No matter the sport, there will always be a pair of players seemingly intertwined and compared on a daily basis. Whether it was Magic and Bird or Kobe and LeBron in the NBA or Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa in the MLB or even Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the NFL… The NHL is no different. It has been Crosby and Ovechkin since the start of the 21st century. And after a seven-year wait the media-built rivalry takes center stage in Round 2 of the NHL Playoffs.
The last time these two superstars met with so much on the line was in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, where a 21-year-old Sidney Crosby led his Penguins to a 4-3 series win over then-23-year-old Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals. It was a series that captivated the hockey world with three overtime games and a memorable Game 2 where the faces of hockey traded hat-tricks in a game for the ages.
Fast forward some 2,500 days, approximately, and the duo are set to light the hockey world on fire again.
It was an up-and-down season for the Penguins to say the least. They battled shaky goaltending and an inconsistent offense but still managed to get hot at the right time and get into the postseason. Compiling a 48-26-8 record for the season, the Pens finished second (behind Washington) in the Metropolitan Division and were greeted with a first-round playoff series against a pesky New York Rangers team. It was a quick series for the most part and the outcome was never really in doubt. The Penguins were far too fast and skilled and had much too much depth for the Rangers to contend with. The series was over in five games, and the Pens should be ready to go come puck drop on Thursday night.
Waiting for them in the second round is the Presidents Trophy-winning Capitals. The same Capitals who won an amazing 56 games on the season, which was good enough for 120 points. Washington was finally able to dispose of Philadelphia in six games despite leading the series 3-0. Many talking heads were quick to point out the lack of postseason success the Caps have had recently despite dominating the regular season each year. Thankfully for those in the DC area, the series was not lost and the quest for Lord Stanley is still in tact.
The season series between these two division rivals favors the Penguins 3-2. Each time the visiting team was victorious.
As of this writing, 5Dimes favors the Capitals at -120 to win the series. The Capitals are still the favorites to win the East at +135 and are +380 for Ovechkin to hoist the Cup for the first time in his career. If you like Sid the Kid, you can get him and his Penguins at EVEN for the series, +170 for the East and +400 to capture their first Cup since 2009.
But before you make up your mind, let me help you understand who should have the edge in terms of goaltending, offensive production, defensive resilience and everyone's favorite category - special teams.
It's a "goaltending-by-committee" type of approach these days for the Penguins, who have been anxiously awaiting the return of ever-present starter Marc-Andre Fleury. The Quebec native has been battling concussion-like symptoms from a hit to the head suffered on March 31. This unfortunate injury has opened the door for 21-year old rookie Matt Murray, and the Thunder Bay native has played well in his first postseason rodeo.
Murray was solid in the first round against the Rangers. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound product posted a .955 save percentage while allowing only four goals in his three winning starts. It's a slippery slope for most tendys now a-days. Between confident and cocky. Next up for the confident rookie is a date with the highest-scoring team in the league and the best pure goal-scorer since Brett Hull. Good luck, rook.
One win away from equalling the most wins by a goalie in a season, Braden Holtby was given the last game of the regular season off to rest and be prepared to do whatever it takes to win 16 postseason games. Four wins down. Twelve to go.
There is no getting around the fact that Holtby is the Vezina Trophy favourite, and rightly so. He dominated this season, leading the league in wins (48) and finishing fifth overall in goals-against average at 2.20. That level of play continued in the postseason against the Flyers with Holtby posting a 0.84 GAA and a .968 save percentage. He is the type of goalie that is able to bail out sloppy play and steal a game on any given night. He's the tender you want when the playoffs roll around. Barring an epic meltdown from Holtby, a series loss will almost certainly not fall on his shoulders. It will be up to the defense to play a solid 60 minutes and keep the mistakes to a minimum.
I feel like this series is like when you first dip your toe in a pool - not so bad - then jump right in and end up freezing your tail off for about five minutes.
Both Pittsburgh and Washington got away with playing lower-scoring teams in the first round and were just fine. And now that these two offensive powerhouses are set to play each other, the defensive aspect of both teams will surely be questioned.
The Penguins have never been considered a defensive team at any point since Sidney Crosby has been there, but they very well must be in order to navigate the second round of the playoffs.
