[Note: Normally I don’t cross-post from my stuff at WeLoveDC. But I’m in a bind today, writing-wise, and while I’d like to have a more Penguins-centric and snarky article dissing the Caps, I’m going to instead opt to just reprint my article from WLDC instead. It’s close to what I wanted to say anyway, so…
I will say here, though, that I’m glad that all these games are national coverage. Despite my disdain for NBC and Versus coverage and commentary, I loathe Comcast’s Caps broadcast team even more, because Joe Laughlin makes me want to scream. Joe, btw – it’s MALL-kin, *not* MAAL-kin. Freakin’ do your research.
If, however, Comcast flexes its blackout rules and forces me to watch the games with the bumble-twins, don’t expect me to be in a good mood the morning after a game. Just sayin’. -BHR]
I’m in hockey nirvana.
When the NHL playoffs were finally set, one of the first things many fans here and in Pennsylvania did was figure out when and if the Capitals would actually face the Pittsburgh Penguins during hockey’s “second season.” It was a bit convoluted to work around, since both teams were highly seeded, and it looked – for about a week – that this year wouldn’t see the match-up we all secretly wanted, and dreaded. But then the Caps figured out they were actually in the playoffs and executed a very stressful and tense comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to stuff the Rangers.
And when Carolina shocked New Jersey with two quick goals in the last two minutes of their own Game 7, it was as if the hockey planets aligned. The match-up the NHL slobbered for had arrived.
Penguins. Capitals. Stanley Cup Semifinals.
And it promises to be one extremely wild, crazy, emotional ride for both cities. Find out why after the jump.
It’s no secret that the intense rivalry these two built up has gotten increasingly more entertaining and anticipated since they first met in the 1991 playoffs. It’ll be the eighth time the teams have faced off, with Pittsburgh holding a 6-1 record so far. What’s made these match-ups legendary isn’t just the frequency; it’s the passion the players and the fans have brought into it that have made this a rivalry that is, in many ways, more epic than Detroit/Chicago, Boston/Montreal or Calgary/Edmonton.
As a gesture of kindness to my Caps-reading audience, I’ll now step away from recounting highlights of previous meetings, and I promise this’ll be the only time I mention Leonsis’ attempts to shut out Penguins fans from purchasing tickets in the past (because we filled Verizon and made it an away-home game), when hockey in the District was what Nationals baseball is to the region today. He doesn’t need to resort to childishness now; Caps fans are actually real and alive in the District.
So, let’s analyze the series now, shall we? Who’s going to walk away from this one and into the Conference finals? It’s going to come down to the wire, that’s for sure. And here’s why.
Goaltending. Make no mistake, Simeon Varlamov is the current Caps’ golden boy. Going 4-2 with two shutouts against the Rangers, the rookie netminder was Boudreau’s only sane choice after Jose “Three-or-more” Theodore let the team down in Game 1. He’s only let in seven goals total and based solely on his performance against the Rangers, looks unstoppable.
But let’s face it – the Ranger’s offense was always anemic at best. Truly, the main reason they even made it into the playoffs was on Lundqvist’s talent; when faced with the Cap’s potent three scoring lines, he was destined to have an off night several nights in a row. And honestly, if the Caps had actually show up for their first two games, the series would’ve been over in five like I’d originally predicted, and not a nail-biting tension-filled seven game series as it turned into.
So Varlamov’s true test will be against the Penguins. Just like the Caps, the Pens bring three solid scoring lines to the game, including two of the top three scoring leaders in the league. How the rookie Russian stands up against the consistent onslaught of pucks by determined and talented Penguin shooters may well determine just how this series swings.
As it does with Marc Andre Fleury. Just like last year, Fleury has stepped up his game in net, churning out five impressive games against the bruising Flyers. (Game 5 was definitely an off night for MAF.) What to really look for is how often Fleury lets in a soft goal; with the teams this tight in talent and so closely matched, such a goal may well prove to be the decision maker.
A lot is being made in the media – as usual – of a “Crosby vs. Ovechkin” showdown, naturally. And it’s true; this is the first time these two contemporary hockey greats have faced off in the playoffs. Even Mario Lemieux never faced Wayne Gretzky across the red line in the playoffs, and neither of those players entered the league in the same year, either. (Gretzky was an established player by the time Mario entered the league.) So how Ovie and Crosby handle the match-up, as well as the series, will be interesting to watch.
On the blue line, neither team gives an inch. Earlier in the season, much was made about the Penguins’ weak link in defense. Now, however, with Sergei Gonchar firing on all cylinders and backed up by Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, the Pens have a strong blue line that was the bane of many offensive lines as the season wound down. But don’t discount the Caps: Mike Green is a surprisingly consistent offensive force on the blue line, matching Gonchar, and is backed up with John Erskine, Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina.
Which means we’re looking at one gritty, rough, tough series here. No pond hockey, no way – and if you’re expecting it, I suggest you go watch the Red Wings and the Ducks skate in circles. Both teams have solid, forceful forechecking trios and will force the star players on both sides to watch their backs.
And finally, let’s not forget the fan match-ups. With the success of the Caps (about time, honestly), the Verizon Center is now a sold-out venue of red shirts and raucous voices. Which is the perfect match for the whiteout crowds at the ancient Mellon Arena up in Pittsburgh. The only real difference is the prevalence of the popped collar crowd here, and the mullets in the Steel City. Both arenas are loud, passionate and wild. The perfect setting for one doozy of a series.
So yeah, I’m sure at this point everyone wants to know where I stand; it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m behind the Penguins. (Hey, nearly twenty years of allegiance here, people.) I harbor no illusions on how gritty this series is really going to be; I think when the dust finally settles, we’ll see the Penguins limp away into the finals after seven hard-fought and brutal games. With at least two overtime games. And me with ragged fingernails from all the nail biting moments.
Bottom line, though? Whichever way you swing on this, we’re in for one awesome series. And that? Is truly a hockey fan’s dream. So enjoy it while you can – we may not see this match-up again any time soon. I plan on it, and so should you.
Normally, I don’t make bets, not with series this closely matched. But after talking smack with Tom last night, I decided that if the Caps do indeed win this series, I’ll wear a Caps jersey at WLDC’s first birthday bash in July. And if the Pens win? Tom, I’ve got a Pens jersey with your name on it…