(2) Caps vs. (4) Penguins
Today at Kettler Ice Plex in Ballston, Virginia, the Washington Capitals hit the ice for the first time in preparation for their upcoming series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, which starts Saturday at 1pm at the Verizon Center on NBC. The biggest news of the day: Alexander Ovechkin did not practice but he did meet with the throngs of media afterwards (see WashintonCaps.com 365 for the full interview) and when asked about the Great #8′s absence from practice head coach Bruce Boudreau responded, “He’ll be practicing tomorrow (Friday). Sometimes his body gets beat up because he plays so much, he’s just plays a lot so he needs a little bit more rest, so he’s just resting today.”
Naturally the focus of many of the questions from the media were of the Ovechkin vs. Sydney Crosby variety and the Caps and their coach did their best to play down that angle.
“I think we have to just look at it as a team game, Washington vs. Pittsburgh, there will be talk of Ovie vs. Crosby but we have to focus on what we’re going to do and how we’re going to play against them. We just have to focus on our game plan and go out there and get it done,” said Washington forward Boyd Gordon, who will play a very key role in this series on the penalty kill and trying to slow down the Penguins offensive talent.
“Any little thing that is being said is going to be magnified. If Alex says anything about Sydney or anybody it is going to be maginified. I’m sure they’ll be cameras on Sydney, [Evgeni] Malkin, Ovechkin, [Mike] Green all the time if the puck is near them or not. We’ll magnify every situation, I’m sure,” added Boudreau who said “Welcome to the Circus” when describing what the media attention will be like as soon as he found out the Caps were playing Pittsburgh after the series win over the Rangers.
There is no doubt that the level of hype is high in this series and many are saying this is big for the NHL from a marketing standpoint. They could use a good US television contract going forward and this series could help by bringing in the cross over fan who normally would not watch hockey.
“I hope it draws tons of fans. We all love our game so much that we hope it is something that people want to watch on a national level. Anything that is good for our game is great. We want to build it. We want to show the people that don’t know our game how great a game it can be,” said Boudreau.
As for the massive hype impacting the series itself, Boudreau downplayed that.
“I don’t know, the Super Bowl has an awful lot of hype and I think the last couple of games have been pretty good. I think the teams are focused and the hype shouldn’t matter. We’ll be in our own zone, hopefully, understanding what we have to do and I think the guys are focused so as much hype as [the media] want to bring on, bring on,” finished Boudreau.
With that, it’s time to move away from the media fluff and get to the meat of this series matchup, the things I prefer to focus on.
Let’s start with the goaltenders, Simeon Varlamov vs. Marc Andre-Fleury. The Caps rookie, Varlamov (turned 21 on April 27), has played 12 games in his career going 4-0-1 in the regular season and then 4-2 against the Rangers in the first round while Fleury, who was taken #1 overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, led his team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 (lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games). The advantage, on paper, appears to be for Pittsburgh. Boudreau was asked today to compare Fleury with Henrik Lundqvist, the goalie for the Rangers that the Caps just defeated in round one.
“Lundqvist is great and Fleury’s played great so I guess we’ll be able to know after the first couple of games. I would think that Fleury is more acrobatic and probably more gifted in that sense and Lundqvist is better positionally but that is just off the top of my head. Fleury was taken #1 overall for a reason and Lundqvist is one of the best for a reason. Either way we are not playing bad goaltenders,” said last year’s Jack Adams Trophy winner.
Both teams have big name offensive players that lead their defense and run their power play, Green for the Caps and former Capital Sergei Gonchar for Pittsburgh. Gonchar missed the first five months of the season due to a shoulder injury he suffered in pre-season and when he returned he, along with the addition of forwards Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin at the trade deadline, plus new Coach Dan Bylsma propelled the Penguins to a 18-3-4 stretch run.
