Are Caps ready to overtake Pens?

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Normally one might expect all eyes to be on the Pittsburgh Penguins and their attempt to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, while also attempting to emerge as Eastern Conference winners for a third straight season. But considering how the Washington Capitals ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy, the bigger question in the East is whether the mantle is going to pass from Sidney Crosby’s(notes) Pens to Alexander Ovechkin’s star-studded Caps.

With a franchise-record 54 wins and 121 points, Washington finished miles ahead of the East’s next closest pursuer, the New Jersey Devils with 103 points. The Capitals were one of only four teams in the East to eclipse 100 points. All but one of the West’s eight qualifiers crested the century mark.

The Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (pictured) tied the Tampa Bay Lightnings' Steven Stamkos to lead the NHL with 50 goals.
(James Lang-US Presswire)

And then there’s this argument: Maybe the reason the Caps were so superior is because the other four teams in the Southeast Division were so far inferior that it turned out to be easy points for Washington. The Southeast was the only division that yielded only one playoff team.

There’s no denying the fact the Caps are the East’s most potent offensive team, having scored nearly 100 more goals than the second-place Devils (318-222), an astonishing disparity between the conference’s top two seeds.

But can a team win the Cup with offense alone? Of course not. Pittsburgh’s ability to play shutdown hockey was consistently overlooked last season. The Penguins wouldn’t have won Game 7 in Detroit after losing Crosby midway through the decider if they couldn’t play defense.

The Capitals made good use of the NHL trade deadline to add those third- and fourth-line role players who bring playoff savvy and experience into the dressing room and onto the ice. Don’t overlook the additions of Eric Belanger(notes), Jason Chimera(notes) and Scott Walker(notes). Those could be the kind of pieces that make the difference in winning a deciding game this season as opposed to getting blown out at home against Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the second round last year.

Washington (1) vs. Montreal (8)

The regular-season series was dead even, with the teams splitting four games and each winning once at home and once on the road. Three of the four games were decided by a single goal (the other by two), with one by a shootout and another in overtime.

Normally any series involving Montreal would mean all or most of the pressure would be focused on the Canadiens, winners of a record 24 Stanley Cups and playing in front of the most sophisticated and demanding fans in the league. But that won’t be the case in this series. The pre-series pressure is squarely on Ovechkin and the Caps, who haven’t played a meaningful game in quite some time.

Ovechkin broke out of his late-season goal-scoring slump, which could be bad news for the Habs. Montreal will have to try and find a way to slow down Washington’s high-powered attack. If the Philadelphia Flyers or a more physically-inclined team had matched up against the Caps in the first round, one might have anticipated a hard-hitting approach, but it’s hard to see the Canadiens pulling that off.

While the Caps shouldn’t have a lot of trouble here, the one wild card in the series is goaltending. Jose Theodore(notes) finished the season in spectacular fashion, but how will he react playing against the team he broke in with, only to get run out of town several years later? And can Jaroslav Halak(notes) get hot enough to make up for what the Canadiens lack – offensive punch, defensive quickness and physical play – to put even the threat of an upset into Washington?

Prediction: Capitals in five.

The Devils' Martin Brodeur ranked fourth in goals against average this season.
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

New Jersey (2) vs. Philadelphia (7)

For those who believe the Flyers are lucky to even be a part of the postseason party by virtue of eliminating the New York Rangers via a shootout Sunday, just remember that Philadelphia beat the New Jersey Devils in all but one of their six regular-season meetings. Now, what happened in the recent past doesn’t necessarily translate to what might happen over the next two weeks, but the Flyers at least go into the series as somewhat confident underdogs.

It’s not often that you can say Martin Brodeur(notes) has something to prove in the postseason, but his recent ventures into the playoffs haven’t matched his usual stellar play in the spring. And Brodeur appeared in 77 of New Jersey’s 82 games, so the question again will be raised if he’s been overworked.