The Pens rely on a mixed bag of defensive players who have played above their head the last month or so of the regular season. Led by Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, the team's first pairing, defensive depth is not something the Penguins have at an elite level, and that could come back to haunt them. With a rookie goalie behind them, the Pens defensive core must play near-perfect hockey and eliminate mistakes and clear the rebounds out of the danger zones. It would also help to block as many shots as possible.
For the season, the Penguins gave up only 2.43 goals per game on 30 shots against. Not a bad statistic at all. However, I do believe the key to the Pen's success is outscoring the opponent and winning high-scoring games. That's something that doesn't happen all too often in the postseason.
Washington, on the other hand, had the benefit of an almost record setting goalie, which skews their defensive numbers just a bit. They allowed only 2.33 goals per game on 28.5 shots.
Washington boasts a deep and disciplined blue line, but the Caps will miss Brooks Orpik. He's a rock on the ice and one of the leaders in the dressing room. Matt Niskanen and Carlson will log the heavy minutes, but the pressure will be on depth defenders Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to up their games to fill in for the missing vet.
It will also help the cause for the defense to continue putting up points. The Caps had four defensemen top 20 points for the season, with John Carlson leading the way with 39. He also scored three power-play goals in the first round.
I feel as if both teams have liabilities on the blue line and thus can only give an unofficial edge to the Caps based on point production.
Edge: Tie (Caps)
The Penguins offense absolutely torched the Rangers for 21 goals over the short five-game series. They were able to chase perennial All-Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist from the net in Games 4 and 5. They are averaging more than four goals per game and have all four lines pitching in with production.
The Pens were led by their main guys in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who combined for five goals and 20 points against the Rangers. What's makes them even more dangerous is that they were able to run four lines and get solid production up and down the lineup.
The third line of Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin combined for four goals and 12 points. The fourth line chipped in with four goals and nine points. That's a nice luxury to have as a coach.
Obviously, the competition gets much tougher with time and space a rare occurrence in the second round. Sid and Evgeni will need to continue to lead the way if the Pens are going to make a trip to the ECF. If not, the law of averages say the secondary scoring is bound to drop drastically, which could mark the end of the Penguins postseason.
In my opinion, Ovechkin is one of the greatest pure goal scorers in league history. There are not too many players like him in today's game or in any era for that matter. He combines size, speed, skill and a rocket-like shot to boot. He is the leader of this Capitals team and as "The Great 8" goes, so do the Capitals.
"Ovi" is going to need to be at his absolute beast in this series because the Capitals are seriously lacking scoring depth from other lines. They were able to muster only two goals in the final three games against Philadelphia and will be hard pressed to keep pace in this one.
Next to Ovechkin, the pressure will fall on the shoulders of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored just once in the opening series and failed to register an assist. He finished the regular season with 57 helpers, which was good enough for fourth overall.
It should be a high-scoring affair and the likely candidates should shine and put up points. Secondary scoring will be key, and I think the team firing on all cylinders up and down the lineup will get the job done.
The Penguins power play connected at an amazing 38.1 percent in the opening series, tallying at least one PPG in every game. Surely they can't maintain that pace.
It will go against a Capitals penalty kill that was able to kill off 22 of 23 times shorthanded.
It's pretty much as much of a tossup as you can get when comparing both team's special teams.
I hope for the game's sake that the refs let them play and both teams stay disciplined and settle this series at even-strength 5-o-5.
In this situation the edge always goes to the penalty killers, so chalk one up for Washington.
It's a series many people have been waiting for since it happened in 2009. Crosby vs Ovechkin.
While Sidney has the upper hand in the amount of Stanley Cup rings, "Ovi" has been playing at a much higher level for much of the last couple of seasons.
However, this series won't be won or lost with these two players but rather by the supporting cast.
Should Pittsburgh fail to receive the same kind of secondary scoring it did in Round 1, scoring on the best goalie left in the playoffs is going to be a daunting task. If Washington is able to find some secondary scoring, we might see a rookie goaltender crumble before our very eyes.
It will be a fun series to watch but I think the goaltending matchup skews in favor of Washington by a considerable margin. I would put my money on the Capitals at such a short series price.
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