Saturday afternoon the Penguins and Capitals will be facing off in an Eastern Conference semi-final round that is sure to be memorable.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers faced off in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring to much fanfare. Everyone was expecting a trench match between a gritty, healthy Flyers team and a hot Penguins team that was recently infused with top-end talent. It would be fair to say that expectations were more than met.
While the Flyers were eventually snuffed out in game six after giving up a three-goal lead and yielding five unanswered goals to the Penguins, the series did not disappoint.
The casual hockey fan, the NHL, and anyone else who has any ties to the NHL is getting the matchup they wanted, if only a series too soon.
It is no lie that the Penguins and Capitals have been two of the hottest teams in the NHL the past few seasons. Both teams have players who are the best in the game. The only thing up for debate is which team has the better star players, and of that crop, who is the best right now. But honestly, would it not be more entertaining for the Penguins to play Boston and the Capitals to play the Devils only for the Pens and Caps to meet in the conference finals? Maybe next season.
Right now, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who closed out their series against the Flyers Sunday afternoon, will be visiting the Washington Capitals who Tuesday night defeated the New York Rangers in seven.
Lets breakdown some of the matchups:
Penguins Forwards versus Capitals Defense
While Mike Green is probably the most offensively talented defenseman to lace it up in the last fifteen years, The Caps defense is decidedly pedestrian. Players like Tom Poti, and Brian Pothier do not exactly strike fear into opposing forwards. Even more physical forwards like Milan Jurcina, John Erskine, and Shaone Morrisonn are not considered that physically intimidating to play against.
They key to the Penguins success in this matchup will be their ability to maintain a strong forecheck. If they can maintain possession of the puck and keep Green pressed into defensive coverage, the Penguins should have no problems against the Caps defense. Green, for all of his offensive ability, is still developing his defensive game and is commonly caught up ice. The Penguins have to exploit this to no end with, most likely with the Jordan Staal line.
The Penguins forwards on the other hand are strong and physical throughout as well as dominant on the forecheck. The third and fourth lines for the Penguins, while having not generated a lot of offense against the Flyers, provided game-breaking momentum changes on a regular basis by keeping the puck deep in the opposing zone and cycling until they can not cycle anymore. They agitate, and must chip in a few goals this series if the Penguins expect to win.
The Penguins top two lines of Kunitz-Crosby-Guerin and Fedotenko-Malkin-(insert winger) have posted fairly good numbers this playoff. Crosby, Guerin, Fedotenko, and Malkin all scored big time goals and Kunitz laid the big-time smack down on the Flyers D. With world class talents such as Malkin and Crosby, it will not necessarily be Washington’s job to shut them down, but to limit their chances. If Malkin and Crosby post only a point-per-game, then the opposition has done a fairly good job of containing them, even more so in the postseason.
As mentioned earlier, with the exception of Mike Green, the Caps defense is no more talented than that of the Flyers. The Flyers being a more physical team defensively. If the Penguins can dictate the play against the Caps defense, much the way they did against the Flyers, the offense should have a fair amount of success against what has been for most of the season, a fairly underrated defense.
Penguins Defense versus the Capitals Offense
The Capitals, unlike the Penguins, like to load up their talent on the top two lines with various combinations that include Ovechkin, Kozlov, Semin, and Backstrom. It seems as though Bruce Boudreau seems to enjoy switching up his third and fourth lines. With a healthy Chris Clark joining the fray, it seems to fair to think some more shuffling will take place and the lines are not yet set in stone.
Really though, this is very much the Alex Ovechkin show. He was a leader among forwards in ice-time and has continued on playing close to 20 minutes a game. He throws his body around, scores goals, and shoots the puck almost as much as Crosby and Malkin combined.
As mentioned when regarding Crosby and Malkin, The Penguins will have to hope to contain Ovechkin, holding him to a point-per-game is a reasonable expectation as the young Russian absolutely brings it when playing against the Penguins. If they can contain Ovechkin, they have a chance to win the series. The Penguins need to figure out how to exploit Ovechkin’s individual play. If his team is snake-bit, Ovechkin often takes it upon himself to do everything. The Penguins have to be aware of this and use it to their advantage. While he may be an elite talent he still makes mistakes. The Penguins defense is going to have to force and exploit every tiny mistake Ovechkin makes if they hope to contain him.
The Caps have talented forwards in Semin and Backstrom although they do not pose any greater of a threat to the Penguins than many talented forwards they have dealt with, either on the Flyers or during the regular season. What should be of greater concern for the Penguins are the large-bodied forwards that the Caps deploy to wear down opposition’s defense. While they are not as strong as cycling the puck as the Pens third line, players such as Fleischmann and Clark know how to put the puck in the net and cause fits down low.
With the exception of two games, Fleury had an extremely strong playoff, likewise for Caps rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov. However, Varlamov has all of five regular and about 360 minutes of playoff experience. While there are always Cinderella stories and breakout rookies in the post-season, I would not hold my breath for Varlamov to repeat his round-one performance. Lets face it, the Rangers are an offensively anemic team that lacks the game-breaking punch the Penguins have down the middle. Varlamov will face the greatest tests of his career.
Marc-Andre Fleury on the other hand made it to the Stanley Cup Finals last season and as the pressure has mounted, Fleury has elevated his play. Fleury has the runaway edge in goaltending between these two teams.
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Written by Ian Altenbaugh