. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, despite being knocked out by Matt Niskanen in the first minutes of Game 3 and appearing…vulnerable after coming back, surfaced in selective instances to post 7 pts and a +4 rating in direct confront with the Capitals’ top defensive pair and most potent forward line.

Will the Washington Capitals return to the playoffs next year? 

Yes, even if their reign at the top of the NHL regular season standings is probably a thing of the past. Such is life in the league when all the chips are pushed to the table in two consecutive seasons, the team falls short and a bevy of important players hit the market at the same time.

Due to salary cap constraints, tough choices needed to be made this summer in Washington and the result was a major facelift to the roster. Against most projections, the Capitals retained top-line winger TJ Oshie, but they had to fork over 46M to close an 8-year deal that they may soon regret, while Evgeni Kuznetsov used KHL leverage to pry his own max-term extension at the premium rate of 7.8M per year. Furthermore his compatriot Dmitry Orlov signed a six-year pact that will pay him 5.1M per season, essentially ending Kevin Shattenkirk’s brief cameo in red and blue and Karl Alzner’s long tenure in Washington.

Justin Williams was one of the players that left Washington this offseason (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The 28-year-old Alzner signed with Montreal, while fellow UFA Justin Williams returned to Carolina, squeezed out by Kuznetsov’s big ticket, which also forced GM Brian MacLellan to trade Marcus Johansson to New Jersey for pennies on the dollar. In between, RFA Andre Burakovsky re-signed and UFA forward Devante Smith Pelley was added to the fold, however defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was line for a promotion to a top-four role, was scooped up by Vegas in the expansion draft to compound an offseason of suffering for Capitals’ fans.

With 4M in cap space and just 17 players on the active roster, Washington still needs one or two top-nine forwards to replenish the attack in addition to couple of depth defenseman, therefore opportunities are inevitably on the way for their youngsters. Jakub Vrana, the 13th overall pick in 2014, and 23-year-old Travis Boyd, who collected 63 pts at the AHL level in 2016-17, are names to watch up front, while Christian Djoos, a 2012 7th round pick who posted 58 pts in the minors, and former second rounder Madison Bowie are eyeing regular blueline duty.

Developing the in-house reinforcements to pick up the slack of the departed lot will take time, but you can never discount a team built around the likes of Alexander Ovechkin (signed until 2022), Nicklas Backstrom (2020), Matt Niskanen (2021) and Braden Holtby (2020). At least in the regular season, that is.

Another season, another playoff collapse for Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals in front of their fans (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

NHL playoff series digested: Pittsburgh Penguins – Columbus Blue Jackets (4-1)

The peculiarities of the NHL playoffs divisional format determined a 1st round confrontation between two of top four teams during the regular season as the Pittsburgh Penguins renewed hostilities with the Columbus Blue Jackets three years after their first and only postseason battle.

In 2014, after six hard-fought encounters, the Pens marched on by disposing of their industrious opponent, and the same fate was destined this time, with the firepower of the star-laden defending Champions proving too much for their rivals.

Series Results:

Game 1: Columbus Blue Jackets 1 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 2: Columbus Blue Jackets 1 @ 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 5 @ 4 Columbus Blue Jackets (OT)

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 4 @ 5 Columbus Blue Jackets

Game 5: Columbus Blue Jackets 2 @ 5 Pittsburgh Penguins

 

Columbus fails to capitalize on frantic road starts

Playing a perfect road game in the playoffs usually entails deference to a series of bullet points, and the first item on the list usually calls for a fast start that can temper the home crowd and harness the opponent’s grumble coming out of their locker room.

The Blue Jackets game plan in their playoff debut incorporated these notions and right from the hop they set out to follow it, especially with Marc-André Fleury forced to man the net for the Penguins after Matt Murray’s warmup injury. They wired 16 shots on goal to just 3 from Pittsburgh in the first period, but were unable to find the opener and would pay for it later. The home side scored three in the second to seize control and Game 1 fell to Pittsburgh.

In Game 2, a similar story. With eight minutes played, the Jackets held a 15-2 advantage in shot attempts but a blunder by Sergei Bobrovsky led to a Sidney Crosby tally, and the Penguins were once again in the lead despite making zilch to deserve it. Pittsburgh cruised to a 4-1 final scoreline and 2-0 advantage in the series.

Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta knocks out a flying puck in front of his net to deny the Jackets an early goal in Game 5 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Back in Columbus, the Jackets stuck with their approach but his time reaped the dividends, scoring just 11 seconds into Game 3 and twice more in six minutes to rock their own building. They would let that match slip away, but not the ensuing Game 4, avoiding the sweep by riding their 2-0 advantage after twenty minutes.

However, in Game 5, with the chance to plant the seed of doubt on their opponent, the Jackets clocked six shot attempts in the first three minutes but again failed to make it count. Pittsburgh would score twice in the second period to jump in front and despite peppering Fleury with 51 shots on goal, Columbus wasn’t able to stave off elimination.

Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina-level play vanishes in the first round

Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was, arguably, the driving force behind Columbus franchise-record, 108-points regular season campaign. Still, his career playoff totals were mediocre entering this postseason and the Jackets just couldn’t afford another middling showing – he amassed a 3.17 GAA and 0.908 Sv% against the Pens in the 2013-14 series – if they hoped to outlast Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately for John Tortorella’s squad, the 28-year-old was even shoddier this time,  posting a 3.88 GAA – tied for worst amongst starters in the first round -, a 0.882 Sv% and 0.898 EV Sv% – both 2nd worst in the NHL – and conceding 10 goals in 37 high-danger shots against (0.729 Sv%). It was a calamitous performance that only Calgary’s Brian Elliot could match in round one, and helped amplify a woeful playoff trend for the Jackets, who have now allowed 3 or more goals in every one of their 15 playoff games.

