This was originally an email to a friend of mine, so I'm sorry if the formatting doesn't quite come through. Apologies for the length.
The emergence of Varlamov has really changed my view of the Caps. Yes, the Rangers were offensively inept, but he surrendered 7 goals in 6 games (and three of those were on Sunday). That's unbelievably good. The goals that did beat him were mostly lucky bounces or absolutely perfect shots. He made a few saves last night that were superb, and crucial, because the Caps were getting outplayed for much of the first and second periods.
Moreover, having Varly back there has changed how the Caps' defensemen play. They spend less time defending the initial shot and focus instead on clearing rebounds. With Theodore, I think they felt as though they had to defend the initial shot, because Theo might not make the save. With Varly, they know that he'll make the initial save, so all they have to do is police up the rebound. Every single Caps defenseman looked so much better over the last few games as a result because they're playing within themselves and the system. Jurcina was an absolute beast last night. Mike Green finally seems like himself after fighting off what was apparently a pretty bad flu virus. The Pothier-Erskine pair has been generally outstanding. Even when the Caps were pinned in their end for much of the second period, the Rangers generated essentially zero good scoring chances.
The Pens are a very, very interesting team. Malkin and Crosby are excellent players, and now that they're not stuck on the same line, they give the Penguins two solid scoring lines. The additions of Guerin and Kunitz were smart - they finally gave Crosby some wingers to play with. Gonchar is an excellent offensive defenseman, Orpik is sound defensively, and Scuderi and Gill are both serviceable penalty-killers. This is a team that made it to the Cup finals last year, finished this season on a torrid streak and dispatched the Flyers in 6.
Look a little deeper and things don't look so rosy for the Pens. Starting with the big two up front, both Malkin and Crosby (moreso the latter than the former) have displayed a propensity to get distracted/flustered by the physical attention paid to them by opponents, and Ovechkin in particular. (Ovie, to his credit, is completely unflappable. I think he doesn't even have flaps.) Guerin and Kunitz were smart pickups, but their second set of wingers (a rotating cast of Fedotenko, Satan, an injured Sykora and other assorted flotsam and jetsam) are not exactly stellar.
Much has been made of the Caps' drop-off in defensive talent after Mike Green. Still, the Pens might have the only weaker defensive corps remaining in the playoffs. After Gonchar and Orpik, you've got small, very young, and error prone (Letang), big and slow (Gill), a decent, but replaceable 4-6 defenseman (Scuderi) and a quintessential journeyman (Mark Eaton). Oh, and the ghost of Phillipe Boucher. Honestly, I wouldn't trade the Caps defense straight-up for Pittsburgh's. I think they'll eventually come to rue giving up Whitney (although they did get a pretty good prospect back in Tangradi). As for Pittsburgh's role players, I think much of this comes down to Jordan Staal. If he performs like he did a couple years ago, they'll be tough to beat. However, it has been a while since he's shown that form and his playoff performance last year was underwhelming. However, the Pens do have more scoring depth in their bottom-six forwards (However, it must be noted that Kennedy, Cooke and Talbot have all spent some time filling in on the top lines and thereby upped their point totals. Still, they score more than their Caps counterparts.)
Speaking of underwhelming, this brings us to Pittsburgh's biggest Achilles' Heel, Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury was outstanding in last year's playoffs, but he's been only decent thus far in the playoffs, with one truly outstanding game and several so-so performances. He's shown some mental frailty in the past, much like Chris Osgood. There's no doubting his talent, but then, neither can you doubt the talent of Theodore, and look what's happened with him.
So, how does this break down?
Coaching: Advantage Caps. Bylsma has been good, but he just started coaching this team. It's tough to implement "your" system in just a couple months. Also, Boudreau was coaching before Bylsma was out of diapers (exaggeration). Boudreau's adjustments to his lines and the Caps' power-play, along with his call to use Varlamov were all brilliant. Bylsma's one major adjustment was to bench Letang and Sykora (who's not fully healthy) for Boucher and Satan in game 5. It didn't work and the Pens lost 3-0.
