Ever since Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin broke into the league in 2004 and 2005, respectively, the two have been compared in just about every aspect of the game. The NHL quickly made these two superstars the faces of the league, and whenever they went toe-to-toe on the ice the national media attention nearly doubled. Despite all the Crosby haters who label him as a "whiney crybaby", he has had the better career than Ovechkin. No. 87 has won two Stanley Cups, one Conn Smyth Trophy (playoffs MVP), two Hart Memorial Trophies (regular-season MVP), two Art Ross Trophies (leading points getter), and one Rocket Richard trophy (most regular-season goals). Sure, Ovechkin fans can stake their claim to more Hart and Rocket Richard trophies, but the fact still remains the Ovechkin hasn't even appeared in a Stanley Cup Final. At age 31, Ovechkin's time is running out, and this very well may be the best team "The Great 8" has been a part of. It's essentially now or never.
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The Washington Capitals were the President's Trophy winners for the 2016-17 season. They finished with 118 points, seven points clear of the second-place Penguins. And for all of that regular-season success, the eighth-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs had every possibly opportunity to win that first-round series and knock the Capitals off. The Caps looked a tad slow, and their usually reliable goalie, Braden Holtby, looked like he was fighting the puck. Fortunately, the Caps prevailed in six games thanks in large part to a few defensive zone breakdowns by the Leafs and will now get a shot at avenging last year's second-round loss to these very Penguins. The Penguins come into this series after dispatching the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games. They got quality goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, and their skill players produced enough to overcome one of the best regular-season goalies, Sergei Bobrovsky. It will be a much harder series for the Penguins to navigate, especially without home-ice advantage.
In terms of betting this series, Bovada has tabbed the Capitalsas the series favorite at -140 while the Penguins check in at +120. Game 1 of this best-of-seven series has Washington -140 , with the total sitting at 5.5, -120 to the "over". If you are looking past this round and you like the Caps to advance, you can get the Caps at +160 to win the East and +300 to win the Cup. If you like the Penguins, they are +220 to win the East and +450 to defend their title.
But before you make up your mind, let me help you understand who should have the edge in terms of goaltending, offensive production, defensive resilience and everyone's favorite category, special teams.
The Penguins have to be counting their blessings after holding off on a trade that could have shipped goalie Marc-Andre Fleury out of town at the tradeline. Instead, Fleury is now the starting goaltender due to an injury to Matt Murray, and he has looked great between the pipes so far this postseason. Fleury has allowed just 13 goals on 194 shots against, which is good enough for 2.52 GAA and a .933 save percentage. Fleury is doing this despite missing the team's top defensemen, Kris Letang, who has been out since mid-February after undergoing season-ending neck surgery. The onus has now fallen on the shoulders of Olli Maatta and Mark Streit to shut down the opponent's superstars.
The Capitals counter with Braden Holtby between the pipes, and he needs to have a solid series if the Caps have any hopes of advancing. Believe me, I watched every minute of the Leafs/Caps series and Holtby was far from good, often fighting the puck and not tracking it clearly. Holtby finished the first-round series with a 2.36 GAA and a .925 save percentage. He was also severely outplayed last year in this series by a rookie goaltender. Fortunately for Holtby, the team's defensive unit is maybe the best it's ever been thanks to the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis. Matt Niskanen will likely be given the assignemtn of shutting down Crosby, so he will have his hands full.
Offense & Special Teams
The Penguins have the best player in the world wearing their colors, and when No.87 is on the ice great things are sure to happen. Crosby tallied seven points in five first-round games, but it was his teammate Evgeni Malkin who leads the playoffs with 11 points. The big Russian is not only skilled on the puck, but his big body allows him to create space for himself and teammates to maneuver. Much-maligned forward Phil Kessel also chipped in with eight first-round points, and his quick wrist-shot is the best in the league. The Penguins ranked first in goals per game (3.4) and shots per game (33.5). They own the third-ranked powerplay, converting at a 23.2 percent clip. With the main guys producing the way they are, and the secondary scoring producing at a high clip, this is the best offensive team left in the playoffs.
The Capitals, on the other hand, were very reliant on their top line of
Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom in the first round. They
combined for 16 points against the Leafs. And apart from Justin William's
six-point contribution and Tom Wilson's three goals, they didn't receive
much secondary scoring. This could be a big problem against a hot
goaltender like Fleury. During the regular season, the Capitals were just
as potent as the Penguins, ranking third in goals per game (3.18) and
fourth on the powerplay (23 percent). They lead the league in shooting
percentage, converting 10.5 percent of their chances.
This series features a contrast in playing style. The Penguins like to play fast, while the Capitals like to get the cycle going in the offensive zone. If you compared the raw talent on each team, the Capitals would have the edge. However, history is not on their side and any adversity thrown at them could make them buckle under the pressure. The only thing I can see derailing this solid Penguins team is their injuries to their best defenseman and two depth players who may or may not return. This is a tough series to predict, but I believe Crosby and Co. get the better of Ovechkin once again.
Pick: Pittsburgh in seven.
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