2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Washington Capitals Have Higher Standards, Changes In Playing Style This Postseason NHL

So, we meet again. The annual playoff clash between the Penguins and Capitals is a rite of springtime in the NHL, even if the rivalry has been decidedly one-sided throughout its history. This year, Alex Ovechkin and Co. are aiming to throw the monkey from their back once and for all.

By now, you know the numbers: Pittsburgh has ended Washington's season in the second round each of the last three years. Open it up to all-time meetings, and the Penguins have won nine of 10 — a six-game victory in the first round of 1994 the only exception. Pittsburgh has won five Stanley Cups in its history; all five included a series victory over Washington along the way.

You get the picture. The Penguins are the Capitals' playoff overlords.

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Is there a reason to believe this year will be any different? After falling into an 0-2 deficit in the first round, the Capitals regrouped behind Braden Holtby and rose to the occasion where previous iterations might have folded. Relieved of any Presidents' Trophy burden, the team has a now-or-never attitude about it.

The Penguins, meanwhile, revealed a few potential holes before eventually overpowering the Flyers in their opening round. An injured Evgeni Malkin won't be operating at 100 percent when he returns. Sidney Crosby is; he and runningmate Jake Guentzel lead the playoffs in points.

By rule, a Capitals Stanley Cup (miles away as it may still be) won't be valid without first passing the Penguins' test. It's now or never, indeed.

Brandon Schlager, Evan Sporer and Jim Cerny make their series predictions below." data-reactid="29">Sporting News' NHL experts Brandon Schlager, Evan Sporer and Jim Cerny make their series predictions below.

MORE: Watch NHL playoff action on fuboTV (7-day free trial)

Capitals (-130) vs. Penguins (+110): Schedule, picks, predictions

Game 1: April 26 at Washington, 7 p.m. (NBCSN, CBC, fuboTV)

Game 2: April 29 at Washington, 3 p.m. (NBC, CBC, fuboTV)

Game 3: May 1 at Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m. (NBCSN, Sportsnet, fuboTV)

Game 4: May 3 at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. (NBCSN, Sportsnet, fuboTV)

*Game 5: May 5 at Washington, TBD

*Game 6: May 7 at Pittsburgh, TBD

*Game 7: May 9 at Washington, TBD

Regular season meetings: PIT, 3-2 (10/11); WSH, 4-1 (11/10); PIT, 7-4 (2/2); WSH, 3-1 (4/1)

and has been ruled out for Game 1. With Crosby and Guentzel clicking, Malkin's absence may not matter a ton, but it would restrict the Penguins from deploying a third line with Phil Kessel and level the playing field a bit in terms of firepower. Ovechkin, as always, was the engine that drove the Capitals in Round 1, but credit depth scoring and goaltending that brought them back against the Blue Jackets. No. 8's going to get his; he has 26 points in 20 career playoff games against the Penguins." data-reactid="34">

Brandon Schlager: Keep a close eye on Evgeni Malkin's injury (lower body). He didn't play in the Penguins' clinching Game 6 win over the Flyers, missed practice all week and has been ruled out for Game 1. With Crosby and Guentzel clicking, Malkin's absence may not matter a ton, but it would restrict the Penguins from deploying a third line with Phil Kessel and level the playing field a bit in terms of firepower. Ovechkin, as always, was the engine that drove the Capitals in Round 1, but credit depth scoring and goaltending that brought them back against the Blue Jackets. No. 8's going to get his; he has 26 points in 20 career playoff games against the Penguins.

So Washington's success is incumbent upon guys like T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, et al, continuing to provide support, throwing Matt Murray (who looked shaky at times in the first round) off his game. All told, the Penguins haven't lost a playoff series to the Capitals since 1994. No reason to expect this year will be any different until Washington exorcises its demons.

