It has been five years since the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals last met in a playoff series, and there have been a few changes.
For one thing, the Penguins’ leading scorer during the last series, Mario Lemieux, now owns the team. For another, Olie Kolzig has proven he is much more than just a relief goaltender for the Caps.
The Penguins and Caps open their sixth playoff series tonight at MCI Center with Washington a slight favorite to win the first game and the series. The latter is probably a reflection on the Caps having the extra home game in the best-of-7 series and the oddsmakers’ long-held belief that over the long term good defense (Kolzig) will beat good offense (Jaromir Jagr).
There is little recent controversy or long-term rivalry to spark this series, other than the miscalculation by the Penguins’ stadium managers in selling half of the first-round playoff dates in Mellon Arena to a dance troupe and pro wrestlers.
The lack of availability for dates and ABC-TV’s insistence on a Washington-Pittsburgh matchup Saturday afternoon forced the series into a 1-2-2-1-1 format instead of the normal plan, which had the higher-seeded Caps playing the first two at home, two on the road, then alternating home-away-home.
“The pressure is the same no matter where you’re playing,” Washington coach Ron Wilson said yesterday, downplaying the turmoil caused by the last-minute change. “Where you play doesn’t really matter it’s how you’re playing, especially in the playoffs.”
It would be hard to ask the Caps to be playing any better entering postseason. They have gone 32-10-7 since Christmas, climbed from 14th in the conference on Nov. 1 to first (ending up second) and finished the season with the best home record in the league (26-7-8) and the 11th-best road record (18-19-4).
If there is a downside, it is special teams. The power play never did get unhinged and wound up 21st at 15 percent. (Pittsburgh was 20th at 15.6 percent.) The penalty-killers also fell a little at the end, dropping from 88 percent in second place to 86.2, good for seventh place.
But this series will come down to Pittsburgh’s speed and its scoring ability against Washington’s team-oriented defense and Kolzig, who is virtually unbeatable when his teammates give him any support plus a chance to see the puck.
“He just has to perform the way he can, up to his ability,” Wilson said. “It’s not a one-man show we have to play well in front of him. A goalie can’t score so they don’t win games. They can lose games for you, but they can also put you in a position to win, then it’s up to everybody else to get the job done offensively.”
Jagr played only 63 games this season but had 42 goals and a league-leading 96 points. It is his speed and the unpredictable nature of his shooting angles that make him so dangerous. But his four points against Washington this season weren’t even tops for the Penguins; two other members of the Czech gold medal-winning Olympic team were better. Robert Lang went 3-3-6 and Martin Straka was 2-3-5, while Jagr’s center, Jan Hrdina, another Olympian, set up four.
Wilson’s plan is to employ the old hockey expression limit time and space. If you restrict the space a player has to skate in, and the time he is allowed to have the puck, you are almost guaranteed a win.
This is Washington’s first playoff appearance since advancing to the finals two years ago.