Friday, May 1, 2009

Series Preview (Caps Side)

The Caps and Pittsburgh Penguins start their eighth playoff series tomorrow afternoon (1 p.m., NBC) at Verizon Center. A series preview:

Offense: Unlike the New York Rangers series, there is no mismatch when it comes to firepower. Regular season goal-scoring leader Alex Ovechkin (three goals, four assists) has been relatively quiet, but Alex Semin (five goals, three assists) leads the NHL in playoff tallies. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby (four goals, four assists) and Evgeni Malkin (four goals, five assists) are in the same ballpark. But it doesn't end there. The Pens averaged three goals per game against the Philadelphia Flyers (fifth in the NHL), while the Caps were close behind (2.71, seventh). Both teams have offensive-minded defensemen (Mike Green, Sergei Gonchar) who can put the puck in the net but had a quiet first round. Advantage: Push.

Defense: The Caps found their defensive legs in the first-round against the Rangers, allowing just 1.57 goals per game (second in the NHL). The Penguins, who allowed 2.67 per game to the Flyers (eighth), will threaten the Caps much more regularly. In the regular season, the Caps outscored the non-flying birds, 18-12, in four games -- but overall the teams were pretty even in terms of goals allowed per game (Caps: 2.93; Pens: 2.87). The Caps need to continue the momentum they established in the first round and remain stout in their own end against a very dangerous team. Brian Pothier and Tom Poti also need to keep the form they displayed in the first round, while Milan Jucina and John Erskine need to keep improving -- something they did significantly against the Rangers. Advantage: Caps (by a nose).

Special Teams: The Caps (25.2, second) had an impressive regular-season power play, but the Pens (17.2, 20th) did not. Despite that difference, neither were dominant in first-round wins. The Caps (18.2, seventh) fared better than the Pens (12.5, 11th) in facing two very good penalty killing teams: the Rangers (best regular season PK) and Flyers (sixth), respectively. On the flip side, the Caps (87.1) and Pens (86.7) were virtually even on the PK. If both power plays fire as they are capable, the series will hinge on who can stay out of the sin bin. Advantage: Caps.

Goaltending: Both Simeon Varlamov (21) and Marc-Andre Fleury (24) are relatively young, but Fleury at least has the experience of a Stanley Cup run last season and 31 playoff games overall. In six playoff games so far, though, Varly has an impressive 1.17 goals against average and .952 save percentage -- first and second in the NHL, respectively. Fleury's numbers aren't too shabby (2.39, .922) and they were achieved against a much more potent opponent. Last spring, Fleury impressed with a 1.97 GAA and .933 save percentage (both second in the NHL) while playing every minute of the Pens' 20 playoff games. Advantage: Pens (by a whisker).

Intangibles: It's impossible to overlook the history. The Pens have won six of the seven previous series between the two teams -- although they haven't met since 2001. In fact, the only player in this series that participated in the teams' last meeting was Gonchar -- and he was on the Caps then. That being said, there are legions of fans (including yours truly) that still have nightmares about the old Caps-Pens series and this one will be full of subplots -- not to mention the budding rivalry between any combination of Semin, Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin. The Caps are 6-1 in game ones -- but other than game five (5-2), the Pens are ahead for every other game. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau is 4-1-1 against the Pens and the Caps took the regular-season series, 3-0-1. But it's all different in the playoffs. Advantage: Pens.

Overall: Ovechkin vs. Crosby. Varlamov vs. Fluery. Boudreau vs. Dan Bylsma. History vs. Present. It's all the makings of a great series between two teams that are sure to meet again and again in the postseason. Prediction: Caps in six.

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