Pittsburgh Penguins (+115) at Washington Capitals (-135, 5 o/u)
“Hockey is nothing like basketball,” said Captain Obvious.
“No kidding,” I replied.
“Perhaps nowhere is the comparison more glaring than the impact superstar players can have on a given team’s success,” said Captain Obvious’ lesser-known friend, Captain Subtle Differences.
“No I’m pretty sure the biggest difference is that one of them is played on ice,” I said, wondering why I chose to talk these fictional characters to open this piece.
But that fake exchange raised a good point: just because you’re the two best hockey players on the planet, it doesn’t mean you’ll magically Lebron-James your team to the Finals every year. In fact, Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals (4-2, 2-1 home) have never advanced beyond the second round of the NHL Playoffs. If they’re going to achieve that feat for the first time since 1998, the Caps will need to overcome Sidney Crosby and the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins (4-1, 2-0 road), starting tonight at the Verizon Center (8:00 PM Eastern).
It’s not just Ovechkin who has suffered playoff failures recently, though. Crosby’s Penguins have fallen from the ranks of serious contenders ever since they captured the Cup in 2009. Since then, they’ve lacked the toughness, depth, and goaltending to be anything more than a perennial disappointment.
But there is a different feel around both teams for this series, which will be just the second playoff meeting between Crosby and Ovechkin.
For Washington, the Great Eight is still their best scorer but, in terms of this team’s heart, it beats in the crease with goalie Braden Holtby. The Vezina Trophy favorite, followed up an outstanding regular season with an equally impressive first round, notching a 0.84 GAA and .968 save percentage over six games against the Flyers.
Holtby’s emergence has given the Capitals a luxury they never had before, the ability to win defensive hockey games. A couple goals a night is all Washington needs to put themselves in a great position, and with talents like T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams, they can get that scoring even if Ovechkin is having a rare off night.
Pittsburgh was all scoring in the second half of the season, and it bled into their first round beatdown of the Rangers. The Penguins had 21 goals – and a powerplay that scored on 38-percent of its opportunities – as they chased Henrik Lundqvist from the net twice to close out the series. And while Crosby and Evgeni Malkin led the way, the Pens truly had four lines of scoring in that series.
In fact, with Kris Letang finally looking competent on defense, the Pens only concern comes in net. It will either be the up-and-down stylings of Marc-Andre Fleury, who is recovering from a concussion, or rookie goalie Matt Murray, who went 3-0 against New York last round. Regardless of who gets the call, tending is definitely the one area where Washington has the advantage.
The Penguins went 3-2 against the Capitals this season and were able to get to Holtby more than most teams (2.90 GAA and .913 save percentage in five starts). But Washington is 12-4 in their last 16 home playoff games. Couple that with their stifling penalty kill and Pittsburgh will be in tough to replicate their offensive success this round.
As for tonight’s pick, I’ll leave that to Captain Obvious.
“Take the Capitals,” said Captain Obvious.
Pick: Washington (-135).
(Photo credit: Michael Miller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)