How they got here. Heading into the season, the talk surrounding Alex Ovechkin was whether he had regressed and if he'd ever win a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals. Well, the 32-year-old put the first question to rest by leading the league in goals, with 49 this season. He can emphatically take a step forward with concern No. 2 if he slays his playoff demons and his team finally beats the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.
The Capitals fought through an early goalie controversy to shake the pesky Columbus Blue Jackets in six games in Round 1. Washington will need to perform much better at home to have a chance of knocking off the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
Sidney Crosby's crew had a seesaw first-round series of their own against another Metropolitan Division rival, the Philadelphia Flyers. Although nearly every game of that series was a blowout, the Penguins outlasted the depleted Flyers in six games -- leaving us wondering whether Pittsburgh has enough gas left. After all, there's a reason no team has three-peated in more than three decades.
The two teams split the regular-season series 2-2, with the Caps outscoring the Pens 14-12 on aggregate.
First line. Ovechkin is building off his terrific regular season with clutch (and frequent) scoring. The 32-year-old had five goals and three assists in six games against Columbus. Linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov is right there with him, with four goals and four assists. But Crosby has been putting on a clinic while Jake Guentzel continues to burnish his playoff legend (19 goals in 13 career postseason games). Crosby and Guentzel share the postseason lead in goals (six) and points (13) through Round 1. Advantage: Penguins.
Depth. The Penguins augmented their depth at the trade deadline, and their big acquisition -- No. 3 center Derick Brassard -- is starting to look much more comfortable with his linemates. Pittsburgh looked top-heavy in the first round, however, like a team that was being willed by Crosby's line. The loss of winger Andre Burakovsky isn't ideal for the Caps, who are thinner in terms of talent than they were last season. Advantage: Even.
Defense. This is an area of weakness for both teams. The Caps opted not to make a splash at the trade deadline, addressing their deficiencies with a few band-aid fixes instead. The Penguins won the Cup in spite of their defense last season but haven't made significant upgrades since (though, of course, this time Kris Letang is in the lineup). Both teams have allowed a little more than 31 shots per game in the playoffs. Advantage: Even.
Goaltending. Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray didn't have the best regular season, and he was solid in Round 1 of the playoffs but not spectacular. Meanwhile, we can't gush enough about Braden Holtby's performance after the 2016 Vezina winner was benched at the start of the playoffs in favor of Philipp Grubauer. Holtby was sensational after he returned to the crease in Game 3, stopping 127 of 137 shots for a .923 save percentage and 1.92 GAA. Advantage: Capitals.
Special teams. The Capitals have the best power play in the playoffs (33 percent). The Penguins produced the most prolific power play in the regular season (26.2 percent). Both teams boast roughly an 80 percent penalty kill rate through one round. So yeah, we're having a hard time picking sides here. Advantage: Even.
Health. The Penguins were nicked up a bit in Round 1. They missed Patric Hornqvist and, later, Evgeni Malkin. Yet surprisingly, especially during Malkin's absence in Game 6, they did not miss a beat. We'll see if there are any lingering effects from those injuries. Burakovsky underwent minor surgery for an upper-body injury and could be back later in the playoffs, though probably not to start this round. Advantage: Capitals.
Coaching. Barry Trotz's playoff woes in Washington are well documented. He's all but coaching for his job here. It has been widely reported that the 55-year-old does not have a contract for next season. Whether he overthought the Holtby-Grubauer decision initially or whether he played it perfectly -- firing up his struggling No. 1 with a quick snub -- is open to interpretation. Meanwhile, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is in a much more comfortable spot and has far less baggage to deal with. Advantage: Penguins.