WASHINGTON -- The NHL playoffs might be peaking too soon as the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals host the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Thursday night.
The top two teams left in the postseason are meeting in the conference semis for the second straight year. Pittsburgh defeated top-seeded Washington in six games in last year's conference semifinals en route to capturing the fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history.
"We lost in Game 6 (in 2016) and Game 7 (in 2009). You just have to move forward," said Ovechkin, who has 10 goals and 13 assists in the 13 games. "You don't have to be afraid. You know you play against Stanley Cup champion and they are a very good team, but so are we. This battle has to be done if we want to get success."
The Penguins, who finished second behind the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division by going 50-21-11 (111 points), ousted the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games in the first round, while Washington 55-19-8 (118 points) bested the stubborn Toronto Maple Leafs in six.
This will be the first time since the 2001 Stanley Cup Final (Colorado Avalanche vs. New Jersey Devils) that the NHL's top-two teams from the regular season will meet in a playoff series.
Five of Washington's first-round games went to overtime and the speedy Maple Leafs likely were a good test before facing the fast-paced Penguins.
"They're a high-pressure team with their skating, their speed," Washington head coach Barry Trotz said of the Penguins. "They pressure on the forecheck, they try to create turnovers. (They get) 50-50 pucks, and they turn that into opportunities and that's sort of what Toronto does."
Pittsburgh enters the series minus defenseman Kris Letang, who is done for the season, and (for now) goaltender Matt Murray. Forward Carl Hagelin, who had three goals and seven points in last year's playoff series, has been out since March with a lower-body injury, but practiced Wednesday.
"Big step today, getting involved in team practice," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's getting eager. Take it day-to-day. He's a lot closer."
Two injured Penguins, forward Chris Kunitz and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, will be game-time decisions.
Washington defenseman Karl Alzner (upper body) remains day-to-day, though Nate Schmidt has stepped in and performed extremely well.
Depth is a strength for both teams and while it is billed as Crosby vs. Ovechkin, the series could easily come down to Marcus Johansson or Jake Guentzel. Johansson was one of six Capitals -- led by Ovechkin and Oshie with 33 -- to score 19 or more goals.
"They're a good forechecking team. They can create offense off the rush," Sullivan said. "They've got some dynamic forwards in their lineup and we're going to have to be aware when they're on the ice."
Guentzel, a rookie, scored five goals vs. Columbus in the first round. During the regular season, he was one of seven Penguins to score 16 or more goals. Crosby led the team and league with 44.
Braden Holtby finished the Toronto series with a 2.36 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. After allowing four goals in each of the first three games, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner stopped 61 of 63 shots in Games 5 and 6.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had a 2.52 GAA and .933 save percentage against Columbus that included a 49-save effort in a 5-2 series-clinching win.
Washington went 2-0-2 against Pittsburgh in the regular season, outscoring the Penguins 21-14.
"It is going to be a battle," Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. "They are a great team and have a lot of great players and everyone here is excited for that. We ended up winning last year, which is great, but everyone here knows the margin of error is very small come playoff time.
"A couple bounces here or there and they very easily could have won that series. We know we need to be at our best every shift that we're out there."
Nicklas Backstrom recorded 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in four games against the Penguins, and Oshie ranked second with 10 points (three goals, seven assists). Holtby was 2-0-1 with a 2.74 GAA and .912 save percentage.
Evgeni Malkin had five goals and one assist against Washington, while Crosby had a goal and four assists. Fleury was 1-1-0 with a 4.02 GAA and .884 save percentage in two games.
"I think we both know what to expect," Washington's Brooks Orpik said. "It's just a matter of who executes better within the series."