The West kicks off tonight, so let’s get the previews done before we settle in for what really is shaping up as a pretty intriguing second round (except for Sens-Rangers, and that has Erik Karlsson).
HOLY FUCKING SHIT CAPITALS-PENGUINS!!!
Look, any hockey fan worth his or her salt has known this was going to happen in the second round and that it’s essentially the Stanley Cup Final. Barring some injury weirdness or Henrik Lundqvist going Fantastic Four in net or something equally unpredictable, either of these teams is going to annihilate the Rangers or Senators. These are the two best teams in the NHL by some distance. This is the Steamboat-Macho Man to the Final’s Hogan-Andre The Giant. I doubt we’ll remember the Final as much as we’ll remember what might happen here. Instead of rolling our eyes at the same matchup for the second year in a row and our exhaustion of the NHL trying to force this down our throats for years before both teams were ready to provide classic series years in a row, we should just be anxious to watch the best the sport is going to offer.
The only downside, and it may not be much of one, is that this isn’t a full-strength Penguins team. Kris Letang is their best d-man, as well as the biggest potential to have a highly comedic meltdown on the ice. Hagelin and Kunitz may return. Matt Murray had usurped the job from Marc-Andre Fleury, but Fleury was more than good enough in round one and for most of the season. Still, putting up a .933 against the Jackets is one thing. Doing it against the army of ninjas that the Caps present at forward is quite another.
I’ve been bullish on the Caps all year. Yes, I know they’re “THE CAPS” and they always find a way to get a chunk of salami lodged in their throat. I know Barry Trotz hasn’t ever been to the conference final with them or Nashville and can occasionally coach while turning blue. But every team is the “TEAM THAT CAN’T GET IT DONE” until they are. And while you’d like a better track record for Trotz, looking over it the only series he lost that you think should have gone better was in Nashville against Arizona. And Mike Smith threw a .940 at them in those five games anyway. Last year’s series could have gone either way, and the Pens were playing the best hockey for months before it.
There’s just too much talent here. They have four lines that can score. Alzner should be back which gives them three pairings. Even Nate Schmidt looked like a weapon against the Leafs. Kirk ShattenKevin hasn’t quite worked out the way they hoped, but he’s still a really good puck-mover.
The problem for the Caps is how you solve Malkin, not Crosby. Crosby will be fighting fire with fire, whether that’s Backstrom in a #1 line battle or Beagle as their top checking assignment. That leaves Malkin to lay to waste easier competition, which he did to the tune of 11 points in five games against Columbus. The Caps have a far better supporting cast, but that’s pretty dynamic. Still, Johansson-Kuznetsov-Williams lives in the same territory as Malkin on the other side. They combined for 14 points against the Jackets. This line is going to have to match if not best Malkin’s.
Another thing worth watching is Trotz hasn’t used his fourth line as much as you’d think, though I guess I wouldn’t put Tom Wilson out there much if I didn’t have to either. Considering the pace at which this series could be played, fatigue could always be an issue, especially if the overtimes pile up. But this seems nitpicking.
It’s hockey. These games are going to be close, and close hockey games are always beholden to the whims of fate. A bounce here and there and either team can win in six or seven games. That’s basically what happened last year. Three games went to OT, the Penguins won two, there’s your ballgame. It’s probably going to be the same thing. All things being equal, the Caps are just deeper. The Pens are on their second-choice goalie. There’s no way the Penguins to play this that the Caps can’t conceivably do better. Track meet it, the Caps can do that. Want to dial it back? The Caps blue line is just better. So is their goalie. But this is hockey, few things are equal. Still, it’s their time. Caps in 7.
One day we’ll watch the Rangers play an interesting series. I just don’t know when that will be. Really, the only thing about this one that’s worth tuning in is to soak up more Erik Karlsson time, who is dragging big bag of bums to this round. And they had to heave and sweat and bleed to get past a whack-ass Bruins team. The Rangers got past a poorly managed, drunken Frankenstein of a team in the Canadiens that were simply not constructed for the game as it is today.
So each team needed breaks to get here. Neither team has anything close to a #1 center. The only really premier scoring winger is Rick Nash… five years ago. Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman are two of the most underrated forwards in the league, but they’re not enough to put a team over. Both teams have basically one d-man, Karlsson and McDonagh, and a bunch of trash after it they have to make up for. Brendan Smith, Cody Ceci, Dion Phaneuf, Nick Holden…these are some of the names in this round. Fuck me.
Most are picking the Rangers because of Lundqvist, and he was great in the first round, but I don’t know how big of an advantage that is over Anderson, who can go white-hot his own damn self.
One of these teams has Karlsson, who is the only game-breaker on either bench. If he stays healthy, this will go seven slog games and the Sens take it. Sens in 7.