The Penguins and Capitals have been the have-to-watch rivalry since the lockout. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
You know it’s nearly August when Max Talbot saying he hates Alex Ovechkin before calling him a “real douche” while on Pittsburgh radio to promote the Winter Classic gets more publicity than the fact the Pens and Caps will actually play the Winter Classic Jan. 1 at Heinz Field. But that’s the way things go during the dog days of summer in NHL Land.
So Talbot has added some fuel to what is essentially the best recent rivalry in hockey. But the question is which is the better team? In my mind there’s one clear answer: Pittsburgh.
Obviously Washington can boast oodles of talent – you don’t win the Presidents’ Trophy by eight points and score 45 more goals than the next best team without good players. But a loss to the Pens in Round 2 of the 2009 playoffs and an ouster at the hands of Montreal in the opening round last April proved the Capitals vulnerable.
While Pittsburgh did lose to those same Canadiens one round later last May, the Pens also have a run to the 2008 Cup final and the 2009 Cup itself under their collective belt, no small feat in this day and age of NHL parity.
Pittsburgh, of course, has one or two talented players itself. But the Penguins’ post-season successes have steeled them to the rigors of hockey in springtime; they know how to win when it counts. Run ’n Gun will get you far in the regular season, but playoff hockey is a game unto itself. And the Caps have yet to learn how to play it.
Now, this may be Washington’s year. This could be the season Ovechkin’s sublime skills net him more than just the individual accolades he’s become accustomed to. This could be the year Alexander Semin starts going to the net and Mike Green remembers he’s a defenseman. But I don’t think so. Although Washington is still a team to beat in the East, Pittsburgh is the team to beat.
Sorry, Caps fans. But the team you watched wilt under pressure in the post-season – the one that refused to go to the hard areas of the ice and fired volley after volley from the outside – is the same one GM George McPhee, so far, has on the 2010-11 menu. And that despite more than $5 million in cap space to play with.
Yes, I know, Washington ran into the hottest goalie of the playoffs in Jaroslav Halak, but the team scored once – Once! – with the man advantage in 33 opportunities and lost to a squad that finished 26th in goals-scored with 103 fewer during the regular season. The Caps did manage 17 scores in a three-game span that series, but when the offense was silenced, the defense and goaltending was exposed.
And that’s essentially the same defense and goaltending that’s back for another kick at Stanley’s can again this year. Not good enough, especially when your two current goaltenders have a total of 19 games of NHL playoff experience and zero beyond the second round.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, suffered a similar fate against the Habs; the difference being GM Ray Shero went out and did something about it. Rather than overpay the aging Sergei Gonchar to stick around, Shero first took a stab at Dan Hamhuis by trading for his negotiating rights, then inked Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.
While those two aren’t the flashiest of names, Martin is smart as a whip and about as underrated as they come, while Michalek is a hard-nosed, defense-first, shot-blocking machine. All of a sudden, Shero has assembled a blueline that looks more like the ones the Pens had in the 2008 and ’09 post-seasons than the one that crumbled in Round 2 of the 2010 playoffs. Couple that with Pittsburgh’s strength down the middle and the Pens are once again looking like the class of the conference.
That’s not to say everything is perfect with Pitt, there’s still a dearth of scoring wingers and bottom-end blueline depth, and not a lot of money to rectify those problems. But GM Ray Shero has shown a knack in the past for working those sorts of problems out as the season rolls along.
In the meantime, I’ll take Sid, Geno, Jordan, Fleury and the Pens’ blueline over Ovie, Backstrom, Semin and Green anytime – except in my regular season fantasy league.
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