“They have a lot of weapons and Gonchar is obviously their quarterback on the point. It’s kind of pick your poison. We’d like to stay out of the box as much as possible. When we get out there [on the penalty kill] we have to get it done and do whatever it takes, block a shot, be in the right position, you have to do the job. He’s a good defensemen. He’s got a good shot and he’s calm and poised with the puck. He fits in well with their team and he does a great job for them on the power play,” said Gordon on #55 and the Penguin power play.
As for Green, he had a goal and four assists in the first round, a series in which he had the flu and didn’t have his full energy back until the last few games.
“I think, as I’ve said all along, that Mike is going to be fine. He puts a lot of pressure on himself because of what has happened this year but again, he played 26,27 minutes a game and we allowed the fewest goals we’ve allowed in a seven game stretch all year. He must have been doing something right. Just because he wasn’t scoring at a point a game pace in the playoffs I’m still very happy with the way he is playing,” added Boudreau on #52.
The Penguins also have Hal Gill (big defensemen), Brooks Orpik (good, physical defenseman), and Rob Scuderi on the back line. Washington adds puck moving Tom Poti and the more physical Shaone Morrisonn to go along with vastly improved Milan Jurcina and John Erskine plus Brian Pothier (out for 14 months with concussion until returning in March). On paper this appears to be a wash or perhaps a very slight edge to Washington, only because of #52.
Up front is where the fireworks start. The Penguins are loaded up the middle with Crosby, Malkin, and Jordan Staal. On the wings they have Guerin, Kunitz, and Ruslan Fedotenko who all can go to the net and create havoc. Another forward to watch is Maxime Talbot who kills penalties, checks well, and is very successful at whatever role Bylsma throws him into. For Washington, they go deep as well with the Great #8, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Brooks Laich, Viktor Kozlov, Chris Clark and then good role players like Gordon, Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr, and Dave Steckel. The Penguins have the advantage at center because they go three deep with top five draft picks but I give the Caps the edge on the wings. Both teams have potent power plays but the Caps were #2 in the league and can throw a variety of looks at you, as confirmed by Boudreau this afternoon.
“We’ve changed our power play so much all year and still been at 25% so I think it is a real advantage for us when we can, as a team, throw out many units doing many things and they’re all quality players so Tom [Poti] hadn’t played the point on the first unit in a long time and he did a great job. He might have to do it again,” said Boudreau.
When you just look at personnel this is a very evenly matched series and Boudreau stressed that his coaching team will highlight certain things about Pittsburgh but the focus will be on his own team.
“We’ve gone through a lot of video and I’m sure they’ve gone through our video and seen our tendencies and individualities and we go over that but we don’t want to harp on that too much. We want to do what we do well. We certainly would be remiss if we didn’t make the players aware of certain things that these players are really good at,” commented Boudreau on the film study of Pittsburgh.
I asked Boudreau about puck possession and how he defines it these days, given that many people consider both of these squads those type of teams.
“I don’t really know, I often wondered, they say they are a big puck possession team and I go, Wow, what is a puck possession team? They call us that all of the time and all I say is dump it in, get it deep. So I don’t know what the deal is. We’ve got guys who are pretty good stickhandlers but then so do they. I mean Detroit seems to have the puck all the time, not because they don’t want to dump it in, but because they are really good. So good teams are puck possession teams because they have it all of the time, that is the way I’m looking at it.”
Analyzing these quotes and info I think the Penguins focus will be on trying to rattle a young Varlamov, who has had nothing but success so far in his dozen games. Bylsma has already said they will try to get him moving back and forth and there is no doubt the Penguins will go hard to the net to create traffic. They may also try to throw pucks off the near backboards and out the far side like Pittsburgh used to do during their back to back Stanley Cup wins with Hall of Famer Larry Murphy running the power play and Mario Lemieux stationed on the opposite side of the net just waiting to one time the puck home. Pittsburgh likes to get out in transition, like the Caps do, and they will seek to create turnovers at their own blue line to try and counter attack Washington and receive odd man rushes.
