Washington Capitals – Pittsburgh Penguins 2nd Round Playoff Preview

Posted by Drew Mindell in Columns,Pittsburgh Penguins,Washington Capitals on April 30, 2009 — 1 Comment

Finally, some good news for the NHL. Not since Sports Illustrated ran their infamous cover (“Why the NHL is Hot, and the NBA is Not”) in the mid 1990s, has the NHL had an opportunity to make an indelible mark on the American sporting scene. The reason? Crosby v. Ovechkin. The Pens versus the Caps. Let’s break this baby down

Goaltending

The unknown, inexperienced rookie (Varlamov), versus the former ballyhooed junior star (Fleury). Both proved their worth in the first round, especially Varlamov, entering the Capitals-Rangers series in game two after it had become abundantly clear the Caps (rightfully) had no faith in Jose Theodore. The question now is, can Varlamov do it again, as this time the Penguins are in another stratosphere as compared to the offensive “talents” of the New York Rangers. We know he can make the saves when he faces 18 pucks a night being shot by the likes of Nik Antropov and Blair Betts, but can he do the same when he faces 35 shots a night from Crosby, Malkin et al?

On the other end of the ice is Marc Andre Fleury. After overcoming some early jitters in his career, he has proven himself worthy of being a first round selection. Although he has the occasional tendency to give up a soft goal, he has the big game experience, and the undisputed backing of his team-mates, both of which are especially valuable in the playoff season. His play in the first round against the Flyers was especially solid, exemplified by his 45 save performance in stealing game 4 for the Pens.

Edge: Penguins

Forwards

Where to begin? Crosby and Malkin? Ovechkin and Backstrom and Semin? Talk about a murderer’s row of the best and brightest talent any hockey fan would ever want to see offered up on one juicy platter.

The Penguins are led by Sidney Crosby and Hart Trophy nominee Evgeni Malkin. Easily the driving force behind the Penguins offensive juggernaut, these two superstars combined for 8 goals and 17 points in their 6 game series victory over the Flyers. The next best line for the Penguins was their defensive/energy line of Jordan Stall, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke which did a tremendous job in the first round. Unfortunately, the secondary scoring for the Penguins dried up at this point, and players like Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Petr Sykora were MIA and need to step it up in this series. Sykora especially, as he was a healthy scratch late in first round. Without these players providing some extra scoring, the Pens could be in trouble.

Over in the Capital city (pardon the pun), the Caps are undoubtedly led by another Hart Trophy nominee Alexander Ovechkin. Alongside Ovechkin comes Niklas Backstrom, he of the 88 point regular season (if you need that sort of thing), and the third weapon in their triumvirate, Alexander Semin. Quite probably the best threesome this side of Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards in Wild Things. Brooks Laich, David Steckel and Matt Bradley provided the Caps with their energy line and energy boost in the series versus the Rangers, and the veteran presence of Sergei Federov, Viktor Kozlov, and the returning from injury Chris Clark cannot be over-emphasized in importance to this team.

Edge: Capitals

Defenseman

If these teams have an Achilles heel, it is on the back end. While both teams boast an excellent offensive defenseman (the Capitals Mike Green, and the Penguins Sergei Gonchar) for the most part after those two they are thin on the back end.

The Capitals were far and away better defensively versus the Rangers than most people expected them to be. Was that a by-product of the Rangers offensive struggles? We will find out in this series as Penguins and offensive struggles mesh as well as oil and water.

Led on the back end by the aforementioned Mike Green, they partner him with solid stay at home, no nonsense, Shaone “can you spare a letter” Morrisonn. John Erskine and Brian Pothier were both solid against the Rangers and Tom Poti exercised some revenge against the team the booed him out of town by playing very solid hockey and registering a goal and three assists. Milan Jurcina winds out the Capitals back end contingent.

