It’s time for the annual spring battle between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. For the third straight year, these Metropolitan Division rivals meet in the second round of the playoffs. And whether or not the Caps can finally overcome their nemesis is the best story in sports for the next couple weeks.
The Caps-Pens rivalry has become like what the Red Sox-Yankees feud was prior to 2004. One proud franchise that always seemed to find a way to get it done, and one talented team that knew how implode at just the right time. Washington came into this series with home ice advantage each of the last two years and each team was sent packing. They have home ice again in 2018.
Will it finally be different? Can a franchise that has never won a Stanley Cup—or even a single game in the Finals (Washington was swept in its lone appearance, 1998 against the Detroit Red Wings), beat the most battle-tested group of veteran players this side of Tom Brady?
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are the focal point stars and they carry the reputation of their teams with them personally. Crosby is seen as the winner, with Ovechkin as the one who always folds up. I don’t find this particularly fair to Ovechkin—a hockey player who’s only on the ice for one-third of the game can’t be expected to have the same impact as, say the best player on a basketball team or a starting pitcher in baseball. But it is what it is and until Ovechkin at least gets past the Penguins and into a conference finals for the first time, this media narrative will dog him.
The players who can impact the game like a starting pitcher or star basketball player are the goaltenders and the matchup of Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray and Washington’s Braden Holtby is as compelling on an individual basis as the battle between the teams is.
Each goalie finished with a 90.7% save rate during the regular season. In a league where you want to be about 92.0 and small differences have significant impact, this was well below what was expected. The Penguins responded by keeping Murray in the lineup and trusting that he would perform when the stakes were highest. The Capitals responded by benching Holtby for the start of the first-round series against Columbus and going with Phillip Grubauer.
Washington’s decision was a mistake and I said so at the outset, in the Stanley Cup Playoff preview posted here (as you’ll see, I also said the Los Angeles Kings would make the Finals, so re-posting this article is not an attempt to gloat over one correct prediction). Grubauer blew two-goal leads in each of the first two games and the Capitals looked dead in the water. Enter Holtby, who came on late in Game 2 and started Game 3. Washington hasn’t lost since.
It should be obvious to point out that the NHL is a sport built for the postseason. Murray and Holtby have both proven themselves and I was ready to proclaim this handling of goalie situation as the perfect illustration of the difference between the two franchises. The Penguins trusted their players to be ready when the bright lights went on, while the Capitals hit the panic button. I still think that’s an accurate way of assessing it. Fortunately for Washington, Holtby was better than even I gave him credit for and he posted a deadly 93.2% save rate, highlighted by a double-overtime win in Game 3 that turned the tide of the series.
As for Murray, his 91.1% save rate in the six-game series win over Philadelphia doesn’t jump off the page. But he delivered two shutouts and made a number of spectacular stops of point-blank range shots during the first four games, when Pittsburgh won three and took control of the series. The concern for the Pens is that when Murray was cracked, the avalanche could still start. He won’t be able to allow that to happen in this coming series.
I’m pulling for Washington win this series. This fan base is one of the more underappreciated in sports for their intense loyalty in the face of annual spring disappointment. To use the Red Sox-Yankees analogy, I’m also a Boston fan, so I see the Caps as sort of first cousins until they finally win a Cup.
But I’ve also been down this road too many times to bet against Pittsburgh. This is a team with such outstanding depth that they dropped eight goals on Philadelphia without Evgeni Malkin in the lineup. Malkin will miss Game 1 of this series, but has made the trip to D.C. and may be available for Game 2.
Even if he’s not, the emergence of Jake Guentzl as yet another prolific Penguin center is another storyline of these playoffs. Guentzl had a good regular season sharing the position with Crosby and Malkin and he exploded for a four-goal game in the clincher against Philadelphia. Winning organizations keep finding ways to produce players like this and the Pittsburgh Penguins of Mario Lemieux are nothing if not a winning organization.