It is no secret the MassMutual East Division produces some of the toughest competition in the NHL. Three of the top 10 teams in the league belong to the East. Even with several postponed games due to COVID-protocol, other divisional teams are not too far behind in the standings. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals are currently fighting for first place with Pittsburgh barely eclipsing the Capitals with their 75 points, only two points separate the two.
It had been a tight race between the two teams and the New York Islanders as things wind down. However, the Islanders have now dropped down in the past several weeks to the fourth spot with 68 points. With three games left for Pittsburgh and four for Washington, two teams have home-ice advantage left to fight for.
With both teams in a similar situation, it’s been an interesting stride for both NHL clubs towards the postseason. Though both Washington and Pittsburgh struggle to advance as easily as they had during their Stanley Cup seasons, the declining clubs both have something to prove. The Capitals can reminisce on their Stanley Cup days back in 2018 and the Penguins won it both seasons prior.
To add fuel to the clash, the two teams also reignited their rivalry a few seasons prior when they met each other in the playoffs. With a bitter defeat thanks to the Penguins, the Capitals will look to return the favor if the two meet once again the division final.
Why Pittsburgh can make a deep playoff run
After yet another successful regular season, the Penguins are set to make their 15th consecutive playoff appearance. The organization’s subtle albeit calculated acquisitions over the past few seasons have helped the Penguins acquire depth and stockpile more experience.
Jeff Carter, Jason Zucker, Mike Matheson, Cody Ceci have all contributed since they arrived in Pittsburgh. Carter, for example, has eight goals in 13 games with the Penguins — the same amount of goals he had with the Kings prior to the trade earlier this NHL season. Half of which, came from one game, the other night.
Jeff Carter now 8 goals in 13 games with the Penguins this season (his total with the Kings before he was traded) — Jenna Harner (@JennaHarner11) May 7, 2021
The experienced club keeps finding a way to win this season, and they are winning big too. Ironically, Matheson, who performed better than anticipated before his recent injury, is currently week-to-week.
The key is to keep injuries to a minimum, which is obviously easier said than done. With an older roster, you run the risk of longer-term injuries as well. Injuries have been a weakness of the Penguins for quite some time but their depth has been one workaround for this roadblock.
A veteran team like the Penguins was hard to gauge at the beginning of the season but the club has shown they can breeze past some difficult opponents. The East Divison should have them plenty prepared should they advance.
Goaltender Tristan Jarry proved he can take on the starting netminder role for Pittsburgh which should give them great confidence in net. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin single-handedly is a key for the team as they perform much better when he is healthy and in the lineup. Though lifelong Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang simply do not dominate like they once did, they can still be a large factor in any Stanley Cup push.
Why Washington can make a deep playoff run
The veteran group in Washington has the recent experience and star power to allow a long run as well. The team also checks off almost every box needed for a championship title again. They have depth, grit, and defense. This study team will not back down easily and can easily last multiple series until the final just as they have in seasons prior.
Talent like Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson will lead the way for the Caps as they try to secure another Cup — and that’s just to name a few.
Though the goaltender situation was a little hectic, the Capitals have several options in net. The club deployed Ilya Samsonov and rookie Vitek Vanecek, who took most of the starts. Though the goaltending duo is young, the experienced skaters in front of them should help make their job easier.
Recent hire, coach Peter Laviolette focuses his game on offensive contributions from all areas of the team. This expectation from the head coach helps attribute to the scoring depth necessary for longevity in this league. The team has not changed terribly much from when they lifted the Cup, so the change in coaching staff could help propel the team further than last season too.
With two recent divisional Stanley Cup winners able to take a shot at winning again this year, it’s another exciting postseason for hockey fans. Following this atypical season format and the usual unpredictability of the playoffs, it’s the perfect mix of anticipation to close out this 2020-21 NHL year.
What do you think? Does either NHL team lift the Stanley Cup this year? Comment your thoughts below.