It’s getting a little played out, isn’t it? Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are two of the best players in the game. They’ve proved that over the past 11 years. Ovechkin with his goal scoring prowess, and electric celebrations, and Crosby with his steady domination and stoic demeanor. They are two players, fun to watch, often the center of attention, but hardly the fascinating story-line they once were. Crosby was the polite Canadian, Ovechkin the outlandish Russian. They came into the league at the same time, so different, yet so talented. It was inevitable they were going to be compared. The NHL needed a hero, and an adversary, and the duo fit those roles perfectly.
The first time they met in the playoffs, it was outstanding. Both players were on fire, Ovechkin had more points, but Crosby’s team won the series. The media-born (and fueled) rivalry was essentially the only talking point, and at that point in time, it was understandable. We’ve been debating for years which player is better, but does anyone even care anymore? Both guys have shown they’re elite. Both are likely going to be in the Hall of Fame when all is said and done. This series is going to get a lot of attention because it features two of the leagues marquee players, but there is so much more intrigue than an exaggerated rivalry.
It makes for great headlines though, doesn’t it? And the NHL got exactly what it wanted because of the ridiculous playoff seeding format. You will have those who still want to see these two guys go head to head, and make it all about them. And let’s face it, seeing two stars on top of their game would be awesome. But both the Penguins and Capitals have proven this season that they are about far more than just their star players. These are two fantastic teams. To me, the number of points Crosby and Ovie get in comparison to each other is irrelevant. What matters most is who advances to the next round, and it doesn’t matter how they do it. I can give you a few storylines that are a lot more juicy.
1.Can the Capitals slay their playoff demons?
We’ve been here before with the Washington Capitals. They’ve been the best team in the league before. They’ve been the Cup favorites before. But ever since Alex Ovechkin broke into the league, the Caps have been the quintessential playoff choker, lighting it up in the regular season, folding when it matters most. But I would venture to say that there’s something different about this Capitals squad. They didn’t just win the President’s Trophy, they dominated their way to it. Barry Trotz has coached his team to perfection. He is getting the best out of everyone, and it shows in their team play.
But for the Capitals, anything less than a Stanley Cup finals appearance will likely be seen as a disappointment. Their stellar regular season should be worth more, but we all know that playoffs and championships trump all. Alex Ovechkin has never played in a conference final. Counting this season, he’s been to the second round five times, being eliminated the previous four (this year to be determined). At the age of 30, and with all his individual trophies and accolades, it’s time for Ovechkin to take the next step. The good thing for him, though, is that the window is hardly closing. He is still on fire in his personal play, and the Caps are going to be good for a long time.
That said, another second-round exit will just continue to feed into the narrative that Ovechkin and the Caps are chokers, and can’t win when all the chips are down. It would be no shame to fall to the Penguins, who are excellent in their own right. But the Caps have their sights set way higher than a semi-final. The question is, can they shake the ghosts of the past. Except for the sweep at the hands of the Lightning in 2011, every series loss has gone to seven games, which means the Caps were always good enough, they just couldn’t seal the deal.
Imagine going the distance all those times, yet still falling short. It stings, and it doesn’t sit well with a competitor like Alex Ovechkin. There is hunger in that Capitals dressing room. Will it be enough to overcome?
2. Who will play in goal for the Penguins?
When the Penguins started their first round match-up against the New York Rangers, they had neither their first nor second string goalie in net, and managed to go 1-1. These aren’t the Montreal Canadiens. They are a complete team, and have proven they can win no matter who is between the pipes. Having said that, the Rangers are not the Capitals. Whoever will be starting for the Pens is going to face a lot more rubber. The question is, what happens if Marc-Andre Fleury is healthy and ready to go?
Fleury suffered a concussion against the Nashville Predators and hasn’t played since. He was practicing, then he stopped practicing, then he was back practicing. He didn’t see any action in round one, but time is on his side. The second round likely won’t get underway until Thursday at the earliest. But the Pens aren’t desperate for his return. Rookie Matt Murray has been outstanding since his call-up, even after facing injury questions of his own. The defence in front of him was tight, so there are some not giving him enough credit, but we all know that a team plays differently when they are confident in their netminder. Murray has brought in a steadiness and reliability, and right now, he’s got the hot hand.
The minute Fleury is OK, he plays. No question. Murray has done great, but Fleury’s the guy. “Hot hand” nonsense=just that, nonsense.
— Mark Madden (@MarkMaddenX) April 25, 2016
Fleury kept the Penguins competitive in the early-going when the rest of the team was MIA. But don’t think for a moment that it’s a sure thing Fleury gets the crease back. He hasn’t played since April 2nd. Throwing a cold goaltender in against one of the most explosive offensives in the league may not be the best idea. And the Pens next option isn’t just some back-up. Murray is a star in waiting. He’s been unflappable under pressure. I would stick with him until he loses. The great news for Fleury, however, is that he can really take his time getting healthy. The Pens don’t need him. At least not yet.
3. The Penguins resurgence is on full display
The biggest difference between the Pens and Caps is that Pittsburgh has won a Cup in the past 10 years. Other than that, you can argue both have been huge playoff under-achievers. The Pens were supposed to be a dynasty with Crosby and Malkin in tow, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Injuries and poor depth has plagued this team since 2011, culminating with a pathetic five game bow-out to the Rangers last season. But this is a completely different squad. Since making their coaching change mid-season, the Pens have gotten better in every facet of the game.
The Penguins seemed like a team with a quickly closing window, no prospect depth, and no hope as their stars continued to age. But when Mike Sullivan came onto the scene, everything changed. This season is a little reminiscent of 2009, their Cup-winning year, when a new coach and shrewd trades put them over the top. Matt Cullen has found the fountain of youth. Phil Kessel is finally delivering when they need him the most. Their young players have come up huge. And don’t forget the Trevor Daley for Rob Scuderi trade. Let’s just say that made up for the Ben Lovejoy/Simon Despres swap of last season.
The Penguins are no one trick pony. They can score, but they can defend just as well. They clog up the neutral zone, and then they can kill you with their speed. But for as well as the Pens have been playing, they are facing a different animal in the Capitals. Washington is a complete team, with no apparent weaknesses. They will stifle you defensively, and then eat your lunch on the powerplay. The Pens are the underdog. This isn’t like 2009. They have a huge task ahead of them. But the Caps would be well served not to take Pittsburgh lightly.
4. Which team has the upper hand in this series?
Regular season records don’t mean much in the postseason, although the Penguins did win the match-up three games to two. If nothing else, they come into the series with the confidence that they can beat the Capitals. They have also been red-hot for the past two months, whereas it seemed as though the Caps kind of let their foot off the gas once they ran away with first place. The Flyers gave them a bit of a scare, but make no mistake. They were still the better team by far. Michal Neuvirth is the only reason the Caps didn’t sweep. The Flyers weren’t able to score much, because even if you are able to penetrate their defence, you have to contend with Braden Holtby, who pretty much stops everything he sees.
The biggest edge that the Capitals have is their physical play. The Pens are built on speed. They aren’t going to grind you into the ground. If you want to beat the Pens, hit them, and keep hitting them. (Yes, I know the Rangers tried that and failed, but it worked in game two, and Washington is just flat out better. The Pens themselves acknowledged they can’t play a physical game because it’s not who they are). The Caps finally have the battle tested guys they’ve needed for years. They have the experience and the depth. But, so do the Penguins, albeit in a different way. Both these teams are built to accentuate the strengths of individual players and talents.
Will the Pens be able to handle a heavy Caps squad? Will the Caps be able to match the Pens current level of play? It should be a great series, even though it’s headlined by just two players who care far less about each other than they do winning a championship.