The Penguins too have a relatively no-name defence once you get passed fringe hall of famer Sergei Gonchar. However, as is often the case with “no-name” players, what they lack in name value, they make up with in solid, no-nonsense play. Facing off against a vaunted offensive team like the Flyers, the Pens defence managed to shut down the league’s second leading goal scorer Jeff Carter, holding him to only one goal in the first round match-up. Credit where credit is due, and the Penguins back end success is due to the solid, workmanlike play of Kris Letang, Mark Eaton, Rob Scuderi, Hal Gill, and Brooks Orpik. Can they keep it up versus the offensive dynamo that is the Washington Capitals? That is the million dollar question

Edge: Even

Final Analysis

This series should be everything the NHL is hoping it will be. Two teams, featuring the two marquee players the NHL has to offer, battling neck and neck, evenly matched in skill sets. If anything was going to move the proverbial ratings dial for the NHL in the United States, this is the match-up that will do so. Ultimately, I think that the Capitals extra little depth on offense will be too much for the Penguins to overcome, and I think the Caps make it two straight series with game 7 home ice victories.

Capitals in 7

  • Bob Roberts

    What I want to know is what gives with the Caps?

    Big O, for example. I think the big Russian machine that never breaks down is running rough.

    Dinged up somehow?

    But it can’t be his legs — sorry, lower body — because he’s skating as well as ever. And it can’t be torso or arms/shoulders/hands — upper body — because his shot’s are as wicked as ever.

    And he’s still hitting like the proverbial ton of bricks.

    I think it might be the upper upper body. I think maybe he’s mentally fatigued, and who can blame him? Hype hype hype and the weight of the fans and the team and the league dragging him down is getting to him. Hence the days missing from practice. Mental health days? Now it’s the Penguins and even more off-ice demands.

    I think Crosby’s better suited mentally to handle all that outside stuff, and he’s had lots of time to get used to it since he was 12 or 14 or whatever. Plus he speaks the language — doesn’t have to translate everything twice before he speaks. I think Ovechkin’s on-ice performance has been and will increasingly be influenced by the spotlight. That’s the only reason I can see for feeling like he’s not running smooth like strong Russian machine that never breaks.

    I think that’s why the Caps performed in such a bizarre manner in the first round. It’s fair to say, I think, that as O (and also Green) goes, so go the Caps. I’m not discounting the Rangers here, just asking — should that series have gone to the last couple of minutes in the seventh game?

    And injury possibilities aside, what’s with Green?

    Tentative, fumbling, out of position — that’s how I’d describe his play so far. Flashes of his usual brilliance — yes, for sure. His usual consistency? Nowhere to be seen. He took some very solid hits vs the Rangers, so that could be part of it; but even toward the end of the season he seemed off to me, too. I know, long season. I know, new season: the one you play the long one for, the one that counts. He should be taking it to another level, but I don’t see that.

    No slight to Alex (we’re coasting to the playoffs) Semin and the rest, but as those two go…

    All that aside, it’s the Penguins who have it cooking…

    Crosby’s line, Malkin’s line, the Crosby-Malkin (or “powerplay at even strength”) line vs Ovechkin’s line.

    Staal’s line vs ???

    Staal, Kennedy and Cooke are my X-factors for this series and the next. Is there a better and faster-improving “third” line than this? What have the Caps got to match it?

    And I love Talbot, Adams, and Dupuis. Savvy, tough, fast sparkplugs who check and even have some touch.

    Gonchar right now vs Green? Gonchar.

    The rest of the Pen D vs the Cap D? Even.

    Fleury vs Varlamov?

    I’ll take Fleury because of his experience and skill, but he scares the crap out of me when he leaves the crease to “play” the puck.

    Where is the coaching staff?

    STAY IN THE NET — see, the way it works is: goalies STOP the puck, skaters SHOOT the puck (as far as you’re concerned, anyway).

    Varlamov is solid and makes big saves and he’s a starter for the Caps, but facing the Penguins is going to be just a wee bit different from facing the Rangers.

    I hope I’m wrong about O and Green and that they play amazing hockey because that’ll make for great games and a great series.

    If they do it’ll still be the Pens, but…

    I’ll say Pens in 6 or 7 (if O/Green cooking) or maybe 5 (if O/Green not cooking).

    WSS, TWWW