Penguins in 7 games

Jim Cerny: The Capitals enter this series on a post-season roll, if you will, though that doesn't guarentee the Penguins won't roll them out of the playoffs again for the third straight year and fourth time in the Alex Ovechkin - Sidney Crosby eras. Still, Washington won the final four games of their opening-round series with Columbus, killed off the last 16 Blue Jackets power plays in that series and own a smoking-hot power play which scored at least once in all six games in the first round. Braden Holtby responded to the jolt of being benched to start that series by saving his team's rear end upon his return during Game 2 and is at the top of his game after a shaky regular season. Ovechkin is producing, as well -- not always a given for the Great 8 during the playoffs.

The Penguins, of course, are the two-time defending champions, and -- as noted -- own the Caps in the post-season. They are deep and have showcased an ability to receive major contributions up and down their lineup at key times the past few postseasons. They also seem to have the ability to wake up and simply explode offensively when needed -- just ask the Flyers about that. However, there were fissures in their defensive play in the first round and during the regular season, and the Pens will start the second round without Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, both of whom are injured.

It's going to be a long series, and if it goes seven games, the Penguins will find a way to win. However.....

Capitals in 6 games

Evan Sporer: Here’s what we’re approaching in terms of NHL playoff repetitiveness. The year will be 2028. Alexis Lafreniere will be leading the Chicago Blackhawks to their third Stanley Cup in five years after Chicago once again struck gold in the draft lottery. And in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Penguins and Capitals will have just each won their respective first-round series, setting the stage for Crosby-Ovechkin 17, with the seven-game series scheduled exclusively on Wednesday nights on NBC, billed as “the night you love to hate.”

Or something like that.

After providing a brief scare in the first round, the Penguins put away the Flyers for good. A branch below on the bracket, the Capitals in very un-Capital-like-fashion erased a 2-0 deficit to knock off the Blue Jackets. So, here we go again, another opportunity for Ovechkin to slay the beast, and the Capitals to get over a hump that has for so long seems insurmountable.

Of course, this series is about so much more than those two generational talents, and that’s where I begin to worry about the Capitals. For as great as John Carlson has been, as good as Braden Holtby looked at times in his return to the crease, and as funny as it was to watch Wilson score big goals, we kind of began to see the Penguins figure it out in the first round. I’m not a really big believer in “flipping the switch” but this Penguins team more than anyone else in the league understands what it takes to get through the playoffs, and if there were times they didn’t perform up their own standards in the regular season, well, they certainly have a locker room full of guys who have the previous experiences to draw upon.

The Penguins' third line will absolutely run over the Capitals' third line. We’re talking about Connor Sheary, Derick Brassard and Bryan Rust going head to head against Brett Connolly, Lars Eller, and Devante Smith-Pelley. With respect to that second group of three, who I’m sure are all very nice gentlemen and will try very hard, I would much rather be putting my eggs in that first basket.

Curious if Malkin’s health issues linger into Round 2, but if he’s at nearly 100 percent, it also gives Mike Sullivan the option to either swap Kessel down to that third line for Bryan Rust, or play Kessel-Malkin together on the second line. Either way, those are two very bad options for the Capitals.

And then there’s Murray. For all the injury scares and people second-guessing the Penguins letting Marc-Andre Fleury go in the expansion draft, Murray has looked like the goaltender who has led the Penguins to consecutive Cups, who looked great at times in that first round victory against the Flyers, and at other the victim of a pretty porous Penguins defense.

While I thought the Blue Jackets would be a pretty difficult matchup for the Penguins, I don’t think the same of the Capitals. Another series I picked to play out like this when the postseason started, so no reason to change that now.

Penguins in 6 games.

MORE NHL PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS:

Predators-Jets | Golden Knights-Sharks | Lightning-Bruins

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2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Washington Capitals Have Higher Standards, Changes In Playing Style This Postseason NHL

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs   Washington Capitals Have Higher Standards, Changes In Playing Style This Postseason   NHL

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2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Washington Capitals Have Higher Standards, Changes In Playing Style This Postseason NHL

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs   Washington Capitals Have Higher Standards, Changes In Playing Style This Postseason   NHL

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2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Washington Capitals Have Higher Standards, Changes In Playing Style This Postseason NHL