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Caps, Pens Hook Up in Star-Studded Set

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
The National Hockey League, its fans and the hockey media will be treated to a dream match-up when the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins face off against one another in an Eastern Conference Semifinal Series. Since the start of the 2005-06 season when Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby emerged as two of the game’s top young talents, the Caps and Pens have been on a constant collision course, but the series that starts on Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center marks the first postseason meeting between the two clubs in eight years.

For the third straight playoff series, the Caps will face down a former Patrick Division foe. Washington was ousted in a seven-game set with the Philadelphia Flyers last year and the Caps just completed a victorious seven-game set with the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Now it faces another familiar springtime foe in Pittsburgh.

This spring marks the eighth time the Capitals and Penguins have done battle in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it will be just the second time the two teams have met beyond the first round. The first-ever playoff meeting between the Caps and Pens occurred in the Patrick Division Final (second round) of the 1991 Stanley Cup playoffs. Pittsburgh captured that series in five games on its way to the first of its two successive Cup titles.

Washington and Pittsburgh went head-to-head in the playoffs seven times in 11 years starting with that 1991 match-up. The Penguins won six of the previous seven series, inflicting some serious damage on the collective psyche of the Washington fan base in the process. The current Caps roster is young enough to have no memory of those past springtime heartaches here in the District. One of those who wore Washington colors in those days, defenseman Sergei Gonchar, now skates for the Penguins.

It was Gonchar’s defensive zone giveaway that resulted in Martin Straka’s overtime game-winner, a tally that bounced the Caps from the playoffs the last time these two old rivals met in the postseason in 2001.

While there may be more than an undercurrent of those old wars still coursing through the veins of longtime Caps faithful, this year’s Caps-Pens series is much more about the flock of top young talent on both benches.

Both teams have built largely through the draft, and have drafted well, especially with their early picks in this decade. Pittsburgh has had more top five Entry Draft choices than Washington by a 5-3 count, so the Pens’ rebuild has always been a step ahead of that of the Capitals. Pittsburgh made it back to the playoffs first, and the Pens advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup finals last spring before succumbing to the Red Wings.

The Capitals and Penguins both boast two of the league’s top 10 regular season scorers and a lot of the league’s postseason hardware from the last two campaigns. Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin led the league with 113 points in 2008-09 while teammate Crosby ended up third with 103 points. Washington’s Ovechkin was second with 110 points and his top setup man Nicklas Backstrom finished with 88 points, tied for ninth in the NHL. Ovechkin led the NHL in scoring last season and Crosby did so in 2006-07.

Malkin and Ovechkin are two of the three finalists for the 2009 Hart Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s most valuable player. Crosby won the Hart in 2007 and Ovechkin took it last season. Ovechkin won a second straight Maurice Richard Trophy (most regular season goals) in 2008-09.

Malkin leads all postseason skaters in the league with 10 points. Backstrom leads all players with seven assists. And Washington’s Alexander Semin’s five goals are good for a share of the playoff lead in that department. In the Capitals’ Mike Green and Pittsburgh’s Gonchar, both clubs boast one of the league’s top offensive-minded blueliners.

In the Caps’ Simeon Varlamov and the Pens’ Marc-Andre Fleury, both teams feature goaltenders drafted in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft who figure to be between the pipes for their respective teams throughout the foreseeable future. The Pens hold an edge in that area; Fleury has been his team’s No. 1 netminder since the lockout ended four seasons ago. The 24-year-old backstopped his team to the Stanley Cup finals last season.

Varlamov, who turned 21 the day before turning back the Rangers in Game 7 of the opening round, has just six games worth of regular season NHL experience and six games worth of postseason NHL experience.

Pittsburgh struggled through the midsection of the 2008-09 regular season, and it was on the outside looking in on the playoff picture with less than two months remaining in the season. Penguins GM Ray Shero made some bold moves in the span of a few weeks, firing coach Michel Therrien and dealing for rugged wingers Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz.

