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Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: 11 keys to victory in Capitals vs. Penguins

(Ed. Note: Welcome to Round 2 coverage of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where we flip the format and get right to the point with 11 keys to each series. Enjoy!)

The Pittsburgh Penguins ousted the New York Rangers in the first-round of the playoffs in a mostly one-sided five-game series. It took the Washington Capitals six games to beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the first-round.

These two teams haven't played each other in the postseason since 2009 when Pittsburgh came back from a 2-0 series deficit to beat Washington. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup that year. Most of the players from that season have changed, but the two main protagonists remain – Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, the two biggest names in hockey.

Here are 11 keys to victory for the Penguins and Capitals 

1. Ovi vs. Sid

Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby have been the faces of the NHL since 2005-06. Their careers are often linked as the NHL’s top talents, even though they play different position, use different styles, and often aren’t on the ice at the same time. The last time these two teams played, the Capitals blew a 2-0 series lead and lost to Pittsburgh in the second-round of the 2009 playoffs. That series everything they did was picked apart and parsed throughout the course of the seven games. Ovechkin and Crosby come into the series at the top of their games. Ovechkin scores three goals in the first-round after a 50-goal campaign in the regular season. Crosby had eight points in his first-round series, and finished third in the NHL in scoring during the regular season with 85 points in 80. No doubt this will be the major storyline for the entire series. Both teams will need big series' from their biggest names. 

FILE - In this March 13, 2009 file photo, Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (8), from Russia, shakes hands with Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) following Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series, in Washington. After dispatching the New York Rangers in five games, Pittsburgh faces top-seed Washington in the second round, their ninth postseason clash but the first since 2009. (AP Photo/Bruce Bennett, Pool, File)

2. Braden Holtby

Holtby is arguably the biggest difference between prior Washington playoff teams and this current group. In the past, the Capitals have juggled netminders between Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore. None of those goaltenders had the skill or mental fortitude of Holtby, a Vezina Trophy finalist this season, who prides himself on being a rock in net for his team. Holtby holds a 0.84 goal-against average and .968 save percentage this postseason. In his career, Holtby’s held a 1.76 goal-against average and .940 save percentage in 40 playoff games. Can the Penguins’ snipers crack the unbreakable goaltender or will Holtby carry his team to an Eastern Conference Final.

3. Sidekicks

A lot of the storyline in the series will revolve around  Crosby and Ovechkin. But both talents haven’t become elite players in the league without some of their talented sidekicks. Nicklas Backstrom has been Ovechkin’s setup-man for his entire time in the league and also a positive puck possession player compared to the rest of his team. He’s an all-situation center who could bear the brunt of matching up against Crosby. Evgeni Malkin missed the last month of the NHL’s regular season, but returned to the first-round of the playoffs to notch seven points in four games. Malkin’s size, speed and strength make him a tough matchup down the middle.

4. Mr. Game 7

The Capitals signed Justin Williams (aka Mr. Game 7) for his clutch postseason play. The last time he was in the playoffs, he led the Los Angeles Kings to the organization’s second Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. This postseason, he hasn’t been that impressive so far with two assists and a minus-4 rating in his team’s first-round win. Washington will need every bit of clutch from Williams to beat Pittsburgh.

5. Phil Kessel

When the Penguins acquired sniper Phil Kessel in the offseason it seemed it was a given he would score 30 goals playing with Crosby or Malkin. He had hit the mark five times in six previous seasons playing on the talent-starved Toronto Maple Leafs. He didn’t really equal expectations with a 26-goal campaign, but it didn’t matter much since the Penguins made the playoffs. He ratcheted up his game to another level in the first-round against the New York Rangers with three goals and six points in five games. Kessel’s always been a solid playoff performer with 16 goals in 27 games. This series will prove his toughest hockey test of the last few years.

6. Matt Murray’s maturity

Can Matt Murray backstop the Penguins to a win over the Caps? The 21-year-old is considered one of the top young goaltenders in the NHL and has lived up to the hype this postseason with a 1.33 goal-against average and .955 save percentage in Pittsburgh’s first-round victory. Facing the Capitals and their potent attack will be tougher than the Rangers team he beat. Currently, it sounds like Marc-Andre Fleury’s concussion will keep him out of this round which means the net will belong to Murray.

7. Special teams battle

The Penguins converted on  38.1 percent of their power plays in the first-round. The Capitals hit on 29.6 percent of their power plays. In the regular season, the Caps had the NHL’s second-best penalty kill at 85.2 percent and Pittsburgh ranked fifth in the league at 84.4 percent. Special teams won’t be the end-all-be-all in this series. But a strong power play performance could help a team steal a game or provide a big goal at a key moment to provide the difference in a game. 

8. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky

Kuznetsov led the Capitals in scoring this past season with 77 points in 82 games – six more than Ovechkin. In the first-round of the playoffs he had two points in five games. Burakovsky, who had 17 goals and 38 points in the regular season, was held to zero points in six games. Washington will need more than just one line to beat Pittsburgh, and this tandem will have to pick up their games in the second-round of the playoffs.

9. Mike Sullivan vs. Barry Trotz

Much has been made of how Sullivan reinvigorated Crosby this regular season, but the coach hasn’t gone far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His last NHL playoff appearance came in 2003-04 when his Boston Bruins were upset in the first-round by the Montreal Canadiens. Washington’s Barry Trotz has never escaped the second-round of an NHL postseason. The one time his team was a second-round favorite, the Nashville Predators folded in five games to the then-Phoenix Coyotes. This will be the most pressure-packed series both coaches have faced in their careers. 

10. Kris Letang's all-around game

Crosby and Malkin get a lot of credit for creating offense, but defenseman Kris Letang had his best all-around year as an NHLer. During the regular season he had 67 points in 71 games played while seeing his share of power play and penalty kill time. Letang also helps his team control the puck when he's on the ice as evidenced by his plus-3.36  regular season CF% Rel 5-on-5 per War-on-Ice. He had five points in his team’s first-round series. Letang is one of the best two-way blueline weapons in hockey. When he's on the ice, the Penguins know they're in good, steady hands. 

11. Prediction

Capitals in 6. The Capitals are too deep, too experienced and too motivated to lose this series. They desperately want to prove that this team is different than past groups that had couldn’t get past the second-round. Not only do they have one of the NHL’s top offenses, they’re also arguably the best defensive team left in the playoffs. Their versatility will be enough to overcome Pittsburgh’s stars and prevail into the Eastern Conference Final.

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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