Top-line Forwards: Advantage Caps. This might seem crazy, given that the Pens have Crosby and Malkin, but the trio of Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom is better, and fairly clearly so. The Pens have Guerin and Kunitz, but the Caps have Fedorov and Laich (depending on which line he's on). For me, the injury to Sykora, and the presence of Fedorov with all of his experience, tips this one toward the Caps.
Role-playing Forwards: Advantage Pens. Basically, by putting Laich on a top line and Staal on the third line, the Pens get this advantage. If you switch those out, I'd make the top-lines a push and give the role-players to the Caps. This is also much closer than it may seem. The return of Clark, and the emergence of Gordon and Steckel as great shut-down centers with excellent faceoff skills make the Caps much stronger at the bottom end than they were earlier in the season. Dupuis, Talbot, Cooke, Kennedy and Adams are all decent grinders, but none of them have the offensive upside of Fehr or Fleischmann, although they have produced more offense than the Caps' grinders (Bradley, Gordon, Steckel and Clark/Brashear).
Defense: Advantage Caps. Green>Gonchar. Poti>Letang (right now, anyway, maybe not in the near future). Jurcina, Erskine, Morrisonn=Orpik, Scuderi, Gill, Eaton. The obvious tie-breaker here is at the top-end, but the subtle advantage for the Caps is Brian Pothier. Forced into action by Jeff Schultz's injury after 14 months rehabbing from concussion symptoms, Pothier took a couple of games to get into the swing of the playoffs. Now, however, his smooth skating and his ability to start the transition game with accurate outlet passes have been a revelation, and something that the Caps were missing when Green wasn't on the ice. Paired with Erskine, his speed and puckhandling cover for Erskine's lack thereof, while Erskine's size and physicality make up for Pothier's lack thereof. A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
Power-Play: Advantage Caps. This one isn't as close as it should be, given the presence of Crosby, Malkin, Gonchar and Guerin on the Pens' PP. I think the Pens miss Malone, Whitney and Hossa here, badly. The Caps can be guilty of over-passing and trying too hard for the "perfect" play, but they still put up an 18.2 PP% against an amazingly good penalty killing team and a phenomenal goaltender. Boudreau's ability to coach really shone through here, as he juggled the PP lines to get more net presence (by giving Laich more PP time) and he added Tom Poti to give the Caps an accurate shot from the point.
Penalty-Kill: Push. The Caps put up slightly better numbers against the Rangers, but it was the Rangers after all. Their power play was abysmal. The Penguins had a good PK against the Flyers, but it's also hard to say how much of that was the Pens, and how much of that was the complete and total disappearance of Jeff Carter. The Pens had slightly better numbers during the regular season, but the Caps were decimated with injuries on their blue line for much of the season, and the presence of Theodore between the pipes probably didn't help matters.
Advantage Caps Push. (Poster's note: I originally gave this to the Caps due to Varlamov's stellar play thus far. However, on further consideration - with a nudge from Hooks Orpik - I've shifted this to even). This was the Caps' main area of weakness prior to the playoffs. It remains to be seen if Varlamov can keep playing at this level, but even if he gives the Caps a more-pedestrian .920 save percentage and a GAA under 2, the Caps could take the Cup. No joke. Fleury has been maddeningly inconsistent his entire career, and he has shown a propensity to get down on himself after bad goals. His play has been inconsistent enough, and he's suffered injuries that some Pens fans and hockey obervers were suggesting that he could be supplanted by Ty Conklin as recently as late last year. He has had one amazing game this playoffs, a couple of good games and a host of decent performances. Varlamov has been outstanding, albeit against weaker competition.
Intangibles: Advantage Caps. First, there's the obvious home-ice advantage. After seeing how loud the VC got last night, this is significant. My ears are still ringing.
