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. Eastern Conference 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 have built up has gotten more entertaining since their first meeting in the 1991 playoffs. It’ll be the eighth time the teams have faced off, with Pittsburgh holding a 6-1 record. 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 time and time again that have made this a rivalry that, in many ways, is more epic than showdowns in 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 these days.
So, let’s analyze the series, 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 let in a stingy seven goals in six games 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’ scoring lines had actually shown up for their first two games, the series would’ve been over in five like I’d originally predicted, and not turned into a nail-biting tension-filled seven game series.
So Varlamov’s true test will be against the Penguins. Just like the Caps, the Pens bring three solid scoring lines to the ice, 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 presence 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-up. 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 type of audience – the popped collar crowd here and the mullets in the Steel City. Both arenas are loud, passionate and wild. They are the perfect setting for one doozy of a series.
So yeah, 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, though; I think when the dust finally settles, we’ll see the Penguins limp away into the finals after seven very hard-fought and brutal games. With at least two ending in overtime. And me with ragged fingernails from all the nail-biting moments.
Bottom line? 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 being glued to the television for every pulse-pounding second, 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…