Second-round preview: Caps vs. Pens

Updated: April 30, 2009, 1:03 PM ET
By Scott Burnside |

Of the four remaining series, is there any that will approach the buzz and drama around the first postseason meeting between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin? Or the sub-drama of the rivalry between Ovechkin and new scoring champ Evgeni Malkin? In a word, no.

This series will be viewed through prisms that will extend far beyond the wins and losses, goals and saves. The series suggests a greater meaning, whether any of it is true or not. This is the kind of series NHL folks have warm, fuzzy dreams about.

For the second straight postseason, the Capitals went to a seventh game in the opening round of the playoffs. But unlike last season, they did not fold, beating the New York Rangers 2-1 on Tuesday night on a late Sergei Fedorov goal and erasing a 3-1 series deficit.

"Looks like we're playing Pittsburgh," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said after Game 7. "Welcome to the circus. It's going to be great for hockey and great for TV, too."

He's right.

Coming off a dramatic six-game set against Philadelphia, the Penguins look every bit as dangerous as they did last season, when they went to the Stanley Cup finals. The Penguins ice three potent scoring lines led by Crosby and Malkin, who have combined for 17 points. The Caps will match them line-for-line with three dangerous units of their own, not to mention defenseman and Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green, who led all blueliners this season with 73 points. Netminders Marc-Andre Fleury and Simeon Varlamov had better get strapped in.

Penguins rookie coach Dan Bylsma just had the "interim" tag lifted from his title and has shown some moxie in his lineup changes, including yanking struggling forward Petr Sykora for the final two games of the series and putting in oft-maligned Miroslav Satan.

1. Power outage. Given the offensive talent available to both coaches, it's a bit of a surprise neither team was able to capitalize on that more consistently when they had the man advantage in the first round. The Penguins went just 4-for-32 and did not score a power-play goal until Malkin netted one late in Game 3. The Caps, meanwhile, collected six power-play goals against the league's best penalty-killing unit, but were clicking at just 18.2 percent efficiency when all was said and done against the Rangers. The Pens' penalty-killing unit was stellar against Philadelphia, allowing just one goal on the past 19 attempts. The Capitals didn't give the Rangers much, just four power-play goals during the series, but that hardly tells the story given the feeble power-play unit the Rangers iced throughout the season.

2. OK, tell me your name again? That would be Simeon Varlamov. Give Boudreau full marks for making a gutsy call one game into the first round, yanking veteran Jose Theodore and replacing him with the 21-year-old kid from Samara, Russia. Varlamov shut down the Rangers pretty much from then on out, going 4-2 with two shutouts and allowing only seven goals in six games. Fedorov told reporter Christine Simpson of Versus before Game 7 he thought maybe Varlamov didn't quite get the pressure of Game 7. Well, if he didn't really get the whole pressure thing then, he's about to now. The Rangers were using cap guns compared to the arsenal the Pens will bring to the table. Varlamov's ability to respond to a different kind of attack will be a major factor in the outcome of this series.

3. Blue-line blues. People used to think the Penguins' blue line might be their weak link. With Sergei Gonchar providing offense (he scored the winner in the series-clincher against Philadelphia) and Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill providing the muscle, this is a very solid unit that can both move the puck and separate opposing players from the puck. But what about the Caps' blue line? A little bit of the same questioning, perhaps. Green is dynamic offensively, but if the Penguins are able to establish a strong forecheck -- as they often did against Philadelphia with the Tyler Kennedy, Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke trio -- will the Caps have an answer? The pressure will be on guys like Tom Poti, who had a terrific series against the Rangers, John Erskine, Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina to dispel those questions.

4. Alex, Part Deux. Just as Malkin has blossomed despite the large shadow cast by Crosby, Alexander Semin has also become an elite scorer without facing the pressure that constantly confronts Ovechkin. Semin was dynamic against the Rangers, leading the Capitals in goals (five) and points (eight), and is as dangerous as they come around the net. Now the question is whether he can continue to bring it at that level now that the next stage of the playoffs has been reached. Semin has had a tendency to be streaky and not all that durable. His continued offensive production is key to taking the pressure off Ovechkin and to the Capitals' continued success.

5. Rough and tumble. Just in case you thought this was going to be seven games of pond hockey … well, forget it. Both these teams can play tough and gritty, too, and that element of the game is going to be an integral part of the series' ebb and flow. It's quite simple, really: The more you make the other team pay for playing the puck, the more they think about it and the more mistakes they make.

The Penguins' aforementioned trio of Kennedy, Staal and Cooke were keys during the Philadelphia series, and Maxime Talbot, Pascal Dupuis and Craig Adams can also cause some mayhem. The Capitals got captain Chris Clark back for Game 7 after the well-earned six-game suspension handed to Donald Brashear. Clark is as tough as nails when healthy. Matt Bradley, defensive specialist David Steckel and Brooks Laich will have to counterbalance the Pens' toughness and make life rough for guys like Gonchar and Kris Letang on the Penguins' blue line.

• Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. All eyes will be on Crosby and Ovechkin in this series. And they should be. The one thing we've learned about Crosby in his short playoff life is he gets better when the stakes get higher. As for Ovechkin, the man loves the stage, and now he's getting to play on the biggest stage yet as an NHLer. Hard to imagine he won't get even better than he was in the first round (he had seven points). Can Crosby stay on his game without getting caught up in what Ovechkin says and does? If he can, it'll be a major moral victory for the Pens.

• Washington: Poti had six points in the first round, including a four-point night in a must-win sixth game. Laich had 23 goals during the regular season but had just one in the opening round against New York. He was scoreless in the final four games of the series.

• Pittsburgh: Malkin had four multi-point games in the opening round. Staal had zero goals and one assist in the first round.

• Oh, this one should be fun. The Penguins have been here before and showed terrific push-back against Philadelphia. Goaltending favors the Pens, or it should, and that'll be just enough. Pittsburgh in seven.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer