All eyes will be on Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as the Pittsburgh Penguins face off against the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of their second-round series on Thursday night (8:00 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS). And while both superstars are bound to have an impact on this series, their battle isn't likely to tell the story of tonight's game. Here are four aspects you should be watching instead:
Ovechkin vs. Letang
The marquee might read “Ovechkin vs. Crosby” but this is the match-up to watch. There aren't many defenders who can say they've shut down the game's top sniper, but Letang comes into this series with those bragging rights. Ovechkin has been limited to nine shots, and held with out a single point, while playing against Letang at even strength during the past two seasons.
That level of dominance isn't likely to hold up over a seven-game series, but limiting Ovechkin's effectiveness is critical to Pittsburgh's chances of success. What Letang does well is elevate possession time—always a good way to keep the puck out of Ovi's wheelhouse. But he's a disruptive player without the puck as well, getting into passing lanes, taking away time and space and generally throwing a wrench into the opposing attack. He's a viable Norris Trophy candidate for these qualities, not just his ridiculous offensive output in the Mike Sullivan era.
Ovechkin won't roll over, of course. He'll find a way to make his presence felt. And if he can elude Letang's attentions, Washington gains a clear advantage.
Line to shine
Why were the Caps limited to two goals by the Flyers during the final three games of their round one series? In part because Washington's trio of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Williams and Andre Burakovsky was a total non-factor. Williams recorded two points in the entire series. Kuznetsov had one. Burakovsky? He's still looking for his first point of the playoffs.
Depth scoring was a hallmark of Washington's success during the regular season. And the Caps know the Pens are getting it. Pittsburgh's unheralded fourth line of Matt Cullen, Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust chipped in nine points in just five games against the Rangers in the opening round.
For the Caps to take advantage of home ice, coach Barry Trotz needs to get this unit out there against Pittsburgh's third pairing. If he can do that consistently, Kuznetsov and friends will be a factor.
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Rookie netminder Matt Murray was the star of Pittsburgh's opening round win over the Rangers. Pressed into service after a Game 2 loss, he stopped 85 of the 89 shots he faced to lead the Pens to three straight victories as they clinched the series in five games.
It won't be quite that easy this time around. Despite their opening round struggles, the Caps have more weapons at their disposal than the Rangers, including six players who scored at least 20 goals. They're also a more effective possession team and generate more shots than the Blueshirts.
And while his teammates gave Murray solid run support in that first round, running New York netminding titan Henrik Lundqvist in each of the final two games, that won't be as easy to come by with Vezina Trophy nominee Braden Holtby at the other end of the ice.
Special teams are going to be critical—the Pens and Caps each scored eight times with the extra man in the first round—but this game will be won, or lost, at five-on-five. Pittsburgh scored 10 times at evens against the Rangers, averaging two per game. Washington though scored just six times, or once per game against the Flyers. The Caps attempted 47 shots per game compared to just 40 for the Pens at evens, so they're getting enough chances. It comes down to taking advantage of those opportunities—getting more pucks through to the net, getting bodies in front ... and maybe catching a break by not having to face Michal Neuvirth in this round.