At the other end of the ice, few could have anticipated the Flyers going into the playoffs with a goalie tandem of Brian Boucher(notes) and Sebastien Caron(notes). But that’s what has transpired after Ray Emery(notes) was lost to a season-ending injury and Michael Leighton(notes) went down until at least the end of the first round with a high ankle sprain. Boucher is years removed from his remarkable regular-season shutout record with Phoenix, but he is an experienced netminder who does play well under pressure. Rebound control will be a key for Boucher.

The Flyers won’t be afraid to go at the Devils with physical play, and that might be Philadelphia’s best chance to win. Defensemen Chris Pronger(notes) and Kimmo Timonen(notes) have to set the tone for the Flyers, while the talented forward corps will be led by Mike Richards(notes), Simon Gagne(notes), Danny Briere(notes), Scott Hartnell(notes) and Jeff Carter(notes).

The Devils have to be much more than Brodeur. Zach Parise(notes) showed on the international stage while playing for the U.S. Olympic team what a fine offensive threat he is – he’s the first Devil to record back-to-back 80-point seasons. And this is where the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) really needs to make a difference.

The Devils were poor on the power play late in the season. That needs to turn around for New Jersey to go deep.

Prediction: Devils in six.

Buffalo (3) vs. Boston (6)

The two biggest surprises in the East – the Sabres winning the Northeast rather handily and how much the Bruins struggled just to get into the postseason – provide quite possibly the most intriguing quarterfinal.

This doesn’t figure to be a headline factor in the series, but what if Tim Thomas(notes) finds his way into the Boston net at some point and outduels fellow Olympic teammate Ryan Miller(notes)? There is plenty of motivation for Thomas to step up, especially considering he was basically replaced by rookie Tuukka Rask(notes) in the second half of the season, and many would’ve thought Thomas had the edge in goal for Team USA before he started to slump in the first half.

This definitely could be a series decided by good goaltending. The Bruins’ total of 206 goals scored is the fewest among the 16 playoff qualifiers. Boston has battled injury all year long. Currently, the Bruins start the playoffs without No. 1 center Marc Savard(notes) and top-six defensemen Dennis Seidenberg(notes), Mark Stuart(notes) and Andrew Ference(notes), so they’ll handicapped again.

The Sabres aren’t exactly at 100 percent either, as Tim Connolly(notes), Jochen Hecht(notes), Drew Stafford(notes) and Patrick Kaleta(notes) were all out at the end of the regular season with unspecified timetables for return. Miller should be rested for the outset of the series. He played in one of the final three games in the regular season, and he will be key to Buffalo’s hopes (along with the Sabres’ outstanding penalty killing of late).

Just the same, there’s always an upset in the first round that can’t necessarily be explained. This is just the type of series that could produce that result.

Prediction: Bruins in seven.

Pittsburgh (4) vs. Ottawa (5)

The Senators and Penguins meet in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, but what’s happened in playoffs past will have no bearing when Ottawa tangles with Pittsburgh this time around.

The Penguins are starting with the same seed they had last year en route to winning the Stanley Cup. Something suggests they’ve paced themselves through the regular season, as only a team that has played in the very last game in each of the past two seasons would know.

Pittsburgh went 45-28-9 for 99 points last season and went 47-28-7 for 101 points this season. Talk about consistency. The Penguins appear to be healthy as they begin their title defense. Matt Cooke(notes) didn’t return on Saturday after getting punched hard twice in the face during a fight, and he did not play on Sunday.

The Senators aren’t quite as fortunate. Alex Kovalev(notes), the team’s fourth-leading scorer, is out of the playoffs due to a torn ACL in his left knee. Kovalev scored 18 goals and contributed 31 assists in 77 games. Of course, considering Kovalev’s reputation for disappearing for stretches and his unpredictable ways, the Senators might be better off knowing they won’t have him in the playoffs than to be left wondering on a game-to-game basis.

While Nos. 4-5 matchups often look like toss-ups, this one instead looks potentially one-sided for the Penguins, who are much deeper offensively, more experienced on defense and superior in goal.

Due to the move across the street to the lavish Consol Energy Center and the NHL’s newest arena next season, the Penguins couldn’t think of a more fitting way to close down Mellon Arena – the building that opened in 1961 – with a second straight Stanley Cup.

Prediction: Penguins in four.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Apr 12, 2010