April 26 marks the beginning of another chapter that people have almost come to expect at this point: Pittsburgh and Washington collide in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Penguins have won nine out of 10 postseason encounters with the Capitals and haven’t lost a series to them since 1994. In both 2016 and 2017, a Penguins series victory over Washington gave way to Stanley Cup Championships just over a month later. While it is impossible to predict the future, as far as Cup winners or even who comes out of this series, it is easy to infer that Pens-Caps 2018 will be far different than its two consecutive predecessors.
Game 1 will be held tonight at Capital One Arena in Washington, the same place Game 1 has taken place the past two years. However, it will not be the venue that puts Penguins fans on edge for the game. Pittsburgh will begin the series without second-line center Evgeni Malkin and winger Carl Hagelin. Mike Sullivan revealed that Malkin will make the trip with the team to D.C., which leads one to believe that he may be available for Game 2 on Sunday. Hagelin stayed back in Pittsburgh while his teammates look to rush out to an early 1-0 series lead.
The void left by Malkin is obvious; in the five games he played against the Flyers, he had three goals and two assists for five points, three of those points coming on the power play. Malkin missed the series-clinching Game 6 against Philadelphia with the same injury. The hole left by Hagelin may not be quite as evident at first, but it is just as big as the one left by number 71. His forechecking abilities are second to none and were the catalyst behind Pittsburgh’s strong starts against Philadelphia. Hagelin contributed a goal and two assists in his six games against Philly, but his penalty-killing (PK) contributions were points of equal brilliance and importance. The Penguins PK currently sits at 90.5% through the first round, with LA (91.7%) and Vegas (92.3%) being the only two teams with higher percentages.
So where exactly do these injuries leave the Penguins? Mike Sullivan and his coaching staff had to do some line-shuffling already to accommodate Malkin’s absence in Game 6, but the loss of Hagelin complicates things further. According to Sam Kasan of Pens Inside Scoop, here’s how the lines look for Game 1:
Dominik Simon will replace Carl Hagelin on Sheahan’s left wing with Phil Kessel on the right. Simon played only two prior games this postseason, but he managed to notch an assist in both games (4 and 5). Kessel’s movement to a line with Riley Sheahan seems to further prove Mike Sullivan’s attempts to spread the scoring throughout his lineup. Defensive pairings will stay the same for the start of this second round.
Injuries and line shuffling aside, it is important to focus on three things heading into tonight’s matchup.
- Pittsburgh’s top line (Guentzel-Crosby-Hornqvist) has 14 goals and 18 assists for 32 points in these playoffs. They will set the tone from the drop of the puck and will have to contend with Washington’s top players. That line of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Wilson put up 19 points against Columbus in the first round.
- The goaltending matchup is different than many expected. Braden Holtby struggled to finish the regular season, and so head coach Barry Trotz turned to Phillipp Grubauer for the final weeks of the season and the start of the series against the Blue Jackets. His performance was far less than satisfactory in his two games, so once again, the net belongs to Braden Holtby. After last year’s goaltending showdown against Marc-Andre Fleury, Holtby once again faces his 2016 rival in Matt Murray.
- The rosters are far different than they were last year. Both teams are battling injuries, and both teams are more depleted on the back end than they would like to admit. Washington had to forfeit Nate Schmidt to the expansion draft, and Brooks Orpik is a shell of his former self. Pittsburgh lost defensive anchors in Ron Hainsey and Trevor Daley, yet they find themselves with a healthy Kris Letang, who was absent for the whole tournament in 2017.
The playoffs are in full swing, and this second round match-up has the potential to be far closer and far more entertaining than anything the first round had to offer. The Penguins need to set the tone early in Game 1, which will be difficult without Malkin and Hagelin. However, it’s the playoffs; anything and everything can happen. Welcome to Round 2.