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
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.
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.
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
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