Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin won’t be smiling when their Eastern Conference Semifinal Playoff Series begins this week.
Ever since the Pittsburgh Penguins used the first overall pick of the National Hockey League Draft in 2005 on center Sidney Crosby, the bar of expectations has changed in Western Pennsylvania. By 2008, the Pens were back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1992, and by 2009, they were hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. Since 2007, the Penguins have made the playoffs in each year, but they’ve been unable to replicate the success of 2009. Since 2006, Pittsburgh has used four different head coaches and they made another coaching change this season when Mike Johnston was replaced by Mike Sullivan on December 12. Sullivan’s arrival to Pittsburgh has lit a fire under the Penguins as they are 33-16-5 on his watch, and with the Stanley Cup Playoffs set to begin tonight, this could be a very dangerous team.
The presence of Crosby, center Evgeni Malkin, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury have made the Penguins a consistent contender, but when the team acquired right winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer, that is when the expectations went through the roof. But as it took that talent some time to mesh together, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford couldn’t wait which is why he made the move to bring in Sullivan in spite of the fact that the club had a winning record under Johnston. However it wasn’t until an under the radar trade happened that the Penguins began to live up to their potential.
In late January, the Penguins acquired left winger Carl Hagelin from the Anaheim Ducks. Hagelin had spent the first four years of his National Hockey League career with the New York Rangers and he was a member of their Eastern Conference Championship team in 2014. But last summer, Hagelin became a cap casualty which resulted in the Rangers trading him to the Ducks. But in Anaheim, Hagelin struggled mightily as he only managed to produce 12 points in 43 games which resulted in the trade to Pittsburgh which has given him new life. In just 37 games with the Pens, Hagelin has accounted for 27 points and with him on the roster, the team’s record is 27-9-1.
But make no mistake about it that the engine that makes the Pittsburgh locomotive go is Crosby. This season Crosby led the Penguins in points (85), and goals scored (36), while he finished just one assist away from his third consecutive year in which he would have tallied 50 assists. And although that Crosby will more than likely not be selected to be the MVP of the National Hockey League this season, his ability as a play maker could be the difference in how far that the Penguins will advance in the postseason. Crosby has the ability to put the Penguins on his back for long stretches of play as his ability gives Pittsburgh the edge that they need to compete with some of the better teams in the NHL this season such as the Washington Capitals. Crosby’s play making ability will definitely be put to the test as Pittsburgh is still without Malkin as he is recovering from an arm injury.
Pittsburgh will get the Stanley Cup Playoffs kicked off tonight against a team that they are very familiar with in the Rangers. The Rangers have knocked the Pens out of the postseason in each of the last two years. But it is the Penguins who had the 3-1 series edge over the Rangers during the regular season this time around. The Penguins must find a way to do something which is very difficult to do in the postseason, which is to get to Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist who can be more difficult to navigate than rush hour traffic in New York City. However the Pens have Fluery who himself is no slouch between the pipes as he only allowed 2.27 goals against him per game this season and he could be the difference maker in this series as the Rangers offense has been known to go through spells where they struggle to score.
Although that the Capitals finished this season with the best record in the National Hockey League, you cannot overlook the Penguins who not only have star appeal, but they are also riding a huge wave of momentum into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as it isn’t how you start, but more of how you finish. The Penguins have a core group of players that have drank out of Lord Stanley’s Cup before, and it would not surprise me to see them do it once more this June.
Hands down the Washington Capitals have been the best team in the National Hockey League this season. The Capitals are seeking their first Presidents’ Trophy since 2010 while also attempting to win their first Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history. The Caps have one of the best goal scorers that the NHL has to offer in left winger Alex Ovechkin while goalie Braden Holtby is extremely difficult to score on. The Capitals also have a head coach in Barry Trotz that is battle tested while he also knows how to get the most out of his team. And once you add all of that up, this spring in D.C. could shape up to be very good for the Capitals. But even though that the Capitals are more than likely to finish with the best record in the NHL, it isn’t that cut and dry to see to see them reach the Stanley Cup Final as some long time rivals could stand in their way when the postseason rolls around.
After winning the Stanley Cup Title in 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins remained a contender in the Eastern Conference. Led by a two-time National League MVP in center Sidney Crosby, the Penguins are always a tough out in the postseason and this year’s squad is no different.
The Penguins are currently in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, but they are only 3 points behind both the New York Rangers and New York Islanders for second place in the division. Like the Capitals, the Pens have a sharp goalie of their own in Marc-Andre Fleury who’s 2.32 goals against average is 14th in the National Hockey League this season. With the likes of Crosby and center Evgeni Malkin who is currently injured, the Penguins have always had solid scoring, but they added to that last summer when they acquired right winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In spite of the fact that Ovechkin and Crosby are two of the top players in the National Hockey League, there’s no love lost between them. And once you factor in that Washington has lost to Pittsburgh in seven of their eight playoff meetings, the Pens are a potential postseason opponent that the Caps cannot afford to overlook.