Installed on Crosby’s flanks, both Guerin and Kunitz made their presence felt. Guerin had five goals and a dozen points in 17 games with the Pens after coming over from the Islanders. Kunitz contributed seven goals and 18 points in his 20 regular season games with the Penguins.

Replacement coach Dan Bylsma led the Pens to an impressive 18-3-4 record over the team’s final 25 regular season games after taking over from Therrien. The surge was enough the earn the Pens a home-ice advantage playoff spot for the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Pittsburgh outscored Philadelphia 18-15 in taking a six-game set from the Flyers in the opening round. Four was the magic number for the Penguins in their opening round set: the Pens got four goals from Malkin, four from Crosby, four on the power play and four from defensemen.

Pittsburgh’s power play was just 4-for-32 (12.5%) against the Flyers and it was a mere 1-for-19 (5.3%) in the final four games of the series.

Fleury fashioned a 2.39 GAA and a .922 save pct. in the first round against the Flyers.

Almost immediately after victory over Philly had been secured, Bylsma had the “interim” removed from his title. He is fully on board as the bench boss now and will be leading the Penguins into the 2009-10 season.

Washington soared to a franchise record 108 points in 2008-09, matching the club standard with 50 wins along the way.

While the Pens were among the league’s more active teams in the days leading up to the NHL trade deadline, the Capitals stood pat, surprising some observers in the process. The Caps cruised to a second straight Southeast Division crown using largely the same cast of characters that a late-season charge to a division title in 2007-08.

Three players who did not play for the Capitals in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs saw action in this year’s first-round series against the Rangers, adding some postseason depth to an already strong Washington roster.

Most notably, goaltender Simeon Varlamov replaced goaltender Jose Theodore (winner of 32 regular season games for the Caps) to start Game 2 against the Rangers. Varlamov spun a pair of shutouts against the Blueshirts, allowing just seven goals in six games after Theodore had surrendered four in Game 1. The Russian rookie’s 1.17 playoff GAA is tops in the NHL and his .952 save pct. is second best in the circuit.

Defenseman Brian Pothier played in a handful of late-season games after missing 15 months because of post-concussion symptoms. He stepped into the lineup in Game 2 of the series against New York after blueliner Jeff Schultz was hurt in the opener. Paired with rearguard John Erskine, Pothier skated an average of 16:18 in half a dozen playoff games, picking up an assist and posting a plus-1 defensive rating. He helped a stingy Washington blueline that allowed just 23.7 shots on goal per game, the lowest mark of any of the 16 first-round participants.

After veteran enforcer Donald Brashear was tagged with a six-game suspension prior to Game 7, the Caps turned to captain Chris Clark. A 30-goal scorer in 2006-07, Clark was limited to a total of just 50 games in the last two seasons combined because of a string of debilitating injuries. The rugged captain suited up for Game 7 and was very effective in skating 8:13 in a fourth line role, his first action of any kind after undergoing wrist surgery three months earlier.

“There seemed to be a letdown around the trading deadline when we didn’t make certain moves,” admits Caps general manager George McPhee. “I would have liked to have done something. But the guys we were interested in weren’t traded, and there really wasn’t anything else that we thought would be better than Brian Pothier or would be better than Chris Clark. And to give up something to get guys that aren’t better than what we already have didn’t make sense.

“There was some risk in holding back and not making a move. We rolled the dice hoping Pothier might be able to play. We didn’t know; he had been out a year and a half. We didn’t know whether Chris Clark would be back. And to have those guys come back in, and then to have the young goalie do what he has done in this series, it sure makes you feel good about what you’ve been trying to do.”

Besides great goaltending from Varlamov and sturdy defense (and four goals) from a largely unheralded group of blueliners, the Caps got goals from 10 different skaters and six power play goals from six different sources in its opening-round triumph over the Rangers.

Washington will need more of the same against the Penguins. Pittsburgh’s attack is deeper and more dynamic than New York’s, and the Penguins’ sleepy power play is bound to awaken at some point in the upcoming set.


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