Capitals-Penguins Preview: Let's enjoy what is the true Eastern Conference final

Greg Fiume / National Hockey League / Getty

It shouldn't be happening this early in the playoffs, but that shouldn't stop anyone from appreciating the upcoming second-round series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

We all know the NHL's divisional playoff format is flawed. The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy with a league-best 118 points in the regular season, and the Penguins finished with the second-best record in the NHL. They shouldn't be facing each other until the Eastern Conference final.

A traditional bracket pitting No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No 7, and so forth, makes much more sense. That's why it still exists in the NBA and in the ultimate example of numerical seeding, the NCAA tournament.

No disrespect to the New York Rangers or the Ottawa Senators, but the fact that one of those inferior squads is guaranteed a spot in the conference final before having to play either the Capitals or the Penguins is ridiculous.

Related - Winnik slams playoff format: 'It's the stupidest thing ever'

However, boasting a top seed doesn't mean much once the NHL's two-month postseason marathon begins. The Capitals were No. 1 entering the playoffs last season, but the Penguins knocked them out in six games.

The top seed in the Western Conference this season, the Chicago Blackhawks, were swept out of the opening round by the Nashville Predators, a wild-card team.

It's unfortunate that the two best teams in the NHL are playing each other one round too soon, and that one of these two dominant squads is going to be sent packing before the Eastern Conference final just because of the format, but they were going to have to play each other eventually.

"(We) kind of expected that we'd probably see each other at some point, so we just have to prepare," Sidney Crosby told reporters Monday, via Sportsnet.

The Penguins have won eight of nine playoff series against the Capitals in their history, but this Pittsburgh squad looks a little different than the one that eliminated the Capitals last spring.

Marc-Andre Fleury isn't watching from the bench this time around. He's the Penguins' No. 1 netminder again due to an injury to Matt Murray, who hasn't resumed skating since he was hurt moments before Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Crosby is flanked by two talented young wingers, Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary, and the trio has been one of the NHL's most effective units since it was formed earlier in the campaign.

The Capitals have made some changes since their last meeting, too. All-world center Nicklas Backstrom has jumped up to the top line with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, while Justin Williams is now in the team's top-six. "Mr. Game 7" provided the overtime winner in the extra frame of Game 5 against the Toronto Maple Leafs last week.

(Photo courtesy: Action Images)

We're well past the point of focusing exclusively on the Crosby-Ovechkin narrative, particularly because these two teams have so much secondary scoring and all-around depth.

Both offenses are stacked with prolific scorers and dynamic playmakers. The Penguins led the NHL with 3.39 goals per game, and the Capitals weren't far behind that pace, ranking third with 3.18. Many of those goals came via the man advantage, and the two teams tied for third in the league with a 23.1 percent success rate on the power play in the regular season.

The Capitals have the unquestioned edge in goal with 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, who's nominated for the 2017 award. Washington also got a boost on the back end before the trade deadline, landing Kevin Shattenkirk in a deal with the St. Louis Blues.

Pittsburgh was ravaged by injuries on the blue line this season, the most devastating of which was the neck ailment that forced Kris Letang out for the rest of the season earlier this month. But Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley are back, and the additions of Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit before the deadline now give the Penguins options on the back end.

It's always a blast when the Capitals and Penguins play in the postseason, and even if it is happening a little earlier than it should, this one should be another doozy.

Betting line

Team Moneyline
Peguins +125
Capitals -145

(Odds courtesy: Bodog)

Prediction

Capitals in seven. Washington allowed fewer goals than any other team in the regular season, and while Holtby deserves much of the credit for that, it was a team effort.

Offense is obviously important, too, but these two high-powered scoring machines are essentially a wash. It will likely come down to who's more effective in their own end. Between goaltending and the defense corps, the Capitals have the edge there.

Schedule

Game Date Start Time Away Home TV
1 Thurs. April 27 7:30 pm Penguins Capitals NBCSN / Sportsnet / TVA Sports
2 Sat. April 29 8 pm Penguins Capitals NBC / CBC / TVA Sports
3 Mon. May 1 7:30 pm Capitals Penguins NBCSN / CBC / TVA Sports
4 Wed. May 3 7:30 pm Capitals Penguins NBCSN / CBC / TVA Sports
*5 Sat. May 6 TBD Penguins Capitals TBD
*6 Mon. May 8 TBD Capitals Penguins TBD
*7 Wed. May 10 TBD Penguins Capitals TBD

*If necessary

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Capitals-Penguins Preview: Let's enjoy what is the true Eastern Conference final
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