This is not just a simple playoff tilt between the Penguins and the Capitals. Rather, this series is a measuring stick that will show how far the NHL is behind the NBA, NFL, and MLB. If you are a true fan of the NHL’s success, then you should be rooting for this series to not only go seven games but for it also to feature multiple overtimes.
At this point the Penguins/Capitals series is make or break for the NHL: the league’s three biggest stars will be on display for the world to see, and they simply cannot afford for this series to be a bust. Penguins fans can be selfish, but in the end the importance of these playoffs is that the NHL makes its way back onto the map not that Pittsburgh wins the Stanley Cup.
So will Pittsburgh get past Washington? Here are the keys to the series…
Washington: Bruce Boudreau
Pittsburgh: Dan Bylsma
Boudreau sports a rather impressive resume, having won the Jack Adam’s award in 2007-2008 for the NHL’s top coach. He has also led the Capitals to two consecutive Southeast Division titles, which is the equivalent of winning the gold medal in the javelin event at the special Olympics.
Bylsma on the other hand is coming off his first playoff series win as a head coach and has had the interim tag removed from his title. In my mind, this coaching matchup rests on three possibilities, all of which are related to how Bylsma responds to his recent three year contract:
- Now that ‘Disco’ Dan has received a three year deal, will he ease up on the reins, thinking he has three more years to win a cup if he cannot get it done this year?
- With a new deal all ironed out, will Bylsma’s coaching and confidence be boosted knowing the organization has faith in him?
- Most importantly, how will the players respond now that Bylsma is no longer an interim coach?
In my mind, the runaway winner of these three options is that Bylsma will actually be better in this round knowing that Mario Lemieuxf and company are behind him.
Realistically, coaching will not have much to do with this series since both teams are so talented. There are two main points each team has to focus on to win the series—and you don’t have to be an award winning coach to figure them out—if you are the Capitals, stop Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; if you are the Penguins, stop Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.
The Capitals were third in the league this season in goals scored and boast two of the most offensively talented players in the world. Ovechkin, Semin, and Green all were 30 goal scorers while Backstrom and Brooks Laich both scored over 20 goals this season. Ovechkin registered more goals than assists this year, which means everyone knows he is going to shoot. The problem though is despite accounting for the most shots in the league his shooting percentage ranked 253rd—good for just ninth best on Washington.
There’s no arguing that A.O. is dangerous—when a player scores 56 goals they tend to draw some attention—but the player to watch in this series is Semin. With eight points, Semin is leading the Capitals in playoff points, and he is usually the one making plays so Ovie can get on the score sheet.
The Penguins have six 20 goal scorers of their own, and everyone on both sides of the spectrum knows Crosby and Malkin are going to get their points. The question is, where will the help come from?
The key to advancing for the Penguins is to have players such as Petr Sykora and Jordan Staal step up and fill the void. Sykora has no points in four playoff games after tallying 25 goals during the regular season. Miroslav Satan did not catch fire when filling Sykora’s roster spot, so look for #17 to work his way back into the lineup and start pitching in offensively.
Staal has also been relatively silent during the 2009 playoffs. His defensive presence played a big factor against the Philadelphia Flyers, but at some point the Penguins offensemen have to start playing like offensemen.
If Laich has a better second round than his first round, Pittsburgh could find themselves in hot water. But the same can be said for the Capitals if either Sykora or Stall get going. I have to give the advantage to the Penguins here. Having two of the leagues top three scorers is just too much for a rookie goaltender.
Washington: Mike Green, Tom Poti
With so much offensive firepower in this series, neither defense is going to steal the show. In a playoff round such as this, the main goal of each defensive unit must be to simply outplay the other teams defensemen because both sides will be getting carved up Jimmy Hoffa style.
Washington’s defense appeared to be stellar in the first round only letting up 23.7 shots per game, but facing the New York Rangers 28th ranked offense was certainly a big piece of the puzzle. Many have speculated that the Capital’s Green is purely an offensive threat with no defense awareness, this is simply not true though. He has the second best regular season plus/minus rating on the team at +24 not to mention that the best defense is a good offense—so if you score 31 goals that means you do not have to play as much defense.
It is important for Pittsburgh that Gonchar matches Green’s output, and that Orpik keeps up his superior playoff physicality. Also, look for the Penguins’ Kris Letang to step up this playoff series after a first round benching showed that Bylsma is not afraid to scratch Pittsburgh’s best defensemen.
Overall, Washington’s Green and Poti will have the upper hand in the series though, as the Penguins defensemen are simply too streaky to be trusted.
Both team’s powerplays struggled in their opening rounds, each failing to hit the 20% mark. With so many stars it is hard to imagine that neither the Penguins nor the Capitals will start to click with the man advantage. Most likely it will be Washington since they ranked second in the league during regular season.
The penalty killing units are very similar statistically, but I give the edge to the Penguins here since their high aggression style has been paying off lately.
Overall though, Washington just demands too much respect on the powerplay. A productive man advantage could swing the series in the Capitals favor. Watch for Boudreau to do whatever necessary in order to reclaim powerplay dominance
Washington: Simeon Varlamov
Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury
Washington sports a young, athletic, inexperienced goalie with loads of upside in Varlamov, while Pittsburgh is anchored by a young, athletic, experienced goalie with loads of upside in Fleury. Enough said: Fleury takes this one because of his experience and his knack for big performances in big-game situations.
The NHL playoffs have proven time and again that without a top-of-the-line goalie a team’s playoffs chances are toast. Having an unproven rookie in Varlamov is not what Washington anticipated heading into round two, while Pittsburgh sits pretty with Fleury between the pipes.
Another deciding factor of this series will be Crosby’s play. Watch for Sid the Kid to explode after being left out of the Hart Trophy conversation. Rarely does Crosby not look like the best player in the world when it comes to games on the big stage. Combine that with the extra motivation of playing Semin and Ovechkin and the NHL will get exactly what they are looking for–a showcase of skill that will leave every viewer in awe.
Advantage: Penguins 4 games, Capitals 3 games