At this point it’s almost like a cruel joke.
“What are the Caps gonna do in the playoffs?”
“Oh that’s easy. Win in the first round and lose to Pittsburgh in the second.”
And yet here we are, with another Pittsburgh-Washington series. The modern version of these postseason matchups started in 2009, when the Capitals finished with the third-best record in the league but lost in seven in the second round to a Pittsburgh team that went on to win the Cup.
They didn’t meet again until seven years later, when the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy in a walk, but lost in six in the second round to a Pittsburgh team that went on to win the Cup.
Then last season, the Capitals once again won the Presidents’ Trophy in a walk, but — all together now — lost in seven in the second round to a Pittsburgh team that went on to win the Cup.
There seems to be some kind of strange, illusory effect in these situations: Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, and Co. have their hopes dashed. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Co. have them buoyed.
Before Thursday night, you had to think: “It couldn’t happen again … could it?”
After Thursday night, you have to think: “Ah man, it’s gonna happen again.”
If you were writing a script of how ugly a Caps collapse in a Game 1 of this type of series could get, your “They lead 1-0 at home basically from the start, double that lead on the first shift of the third period, then give up three goals in five-plus minutes and lose,” idea would be summarily rejected for being too on-the-nose. This reads like a parody of Capitals catastrophes.
The Caps’ problems of the past are still present, and maybe a little more malignant. They had a great regular season, winning the division once again, but on paper don’t seem to have the depth to compete with the Pens in a best-of-seven series.
And like last year, you have to say the Pens don’t even have a particularly good defense, and maybe even a question mark in goal. But it kind of feels as though that doesn’t matter, because it’s Penguins-Capitals. At some point, one has to sit around just waiting for something to go sideways for Washington; it’s Crosby holding the football for a fourth time in nine years, waiting for Ovechkin to take a running start and kick as hard as he can.
Realistically, of course, the Capitals have problems of their own but if you take as many whacks at an opponent as they have in their recent histories, there has to be a point at which they don’t lose four games out of seven to the Penguins. But in what universe would you actually have made a pro-Caps prediction here and felt good about it, if you’re being honest with yourself?
You can examine the regular season and find that despite a slow start and plenty of injuries, Pittsburgh had some rather high-end numbers both in terms of possession and shot quality (at 5-on-5 they were fifth in corsi and seventh in expected goals, while Washington was eighth-worst in corsi and seventh-worth in expected goals). And despite that slow start, the Penguins only finished five points back of Washington, and with a better goal difference.
The breakdown, especially up front, doesn’t really flatter the Caps. Even if you want to call the first-line matchups a wash, Chandler Stephenson has been Washington’s No. 2 center in these playoffs, more or less. The Penguins’ is Evgeni Malkin (though he missed Game 1, which really only compounds the ugliness of the loss). Derrick Brassard seems to be a fair shout better than Lars Eller. And you can say what you want about Riley Sheahan, but he should eat Jay Beagle’s lunch.
The defense seems to be a bit of a wash. John Carlson has been great in this contract year, but he probably has to go head-to-head with Kris Letang, who can be equally dangerous. Matt Niskanen is perhaps the best 200-foot defender in the series, and the Penguins’ second pair can’t really compete with that. But Pittsburgh also isn’t dressing Brooks Orpik on the third pair, so that’s a checkmark for them.
And in net, well, Matt Murray delivered some stinkers in the first round but also was, at times, what you might think of Playoff Matt Murray being. He showed that often in Game 1, as well. Braden Holtby was good when he started throughout the first round, but the fact that he didn’t start the series despite being the team’s apparent franchise goaltender shows how short his leash might be thanks to his rotten regular season. Maybe just maybe you give the slight edge to Washington here, but also maybe not, because they’re already facing a deficit.
Holtby was basically the only reason the Caps led for the big chunk of Thursday’s game, standing on his head right up until he didn’t. Tough to blame him for the loss, with two of the pucks tipped past him, but nonetheless it’s not easy when you concede three goals on just 25 shots.
The issue, then, is that the Capitals’ forwards might just run into the same problem they did against Columbus and over several other playoffs in recent years: They can’t score effectively at 5-on-5. The reason Washington is even here is because the Blue Jackets completely melted down on special teams at both ends of the ice. The reason Pittsburgh is here is its roster depth is significantly better than Philadelphia’s.
The Capitals scored two goals through Ovechkin getting up the ice (or, more accurately, kinda staying up there), and that was it for the offense. The other lines made Murray look good on key saves, most notably the identical blocker stops coming across the net, but if this song sounds familiar, it’s because the Caps are playing the hits.
Despite all the easy narrative talk, and how funny it’s going to be if the Caps can’t beat the Pens again, it’s important to keep in mind that like past playoff meetings between these clubs, even the regular season — which the teams split 2-2, with Washington edging out on goals 13-12 — doesn’t really mean anything here. The problems the Caps have now, in late April and early May, are unique from those they had in October and November when they first played the Penguins.
This is seven games, max. And if the Penguins can once again overtake the Capitals for Metro Division dominance, it may portend good things ahead. Three second-round wins so far, and three Cups just six weeks or so later. Not to draw too many correlations here, but for these two teams, there’s probably more riding on this than a mere trip to the conference final.
Which is why it seems as though most of the eyes in this series once again fall squarely on the Caps, rather than the team looking for the three-peat.
It’s bonkers that such a situation would ever be the case, but when the Capitals’ situation is this fraught, what else would you expect?
All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.