NHL·Analysis

Penguins-Caps series more than just Crosby vs. Ovechkin

Sidney Crosby squaring off against Alex Ovechkin is just one of the matchups that will make the Pittsburgh vs. Washington playoff series compelling for hockey fans.

Intriguing matchups across the board for 2nd-round showdown

The matchup of Evgeny Kuznetsov, left, and Evgeni Malkin is one of several storylines to keep an eye on during the Penguins-Capitals series (The Associated Press)

Crosby versus Ovechkin. Sid vs. Alex.

It's the showdown that could redeem the NHL playoffs for unrepresented Canadian hockey fans and nervous TV executives alike.

The faces of their respective franchises will undoubtedly be the main event in the upcoming second-round series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals.

But what about the undercard?

There are an abundance of plotlines, noteworthy players, and a chance to move one step closer to the Stanley Cup. Fans may tune in for the latest chapter in the Ovi-Sid saga, but here are several reasons why they'll stick around for the whole series.

American snipers

Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs should probably skip the next paragraph.

Phil Kessel has looked more comfortable outside of the southern Ontario spotlight, finishing third in both goals and points on the Penguins this season. He's had a successful post-season so far, registering three goals and three assists against the Rangers.

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As for the Capitals, the off-season addition of T.J. Oshie has added more firepower to an already potent offence. The former St. Louis Blues forward has carved a niche for himself on the team's top line and power-play unit. His 11 power-play goals are second only to Ovechkin's 19.

I or Y?

Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov share more than a first name. The (almost) name-twins are both imposing, talented, left-shooting centres who are a constant scoring threat.

Kuznetsov (#TeamY) had a career year, leading the team in points by tallying 20 goals and 57 assists. Equally skilled with a pen as he is with a hockey stick, the 23-year old gave fans an insight into his hockey-centric upbringing in Chelyabinsk earlier this season in The Players' Tribune.

As for Malkin (#TeamI), he continued to struggle with injuries this season. Despite missing 25 games, the marshal from Magnitogorsk managed 58 points in the regular season and has embraced the role of distributor in the playoffs with five assists.

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Between the pipes

One of the biggest difference-makers for Washington this year has been the stellar play of goalie Braden Holtby.

The presumptive Vezina favourite tied an NHL regular-season record with 48 wins and was a bastion of consistency during the Caps' Presidents' Trophy run.

While Washington's goaltending situation has been stable throughout the year, Pittsburgh's has been the complete opposite.

Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury is still dealing with the effects of a concussion sustained on March 30. In the wake of Fleury's second concussion of the season, goaltending duties have been shared by Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff.

Going forward, Pittsburgh will likely rely on the 21-year old Murray, who posted a 3-0 record in the first-round series against the New York Rangers after taking over for Zatkoff in Game 3.

Odds and ends

Two players that don't make the headlines but make a tremendous difference for the Capitals are Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. Pittsburgh would be wise to keep an eye on them, as the duo combined for 39 regular-season goals and 13 playoff points.

As for the Penguins, Patric Hornqvist registered over 50 points for the fourth time in his career and continues to complement Crosby well on the top line.

These teams have a well-chronicled rivalry, so there's bound to be a few grudges. What makes this edition of Pens versus Caps even more compelling is that there are turncoats on both sides.

Washington (née Pittsburgh) defenceman Matt Niskanen, along with injured teammate Brooks Orpik may not get a warm welcome in their return to Western Pennsylvania. The same may also be true for new Penguins forward Eric Fehr, who played nine of his first 10 seasons in the U.S. capital.

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For those of you fond of athletic aesthetics, the Pens and Caps both have gorgeous throwbacks in their respective repertoires.

Would it be too much to ask to see the teams sport these stunning sweaters throughout the series?

Game 1 takes place Thursday night in Washington.

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