As time ticked down in game five against the Rangers, Consol Energy Center stood on their feet – 20,000 strong – screaming and cheering on their beloved Pens, who were about to wrap up a convincing 6-3 victory over the New York Rangers. As the horn blows and the clock hits 0:00, fans become more ecstatic and the team celebrates a great series, where, except for two periods of hockey, they pretty much dominated. But you know the celebration wouldn’t last long. Nope, not this team. Yeah, they wanted to get the monkey off their back and beat the Rangers in the playoffs, but that’s not their goal. Their goal is to win 12 more games. And the next day, their next opponent would be revealed to be the opponent that is sure to be hyped up: the Washington Capitals.
Now, this would be a great match up to see in the Eastern Conference Finals, but thanks to the seeding in the NHL (a different topic for a different time), it will have to be right now. Nevertheless, whichever team wins this series will be heavily favored in the Conference Finals. The Capitals were the NHL’s best team in the regular season and the Penguins were 2nd in the East in points, 4th in the NHL. As I said before, it will be a series of big hype. It marks the second time we’ll see Crosby vs. Ovechkin in the playoffs, and they have a lot to do to upstage what they did in 2009. The Caps/Pens match-up that year was a classic series, and the two superstars lived up to the hype. Now, there are other things to focus on in this series, and I’m here to point them out to you.
Crosby vs. Ovechkin
I’ll start out with the marquee match-up of this series. Like I said before, they have a lot to do to live up to the 2009 series. In all seven games, Ovechkin recorded 14 points, and Crosby recorded 13 points. They each seemed to carry their teams on their backs and lift them up to another level. The Penguins prevailed in seven games. Since the series, Crosby has won a Stanley Cup and captured other individual achievements, but many in the hockey world believed Crosby would’ve won more Cups by now, but a Penguins dynasty never started. Crosby is motivated to win again. He looks more focused than ever since 2009. Ovechkin on the other hand, has not lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup, much less reached the Finals. He’s proven that he’s the most prolific goal-scorer of this generation and recorded his 500th goal this season. He has every reason to have a chip on his shoulder. At the end of the day, Ovechkin wants a Cup. And this year, he probably has the best chance to win. This is the best team he’s been on in his career. Both superstars want it. It should be fun to watch them go at it again. I believe Crosby has an advantage over Ovechkin. While Ovechkin can change the course of a game with a single shot, Crosby impacts his team in more ways, which gives an advantage when trying to win four out of seven games.
What About the Other Superstars?
Crosby and Ovechkin aren’t the only superstars on these teams. The Penguins have Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel. The Capitals have T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, and Braden Holtby. The roles of these players will be just as vital. Malkin seems to have shaken off the rust of missing several weeks, and Letang and Kessel and been arguably the most consistent Penguins since about February. Oshie is ultra-talented, Backstrom is about as consistent and reliable as they come, and Holtby has had a breakout season. The lone player that stands out of this group is Malkin. When he’s on, nobody in hockey is better. Nobody. And if he heats up in this series, look out.
Size vs. Speed
This is the match-up I believe to be the most crucial. The Capitals size vs. the Penguins speed. Both can be overwhelming for the opponent. It will truly be the most telling factor in this series. For the Penguins to win, winning puck battles is the key in beating Washington. Don’t allow Washington to sustain a forecheck in the offensive zone, or they will wear you down, especially in front of the net. While Matt Murray has been unreal in these playoffs, he will still need help clearing the garbage in front of the net. The best thing to do though is limit Washington’s pressure. Keep the puck out of the zone. The Penguins will need to put the pressure on in the neutral and offensive zones. Washington’s defense lacks speed, so put them on their heels. Attack them at full speed. Win puck battles in the corners when on the forecheck. The Penguins’ third and fourth lines are great at this, and if they can keep it up, they’ll have success.
My X-factor for this series is Conor Sheary. He ended up being a difference maker in the Rangers series. And when he’s skating the way he has been, he can wreak havoc on a team’s ability to make good decisions with the puck. I love watching this kid play. He fits in with this team, because he is special. And putting him on a line with Crosby has only made him step his game up.
Both teams don’t have many injuries. The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury is still dealing with concussion symptoms, and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he’ll be ready soon. I’d expect Matt Murray to play this entire series. It’ll be a great test for the 21 year-old goaltender. Washington’s Brooks Orpik doesn’t seem like he’ll play in game one, but we’ll see. He’s still recovering from a big hit in the series against the Flyers. Karl Alzner has had back-to-back maintenance days, which could be a concern for Washington. Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary also had back-to-back maintenance days, but head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t seem concerned about Sheary missing any game time. He just said it was just bumps and bruises.
Ultimately, I think the Capitals are a great team. They can score, they can beat you up, they can play defense, and they have one of the better goalies in the league. There’s a reason why they won the President’s Trophy. However, I think the Penguins have just as vicious of a forecheck as Washington and the Penguins speed is ridiculous. I think each game will be close. They are both great teams. It’ll be another great series.
Penguins in six. Buckle up baby!
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