The puck shot by Pittsburgh’s Tom Kuhnhackl finds the net behind Sergei Bobrovsky. Not a lot went well for Columbus’ All-Star goaltender (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Individually, in 18 career playoff games (14 starts), Bobrovsky has collected just three wins and compiled a mediocre 3.63 GAA and 0.887 Sv%, numbers completely out of place measured against his massive 7.425M cap hit and simply unacceptable for a goalie of his rank.

The Penguins superstars took over when necessary

The Columbus Blue Jackets carried the play for most of the series, and while you can attribute some of it to score effects, it’s still difficult to explain how they lost in just five games despite a 194-171 edge in SOG or an adjusted 53.7 CF%, second best in the first round to the Minnesota Wild. As referred, the subpar goaltending of Sergei Bobrosvky was a key factor, but we also can’t dismiss the effect having elite offensive talent can have on the outcome. The gap between the teams is steep in that area and it showed.

With the help of a powerplay rolling at 33.3 % (5 of 15), Pittsburgh’s superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel accounted for six goals and 26 pts in five games, and most of those proved absolutely essential to save their team from tricky situations.

Penguins’ forward Phil Kessel reacts after scoring a PP goal in Game 1 (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Malkin (2 G, 9 A, 11 pts) and Kessel (2 G, 6 A, 8 pts) led all NHL players in points during the first round and their partnership at even strength (87.27 GF%) pulled the matchup in Pittsburgh’s way. The duo ended with a sparkling +7 rating and provided the basis for Bryan Rust’s four-goal tally across the series, which included the opener in Game 1, two goals in the second period of Game 3 to rally the team back to 3-3, and another marker in Game 5 to pad the score after Kessel’s short side snap shot with the man advantage broke the ice.

Meanwhile, Crosby (2 G, 5 A, -2 rating), riding alongside rookie Jake Guentzel, also found a way to contribute despite a bumpy matchup at even strength (48.27 CF%, 39 GF%, 46.32 SCF%), featuring on the team’s first two goals in Game 2 before dancing behind the net to set up Guentzel’s overtime winner in Game 3. Furthermore, the Penguins’ captain would put the exclamation point in the series with a powerplay blast that halted the Jackets’ comeback in Game 5.

Best players in the series

Jake Guentzel (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Pittsburgh’s rookie winger closed the regular season on a five-game goal spree and he sustained his form into the playoffs, becoming the first newcomer since Maurice Richard in 1944 to tally five times in his first four playoff games. Guentzel notched the GWG in Game 1 by finishing a two-on-one with Sidney Crosby, but the highlight was definitely the hat-trick in Game 3, which included two identical goals where he deftly banked the puck off Bobrovsky’s body plus the overtime decider on a quick flick from the slot.

At times, his line was goaded into a frenzy of odd-man rushes both ways and his -2 rating showcases that, but you can’t deny Guentzel’s productivity and impact on the series ending.

Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel (#59) and Sidney Crosby (#87) celebrate the Penguins second goal in Game 2 (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

William Karlsson (Columbus Blue Jackets)

The Jackets third line (Matt Calvert-William Karlsson-Josh Anderson) manufactured two goals in their Game 4 victory, significantly outperformed the opposition (51.32 CF%, 64.29 SCF%, 3-0 GF) and gave the Penguins fits throughout the series with its physicality, so it’s fair they get the spotlight here.

Karlsson, the 24-year-old center, tied for the team lead in goals (2), points (3), +/- (4) and even strength points (3), won a healthy 53.5% of his faceoffs, fired 12 shots on goal and soaked 2:16 min of shorthanded time per game, the most of any Columbus’ forward. Not bad for a playoff debutant.

Will the Columbus Blue Jackets return to the playoffs next year? 

In the highly competitive Metropolitan Division, only a couple of teams are safe from a severe tumble down the standings and the Jackets don’t strike as one, so it’s entirely possible they fail to build on this season’s success.

In fact, with a roster populated by pricy, lengthy contracts (Dubinsky, Foligno, Hartnell, even Bobrovsky) that aren’t bound to age well and just 2.9M of cap space for next season, Columbus margin for improvement is rather thin. UFAs Kyle Quincey, Lauri Korpikovski and Sam Gagner, who picked up 18 goals and 50 points this season for just 0.650M, are unlikely to return but that won’t open the necessary breathing room for substantial adjustments.

Columbus’ Fifth Line will return with the Jackets in 2017-18, but maybe not to the playoffs (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Top-line center Alexander Wennberg is the team’s notable RFA and Jarmo Kekalainen will have to play his cards right to extend the Swedish pivot long term without further compromising their salary structure. To clear the books, the Finnish GM would love to offload Scott Hartnell’s 4.75M cap hit, but it’s doubtful he’ll find many suitors eager to take on a broken down, 35-year-old forward with two years remaining on his deal.

It helps their cause that Zach Werenski and fellow blueliners Gabriel Carlsson and Markus Nutivaara are still tied up on their entry-level deals, yet more decisions loom around the corner, with defenseman Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray in need of new deals in 2018, just like the team’s leading scorer, winger Cam Atkinson. To muddle things up, LW Pierre-Luc Dubois, the 3rd overall pick in 2016 and their only Grade-A prospect, laboured through an unimpressive, injury-marred season in the junior leagues and isn’t ready to crack the lineup just yet.

In short, don’t expect Columbus to contend for the Stanley Cup in the near future unless Kekalainen can work a few miracles along the way.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.