Therefore, Washington will have to limit their turnovers and play a SIMPLE game like they did in games three, five, and six plus the third period of game seven against New York. Boudreau will be repeatedly telling his players over and over, especially guys like Ovechkin and Semin who fancy one on one moves and cross ice passes at the opponents blue line, to DUMP the puck behind the Penguins defense, then go get it, and outwork them. If I am Boudreau I am going with a strategy on Gonchar that the great Scotty Bowman mentions he used effectively against Hall of Fame defenseman Bobby Orr of Boston: dump the puck behind him and when he goes back to chase it pound him into the glass so that he becomes more turnover prone as the series wears on. The Caps can use their speed to stick handle at times when guys like Gill are on the ice but the type of puck possession strategy that Boudreau described of dumping the puck deep in the corners and half wall seems like the best way to use Washington’s excellent size and speed at forward. Gonchar can be giveaway happy and Caps fans remember all too well former Penguin Martin Straka picking Gonchar’s pocket at the Washington blue line and skating in alone on Olie Kolzig in game six for the series winner in 2001, the last two times these teams met in the playoffs (Pittsburgh has won six of the seven meetings with the only Caps win coming back in 1994).
Series Prediction: This series is an absolute coin toss. Past history between these teams doesn’t matter but playoff experience does so I am going with the Penguins. However, if Washington plays smart with the dump in game (the Alex’s must heed Boudreau’s advice for them to be come out on top) and limits their turnovers and penalties they could win this series instead. I’m picking the Penguins in six but if the Caps manage to force a game seven then Washington wins.
(1) Bruins vs. (6) Hurricanes
The NHL is four for four on good Conference semi-final match-ups as this one pits a very hot and fast Carolina team against an extremely hard working, top seeded in the East, Boston squad.
We’ll start with the goalies, Tim Thomas (Bruins) vs. Cam Ward (Hurricanes). Thomas led the NHL in save percentage during the regular season while Ward got red hot from February on and is playing at the level he was at when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup for the Canes in 2006. Thomas has an unorthodox style that sees him flop and throw his body all over the ice while Ward is the classic butterfly type goalie who goes down to the ice and tries to take up as much net as possible. I think this is a toss up but Ward has been real hot and has major past playoff success.
On defense, the Bruins have a big edge because of Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara who is on the back line with Denis Wideman, Aaron Ward, Steve Montador, and Shane Hnidy. Carolina’s defense will not scare you but they’ve been very effective the last three months. The defensive corps is led by Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo (both averaged 25 plus minutes in round one against New Jersey) and they also rely on their second pair of Denis Seidenberg and Tim Gleason to log around 20 minutes a game. Advantage: Bruins.
Up front for Carolina you have speed. Eric Staal (5 goals against Devils in round one) can skate as well as anyone and he has been on fire since the Canes re-acquired line mate Erik Cole from Edmonton at the NHL trade deadline. Ray Whitney is fast and is a sniper and they grind out goals with Chad LaRose, Jussi Jokinen, and Matt Cullen. Boston is loaded at forward but the debate about Marc Savard being a true #1 center rages on but based on his production he is playing at that level this season. The Bruins can get scoring from lots of players and Michael Ryder (4 goals in 4 games in first round against Montreal) performs well whenever he is coached by current Bruins bench boss, Claude Julien. Former Flames 2001 first round draft pick, Chuck Kobasew (3 points in 1st round), can flat out fly plus they have David Krejci, Phil Kessel (6 points in first round and appears to be finally over mononucleosis), Milan Lucic (brings power and toughness), and Mark Recchi (two time Stanley Cup winner – Pittsburgh in 1991 and Carolina in 2006). I think Staal is the best forward in the series but I give the edge to Boston because of their depth.
Given that Boston only had to play four games in the first round and Carolina went the distance against New Jersey, I expect the Canes to jump out and steal a game in Boston but I see the Bruins coming back and wearing the fast Hurricanes down. Another very close series, I’m tempted to go with a hot Carolina team but I just see too many good things from the Bruins. Boston in seven.