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Mark Madden: Penguins-Capitals too close to call

| Tuesday, April 24, 2018, 7:15 p.m.
Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will face off against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
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Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will face off against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

If you're a gambler, keep your money in your pocket. Find another bet. Wait for the Kentucky Derby. Because the playoff series between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals has too many variables and is thus too close to call.

Unless Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin participate in Game 1 and are reasonably close to 100 percent. Then, take the Penguins in 7.

But Malkin and Hagelin didn't practice Tuesday. Coach Mike Sullivan said they're day-to-day. Hagelin sets the Penguins' forechecking tone and is an excellent penalty-killer. Malkin is one of hockey's five best players. Each is a proven performer under pressure and has the jewelry to prove it.

The Capitals are quite the opposite. They have nothing but a ceiling full of fake banners. Presidents' Trophy and whatnot.

Alex Ovechkin is the premier goal-scorer of his generation. But in 13 seasons, his team has never made it out of the playoffs' second round.

That's not Ovechkin's fault. He has 51 goals in 103 postseason games.

But Ovechkin has never scored the goal that counted, so nor is it mere coincidence or bad luck.

Yet, despite a trail of tears left in the wake of playing the Penguins, something feels different about this year's Capitals. They have failed so often against Pittsburgh that expectations have lowered.

Goaltender Braden Holtby is a microcosm of that.

Backup Philipp Grubauer started in place of Holtby in the Capitals' first-round series against Columbus.

Holtby was the Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's best goalie just two years ago. But he struggled this season, his goals-against average rising almost an entire goal from last campaign.

Grubauer lost the first game against Columbus, then gave way to Holtby after two periods of the next. The Capitals also dropped that game, but Holtby stayed in net, rediscovered his long-missing form and won the next four.

Holtby is an underdog now. Expectations have dipped. There's less pressure. Not as much entitlement, perhaps.

Perhaps the same applies to Washington in the upcoming second-round series. (Although the Capitals have home ice after finishing atop the Metro Division with two more wins and five more points than the Penguins.) Ovechkin enters the series hot. He scored five first-round goals, including two in a 6-3 Game 6 win that eliminated Columbus.

But no one in the playoffs is more torrid than Sidney Crosby, who has six goals and seven assists after six games.

Jake Guentzel has the same stats and is Crosby's co-NHL leader in playoff points, but his center (Crosby) has a lot to do with that.

Ovechkin does that, too. Last year, Nicklas Backstrom was Ovechkin's center. This year, it's Evgeny Kuznetsov. Backstrom collected 15 less points this season. Kuznetsov had 24 more.

Ovechkin is 32, Crosby 30. For the next two weeks, hockey's spotlight will be on them. (Casual fans can't name more than a few players on Nashville or Winnipeg. That's no insult to those teams. It's just true.) We hear how the torch has been passed to the NHL's younger generation.

But New Jersey's Taylor Hall and Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon are already out of the playoffs. Edmonton's Connor McDavid got a scoring title but no postseason berth. These kids should watch Crosby and Ovechkin battle in the second round and see how it's done.

Then again, whoever wins might get a date with 20-year-old Toronto whiz kid Auston Matthews in the Eastern Conference final.

The NHL playoff format stays mostly within the divisions the first two rounds. Critics of the formula don't like how matchups can repeat year after year. This is the third consecutive season the Penguins and Capitals have played.

But how can anybody get tired of Crosby vs. Ovechkin?

Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky didn't play against each other nearly enough. (It should have been the Stanley Cup Final in 1993.) Crosby vs. Ovechkin is the premier individual matchup in hockey. Enjoy it.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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