Looking at the Penguins-Capitals series on the eve of Game One, I thought the biggest difference maker in the series would be Marc-Andre Fleury. He promptly rewarded my trust by having his worst playoff series to date. For much of the series, he was outplayed by Simeon Varlamov until he was chased from the goal today.
But, Sidney Crosby was nothing short of spectacular in all seven games. The passion he played with in this series, especially in game seven, was breathtaking. He was putting moves on moves and it was fitting that the last goal of the series involved Crosby stealing the puck from Alex Ovechkin to bury it in the net one last time.
As good as Crosby is as a player during the regular season, he shifts into a second gear come playoff time.
But for a couple lapses, the Penguins defense also played very well in the series. They were shot blocking machines, willing to throw themselves in front of any speeding puck that was directed at the net.
I was concerned going into this final game for a couple reasons. For one, the young-gun Penguins had no experience playing in a pivotal game seven while the Capitals have made a habit out of it. I was also concerned the Caps would come out with momentum, energized to play in front of their home crowd after escaping near playoff death in game six.
Neither of those factors mattered. The Capitals came out sluggish and sloppy and it was the Penguins who seemed to have an unlimited supply of energy. This was by far their best game of the playoffs, one in which everyone played well and all of their units were hitting on all cylinders.
If you blinked at the wrong time, you might have missed the first two goals. And if you were slow in getting back to the game after the first intermission, the game was likely all but over by the time you tuned back in.
Considering how bad the Penguins played until late in the season, their run to the conference finals, starting with the late season surge that landed them in the #4 position in the East has been amazing.
The late season acquisitions of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, as well as the coaching change, have paid huge dividends. I was not that excited about the add of Marian Hossa last year. I felt they gave up too much to essentially rent a great player for a single Cup run.
I feel no such reservations about the additions of Kunitz and Guerin, although I'm still trying to figure out how Guerin can play hockey so well nearing 39 years of age.
Now the Penguins can sit back and enjoy tomorrow's games to see who they will be playing in the next round. Do they want to play the red hot team (Carolina Hurricanes) or the deeper and more talented squad (Boston Bruins)? Personally, I'd like to see the Hurricanes knock off the Bruins.
Not only would that give the Penguins home ice advantage, for all that is worth (not much), it would also set up an interesting dual between two of the Staal brothers. Last year, Jordan Staal got to oust brother Marc of the Rangers from the playoffs. This year, he can complete the family sweep by knocking his other brother, Eric, from the playoffs.
Plus, as a Pittsburgher, I instinctively route against all teams Boston.
But, today is for enjoying the end of a superb playoff series that lived up to its billing. The Penguins - Capitals series reminded me once again that there is nothing in all of sports more exciting than playoff hockey. And for the Penguins, the march goes on.