by Megg Kesterson
For the second consecutive year, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will face Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. They have not met in the playoffs since 2009. Washington and Pittsburgh were the league’s top two teams in the regular season, and are the two top Stanley Cup contenders left playing in the final eight. They get under way on Thursday, April 27 at 7:30 pm.
The Capitals are facing the defending Cup champions, who knocked them out a year ago, but Capital’s forward Marcus Johansson tells ESPN, “We can’t wait to get going. We’ve worked hard for it. We’ve worked all year and all summer to get back into this position, and now we’re here and we’re ready.”
There is some new blood in this year’s playoffs, as Pittsburgh and Anaheim are the only teams left that have won the Cup in the salary-cap era that began in 2005. Washington has been around the playoffs in later years, but they are still trying to make the Eastern Conference final for the first time since they acquired Ovechkin, and perhaps this is their best chance at a title.
There have not been too many injuries facing each team, and the Penguins hope to have veteran winger Chris Kunitz back for Game 1 and maybe even Carl Hagelin at some point this series. Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner remains day to day with an upper-body injury. Luckily, the Penguins kept Marc Andre Fleury, the franchise’s winningest goalie and two-time Cup winner, in the off season and he was ready to fill in for the injured Matt Murray. Otherwise, the Penguins would not have gotten to the second round.
Kris Letang’s injury might be the most consequential of the postseason. The Penguins defenseman is out four to six months after neck surgery. In the 2016 playoffs, Letang exceeded 30 minutes of ice time in four of five games against the Capitals, including more than 35 minutes of regulation in Game 2 because of an Olli Maatta injury.
Both teams split their four-game regular season series, but both Capitals’ losses to the Penguins came in overtime. The winner of this series is likely going to be the Eastern Conference team in the Stanley Cup finals, and it also will add a chapter in the legacy of two of the greatest players of their generation.