Last spring, hockey fans were treated to one of their dream matchups in the playoffs: the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Washington Capitals. Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. The matchup lived up to the hype for the first six games before a 6-2 blowout sent the Penguins to the next round and, eventually, to the Stanley Cup. This year, the Capitals and Penguins are once again near the top of the Eastern Conference, and it says here that they are the most likely teams to progress to the Eastern Conference finals.
I assumed that the current rosters would be the ones that would be present in the playoffs, and that each team would be free from injury, with all its key players present. Given the strength of both rosters and the salary cap considerations that would come into play (Editor's note: This did not factor in Michael Nylander's recent transfer to Grand Rapids, which could affect Washington roster moves.), the teams we see now are likely to be the same teams we will see in April. I then simulated the matchup 5,000 times to see which team came out on top. The Penguins won 2,743 times, or close to 55 percent.
The keys to the matchup:
Penguins at full strength: The Penguins have one of the most fearsome offenses in the NHL, but it revolves critically around its three cogs: Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar. These three together are greater than the sum of their parts: When all three are in the lineup, the Penguins are unbeatable, but when one or more is injured, they become mortal. Over the last two seasons, the Penguins are 33-8-5 with Gonchar in the lineup, and 34-30-5 without him. In that same timespan, Malkin has only missed seven games, all this season, but the Penguins were just 2-5-0 without him; with him this season, they are 20-5-1. The simulation assumes that all three will be healthy, and with them Pittsburgh should score an average of 3.4 goals per game against the Capitals -- slightly more than the 3.25 the Capitals should achieve.
The power play: The power plays for these two teams are feast or famine. The Capitals were No. 2 on the power play last year and are again No. 2 this year, boasting a lot of weapons. Even Brooks Laich has six power-play goals this year, the same number as Ovechkin. Meanwhile, the Penguins have had one of the worst power plays in the NHL, currently sitting at 29th. Part of this was explained by Gonchar's absence, but even with Gonchar on the ice, the Penguins' power play only outscores its opponents by 5.6 goals per 60 minutes; by contrast, the league average is 5.8.
As for the Capitals, Mike Green is key -- with him on the ice, they have outscored their adversaries by 8.5 goals per 60 minutes. Washington's power play is projected to score at a 23-percent success rate versus 18-percent for the Penguins. If the series is close, this could make the difference.
Defense: Much is made of Green's defensive lapses, but the fact is the Capitals are usually in great shape when he's on the ice because his mere presence threatens a counterattack at any point: There's a good reason why he's plus-34 over the last two years. The Capitals' defense gets more worrisome down the depth chart, with players like Shaone Morrisonn, a decent NHL blueliner but who will have difficulty standing up to a second line centered by Malkin. Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina and John Erskine tend to take too many penalties: The three combined have taken 89 non-offsetting penalties (and drawn only 27) over the Capitals' last 100 games, putting the team down by an average of 0.1 goals per game.
Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury has blossomed into one of the league's better goaltenders, and in the last two years he has accumulated eight rounds of postseason experience and a Stanley Cup ring. His save percentage projects to .914, even against the high-octane Capitals offense. At the other end, the Capitals have discovered a gem in Semyon Varlamov, but his NHL career is only 35 games old and he has yet to be strongly tested, although he performed well under pressure in last year's playoffs. Varlamov is predicted to stop 90.8 percent of shots he'll see against the Penguins, which probably won't be enough. Should he falter, Jose Theodore is ready to step in.
Both the Penguins and Capitals are known for their superstar-driven offenses, puck-moving defensemen and entertaining style. The Penguins are better at even-strength while the Capitals are better with the man advantage. The big difference will be in nets, where Fleury should be able to edge out Varlamov as he did last spring. If these two teams meet again in May, hockey fans will be the real winners.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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