The Toronto Maple Leafs proved a worthy test for the highly-favored Washington Capitals, but the expected result was delivered nonetheless.
The top-seeded Capitals beat the Leafs 4 games to 2 in the first round series but not without parts of six overtime periods. That test may be what Washington needed to prepare for their arch rivals.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, handled the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games. Pittsburgh did it without star defenseman Kris Letang and goalie Matt Murray, who was injured before the puck dropped for Game 1. Experienced netminder Marc-Andre Fleury stepped off the bench and in between the pipes where he made sure the Penguins didn't skip a beat.
Now the fun starts
The Penguins have bounced the Capitals from the Stanley Cup playoffs four times since 2000 and twice on their way to a championship, including last year in the second round. The NHL could not ask for a better second round matchup. It's Alexander Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby, and it promises to be one heck of a series.
So what's different about this time around?
Capitals have a real defense now
With the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline, the Capitals have one of the most imposing blue lines in hockey right now. Nate Schmidt, John Carlson, Dmitri Orlov, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Shattenkirk made life quite miserable for the Toronto forwards, and they appear to be just getting started.
This group is a combination of physicality and finesse. At one moment Orpik is punishing the opposing team in his own zone and the next shift Niskanen is weaving his way up the ice and setting up a goal. This is a dynamic defense which guides the Capitals up and down the ice.
The Penguins may struggle to match this pedigree. Without Letang, coach Mike Sullivan has had to spread out the defensive responsibility. Ian Cole and Justin Schultz are the top pair now, with Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey splitting up the rest of the ice time.
With all the hype around the Ovechkin and Crosby saga, and goalies Braden Holtby vs. Fleury, the defense will be the difference in this series.
Here's the schedule:
- GAME 1: Thursday, April 27, 7:30 p.m.: Penguins @ Capitals | NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
- GAME 2: Saturday, April 29, 8 p.m.: Penguins @ Capitals | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
- GAME 3: Monday, May 1, 7:30 p.m.: Capitals @ Penguins | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
- GAME 4: Wednesday, May 3, 7:30 p.m.: Capitals @ Penguins | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
- GAME 5: *Saturday, May 6, TBD: Penguins @ Capitals | TBD
- GAME 6: *Monday, May 8, TBD: Capitals @ Penguins | TBD
- GAME 7: *Wednesday, May 10, TBD: Penguins @ Capitals | TBD