Second, there's health. Knock on wood, but the Caps seem relatively healthy, especially now that Chris Clark is back in the lineup. This is a guy who's capable of scoring 20-25 goals/season while playing well in all three phases of the game. If he's healthy, his presence in the lineup is huge. The Pens' potential loss of Sykora really hurts. He provides speed and secondary scoring, and he has been a decent playoff performer in his career.
Third, there's faceoffs. The Pens put up good numbers in the first round (55.7%, good for tops in the playoffs). The Caps came in second, at 53.7%. However, over the course of the season, the Caps had the better numbers. The Flyers main centerman was playing with a bum shoulder (although a similar argument can be made that Chris Drury's injury inflated the Caps' numbers). I think that overall, the Caps are better on the draw.
Fourth, there's chemistry. I know that it's immeasurable, but it's clear that the Caps really do play for one another - there is a relationship among the players that is difficult to define, but clearly observable, even from the distance of a fan. This is not saying that the Pens hate each other, but rather that this Caps team has been together all year, and most of the same players were around last year. Many of these guys played together on Hershey's Calder Cup team. The Pens, on the other hand, saw a lot of turnover this last summer and have, in the last two years, traded away or released a slew of players like Whitney, Malone, Hossa, Roberts, Armstrong, Christensen, Conklin. The Pens looked utterly lost mid-way through the season and although their coach paid the price, ultimately the culprit was likely injuries and a lack of cohesion wrought by personnel turnover. The additions of Guerin and Kunitz surely helped on the ice, but Guerin doesn't exactly have a reputation as being a great locker-room presence, and any time a team has to import 2/3 of a top line at the trade deadline, you know there are serious holes in the roster.
Fifth, there's the effect of the previous round. Sometimes, you can read too much into the carryover effects from one round to the next, but I think this is a case where the Caps have an advantage. Looking back at the Caps' season and the times they struggled, if I were to craft a team to defeat the Caps, that team would look a hell of a lot like the New York Rangers. The Caps' strength was their PP; the Rangers' strength was their PK. The Caps struggled against teams that played strong in the neutral zone; the Rangers, thanks to Renney, were very strong at the center of the ice. The Caps struggled to score against good/hot goaltenders because of their inability to create or sustain traffic in front of the net; the Rangers had perhaps the best goalie in the Eastern Conference in Lundqvist. The Caps struggled against mediocre teams where they couldn't muster sufficient intensity; the Rangers were the very definition of mediocre. The Caps' ability to overcome their disadvantage and advance to the second round will make them a better team. They had to find that extra "playoff gear" - I was worried that they wouldn't find it until it was too late, but now that they have, it's a major advantage. Although the Flyers didn't exactly roll over for the Penguins, they did a remarkable job of self-destructing (what else is new?), and Martin Biron played to his talent level, which is to say, decently, but inconsistently. Between them, the Flyers' best two players, Richards and Carter, put up a 2/4/6 -6 stat line. The Penguins probably should have won that series in 5 games.
Sixth, the Caps can thank NBC for the long break between rounds. Normally, playing seven games can be a bit of a disadvantage, because you're exhausted coming out of the last game, and you only have a couple of days' rest before the next round. Thanks to NBC wanting the Caps and Penguins to play on Saturday, the Caps will have three full days of rest and practice before the beginning of the series, which is plenty of time to recharge.
So, what does this all add up to? In my eyes, this adds up to a Caps victory in 5 or 6 games. Crosby and Malkin are great, but their team lacks the Caps' high-end offensive depth, and their defense and Fleury are not good enough to make up for that. People tend to forget what the Pens have lost since last year: Hossa, Malone, Whitney, Roberts and Conklin. That's a lot of talent to lose, and Guerin and Kunitz don't replace that. The injury to Sykora hurts - even if he plays, a shoulder injury will hamper his shooting and puckhandling.