Talk about your marquee matchups! This series brings together the NHL's top three scorers during the regular season in Evgeni Malkin
, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby
, plus two of the three Hart Trophy finalists in Malkin and Ovechkin.
Now factor in some talented supporting casts, two coaches who emerged from the minor leagues to enjoy NHL success and some harsh words between Crosby and Ovechkin during the regular season and this series becomes must-see TV.
It all starts with Alex Ovechkin, but it became abundantly clear against the Rangers that it does not end with No. 8. The Capitals have an arsenal of weapons.
Nicklas Backstrom may already be the leader of this team and he's just 21 years old. The Swedish center has captain written all over him. He also had seven assists against the Rangers after dishing out 66 during the regular season. Alexander Semin is the Capitals' other big-time weapon. He plays on Backstrom's right side and had five goals against the Rangers.
The Caps found a fantastic energy line when coach Bruce Boudreau put Brooks Laich, David Steckel and Matt Bradley together in Game 5 against New York. Bradley had two goals in Game 5 and Steckel had a pair of assists in Game 6. They were broken up in Game 7. Sergei Fedorov, he of Game 7 fame, and Viktor Kozlov can't be forgotten either. Captain Chris Clark being healthy is a big boost.
The tandem of Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
were great early and late in the first-round defeat of the Flyers, combining for 8 goals and 17 points, including 2 goals and 2 assists in the Game 6 clincher.
The Pens' best line, though, was the trio of Jordan Staal
, Tyler Kennedy
and Matt Cooke
, which provided grit, lock-down defense and a good helping of offense.
What the Pens need, though, is for more of their offensive talent to the step to the fore. Outside of a few big hits, Chris Kunitz
was barely noticeable against the Flyers. Bill Guerin had two goals on eight shots in Game 2, and no goals on 10 shots the rest of the series. Ruslan Fedotenko had one assist until his two-point effort in Game 6. To reach their ultimate goal, the Penguins' scoring needs to be more of a group effort than it was against Philadelphia.
Even though Mike Green is a Norris Trophy candidate, the Caps' defensemen were much maligned during the regular season. They were excellent in the first round against the Rangers, who until Game 7 couldn't get their offense moving through the neutral zone and rarely got a cycle going down low.
Green and Shaone Morrisonn have a great yin and yang connection. Morrisonn provides the boom and Green the bang. John Erskine was one of the better Capitals in the first round with his simple, stay-at-home style. Erskine's defense partner, Brian Pothier, was just as steady after sitting out Game 1.
Tom Poti showed what he can do with the puck in Game 6 against New York as he had a goal and three assists. Milan Jurcina also scored that afternoon and was solid throughout the series.
It was a solid team effort against Philadelphia, as the Flyers' vaunted offensive depth never really hurt them. Jeff Carter, second in goals in the regular season, had just one in the series, as did 30-goal scorers Mike Richards and Scott Hartnell. Simon Gagne, who had 34 regular-season goals, had just one assist and a minus-4 rating in the final three games of the series.
There also was a nice offensive contribution, as six of the seven defensemen who played had at least a point. Mark Eaton, who had just four goals in 68 regular-season games, had two against Philadelphia.
The Pens have to tighten their defensive-zone spacing, however, Philadelphia was able to spread them wide and open lanes for long passes.
After Jose Theodore allowed four goals in Game 1 against the Rangers, a 20-year-old rookie from Russia named Simeon Varlamov was called upon in Game 2. He wound up winning four games, including two via shutout, and limited the Rangers to just seven goals in six games. He turned 21 Monday. He looks it, but he doesn't play like it.Marc-Andre Fleury
stole Game 4 with a 45-save effort and kept the Penguins in Game 6 once the team fell into a 3-0 hole. He wasn't spectacular, but he gives his teammates the confidence that he'll make all the important plays.
Washington's Bruce Boudreau made arguably the biggest decision of his NHL coaching career when he turned to Varlamov after just one game against the Rangers. The young Russian made Boudreau look like a genius even though the coach refuses to take credit. Boudreau made all the right moves against New York.
Dan Bylsma passed his first playoff test. He wasn't afraid to make lineup changes, and he showed a willingness to change things during games. He still needs to right the power play, but Bylsma showed he could push his team the right way.
The Caps' power play got stymied at times by the Rangers, who had the best penalty kill in the NHL during the regular season. Still, it scored 18.2 percent of the time (6-for-33) and has the potential for more. Their penalty kill was very good (87.1 percent), but New York also had the League's second worst power play in the regular season.
The Penguins' power play was atrocious, going 1-for-19 in the final four games against Philadelphia. There's too much talent there for this to happen.
Pittsburgh did a great job killing penalties, as Philadelphia's sixth-ranked regular-season attack scored just once on its last 16 power plays.Simeon Varlamov, Washington
-- There are plenty of players in this series that we can name here, but since we still have so little knowledge of Varlamov he has to be the guy. He was physically and mentally tough enough in the first round, but the body of work is still small enough that he's got question marks surrounding him.Capitals will win if...
All the stars shine bright - they'll probably need more than three goals from Ovechkin - and Varlamov continues to play like he doesn't even know he's in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their defensemen also have to be better than they were against the Rangers, and that's not a knock on Green, Morrisonn, Erskine, Pothier, Poti and Jurcina because they were darn good in the first round.Penguins will win if...
They win the battle down the middle. With Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
forming one of the best 1-2 punches in the League, the Penguins need both pivots to be operating at full capacity to cause the kind of matchup headaches that can force Washington to move away from its game plan.