Second Round Preview: Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia
Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, could not have scripted a better chain of events than that which led to the second round matchups in the Eastern Conference. Not only did Ovechkin and the Capitals]] storm back from a 2 game deficit to beat the New York Rangers, but the Carolina Hurricanes scored twice in the last 2 minutes to beat the Devils and set the stage for the first playoff meeting between two of hockey’s biggest stars, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
Offense: This may be the most offensively stacked series that the 2009 postseason will present to its fans. Both rosters host a laundry list of talented scorers that can singlehandedly change the face of a game and a series. Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Sergei Fedorov provide excellent complementary skills to the flash and amazing scoring potential of Ovechkin. On the other bench, while Sidney Crosby gets all the hype, Evgeny Malkin quietly led the league in scoring this year. Throw in battle-tested Bill Guerin and the fiery Chris Kunitz, and the Penguins have the offensive depth to threaten any goalie. Heaven help young Simeon Varlamov should talented veteran Petr Sykora decide to show up at some point in this series like he did last postseason.
Defense: Both teams have defensive corps that are often overlooked because of the superstars that headline their offenses. Both units, however, are very similar in the way they are built to support and work with their team’s offense. Pittsburgh boasts one of the best puck-moving defensemen of all time in Sergei Gonchar, while Kris Letang is quickly making a name for himself. Add to these two the grit and solid defensive play of Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, and you can see why the Penguins were able to shut down Philadelphia’s offense so well last round. Washington finished the season ranked 19th in total defense, due in part to the fact that they suffered from subpar goaltending for most of the year. Mike Green is very capable of chipping in offensively, and the rest of the Caps defense play tough hockey. It remains to be seen if they can consistnently match up with a team as offensively deep as the Penguins.
Goaltending: At the start of the playoffs, there would have been no question that the Penguins would have a significant edge over the Captials. However, after watching young Simeon Varlamov stymie the New York Rangers time and time again, you can’t help but to wonder if he might just be on one of those career-defining runs, like Cam Ward was when he carried the Canes to the Cup. The way Varlamov has dealt with pressure throughout his brief playoff debut was admirable as he posted two shutouts in the series. Fleury is still one of the top playoff goalies in the game, but Varlamov is looking very unbeatable right now.
Special Teams: This is really a strength against strength issue at this point. Washington’s penalty kill is mediocre at best, but Pittsburgh’s powerplay converted only 4 of 32 powerplay opportunities in round 1. On the other hand, Washington’s powerplay was ranked first in the East in the regular season, and scored 6 goals against the league’s best penalty kill unit. Pittsburgh’s penalty kill gave up only one goal in the last 19 attempts against Philadelphia.
This series is difficult to call, given that both teams are extremely talented and are coming off big emotional wins: Pittsburgh over rival Philadelphia, and Washington’s remarkable comeback from a 3-1 deficit. Home ice advantage may be a bigger factor than expected, since the fans in Washington have done a great job of turning that arena into a very intimidating environment. This series will almost definitely go to seven games, and I think that the Penguins duo of Malkin and Crosby will be too much for the Capitals to handle. Penguins in 7
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