When it comes to the cities of New York City and Washington D.C., there has always been an intense sports rivalry. We’ve seen it in men’s college basketball with the St. John’s Red Storm and Georgetown Hoyas, in the National Football League with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, and also in Major League Baseball with the New York Mets and Washington Nationals. The ice doesn’t take a backseat to any of the other sports as the Capitals have been known to get it on with both the Rangers and Islanders.
After the Caps made their National Hockey League debut in 1974 as an expansion team, they failed to qualify for the postseason in their first eight seasons. Things would change for Washington in 1983 when they made their first of 14 consecutive playoff appearances. However the next five years would see the Capitals make the playoffs, but in five matchups with the Islanders, they lost four times.
The Isles and Caps have met in some memorable postseason affairs which is highlighted by their epic seven-game duel in the 1987 Patrick Division Semifinals. Game 7 of the series would go to a fourth overtime before Islanders center Pat LaFontaine score the game and series-winner. Overall the Caps and Islanders have met in the playoffs seven times with the most recent meeting coming last year in another seven-game battle: this one however would be won by Washington.
The current Islanders team has solid goal scorers in centers John Tavares and Brock Nelson. But unlike the Penguins, the Isles are not as strong between the pipes with their goalies Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. In a potential playoff series with the Islanders, the Caps would have a decided home-ice advantage as the Barclays Center in Brooklyn doesn’t have the same appeal for the fans of the Isles like the Nassau Coliseum did.
And then there’s the case of the Rangers. The Rangers and Capitals have met in the postseason six times with New York emerging victorious on four occasions including last spring. The Rangers might not have the star power that the Capitals have, but they do have one of the best goalies that the National Hockey League currently has in Henrik Lundqvist. And when Lundqvist is on, you have a better chance of navigating through gridlock traffic in the Big Apple than scoring on him.
But maybe the thought of the Capitals having to deal with some of their longtime rivals in the playoffs could be just what the doctor ordered for them. Ovechkin has accomplished all of the personal accolades that the National Hockey League has to offer which includes him being being a three-time league MVP, but he continues to hear the growing banter about him not being able to lead his team to a Stanley Cup Title. Trotz put Nashville Predators hockey on the map as he was their head coach in the team’s first 15 years of existence. Trotz got the Predators to the postseason seven times and only eight head coaches in NHL history have won more regular season games than his 652. However Trotz is still searching for the elusive Stanley Cup Title to put on his soon-to-be Hockey Hall of Fame resume.
The Nation’s Capitol is seeking its first title in one the four major sports leagues in the United States since 1991 when the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl. The Capitals have the potential to go all the way this spring, but it won’t be easy with some bona fide heavyweights potentially standing in their way.
Since center Sidney Crosby was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005, the fortunes of the franchise have drastically changed. Crosby has helped the Penguins transform into one of the elite teams in the National Hockey League. And with Crosby leading the way, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Since then the Penguins have remained as a perennial title contender, but some tweaking to their team could be on the horizon.
Last year the Penguins were upset in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the New York Rangers. The loss led to wholesale changes for the Penguins as general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma were let go. Shero would be replaced by Jim Rutherford and Bylsma by Mike Johnston as the duo would look to get the most out of the Penguins roster.
The Pens came out of the gate strong this season and they were one of the top teams in the NHL until the beginning of March when they started to falter. The Penguins would be a .500 team for the month of March before losing five out of their last six games to finish the regular season which is not the fashion that a team would like to enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And when the Penguins met the Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring, they had no answer for the Blueshirts as they were eliminated in five games.
Make no mistake about it that Crosby is one of the best hockey players in this era and along with center Evgeni Malkin, he gives the Penguins two of the best scoring threats and facilitators in the National Hockey League. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fluery has been maligned in the past and he was even benched by Bylsma during the 2013 NHL Playoffs. But Fluery rebounded this season to have his best goals against average (2.32) since the 2010-2011 NHL season. The Penguins have the talent, but they are missing a vital ingredient to be a championship team which is depth.
When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, they were hungry. Since then there has been a bulls eye on their backs because of that title and the star power of Crosby. Crosby is in the prime of his career and the Penguins need not to waste that: therefore what they need to do is put more talent around him. In the series with the Rangers, Crosby was the most talented player on the ice, but New York had the better team as they consistently put pressure on him while not allowing him to put the Penguins on his back. The Penguins will have nearly $25 million in cap space for next season along with a need to add depth in the NHL Draft this June. The City of Pittsburgh is still a blue-collar town as they also love their hockey. And a blue-collar hockey team would give the folks in Western Pennsylvania something that they can to relate to.