Q: The Pens haven't seen (Washington goalie) Simeon Varlamov and he hasn't played against them. Who has the advantage?
Bob LoCicero, Frederick, Md.
MOLINARI: You might get a firm opinion on this issue somewhere, but it won't be here because it's too easy to make a case for that going either way. It's always tough to say conclusively which side will benefit most in a situation like this, or just how long it will take the competitors to get a feel for what to expect from one another.
It's conceivable, though, that the Penguins might have one edge. Their entire team will have to prepare and study just one scouting report on Varlamov -- it's not as if his basic style and tendencies are going to change -- while he will have to try to get a feel for a considerably larger number of shooters. (Not that he's likely to stay up all night studying tape of defensive defensemen like Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi.) Either way, goaltending is the most important variable in any playoff series, and that certainly will be the case in one featuring so many gifted forwards on both teams.
Varlamov, who replaced Jose Theodore after the Capitals' first game against the New York Rangers in Round 1, acquitted himself very well in that series and showed why Washington has great long-term hopes for him, but it is safe to assume that the Penguins will pose a far greater challenge for him. New York had trouble scoring goals all season; the Penguins can get them in bunches, and have three lines capable of being major forces in the offense.
Look for the Penguins to try to get Varlamov, who turned 21 Monday, moving laterally as much as possible and to emphasize generating second-chance opportunities, never a bad idea against any goalie, no matter what his skill level or experience.
Q: What will the Penguins' salary-cap situation look like after the season? With the addition of Chris Kunitz and the eventual loss of several low- to mid-range salaries, it seems as though the Penguins will have some room to navigate the free-agent market.
MOLINARI: The Penguins definitely will shed some salary via free agency this summer, although it still isn't clear which of their unrestricted-free-agents-to-be they will try to retain.
The guys who will be unrestricted, and their salary-cap hits, are Bill Guerin ($4.5 million), Miroslav Satan ($3.5 million), Petr Sykora ($2.5 million), Philippe Boucher ($2.5 million), Ruslan Fedotenko ($2.25 million), Hal Gill ($2.075 million), Mathieu Garon ($1.1 million), Rob Scuderi ($712,500), Mike Zigomanis ($650,000) and Craig Adams ($600,000).
That adds up to a considerable chunk of money, but it should not be overlooked that some of those guys will be back, and at least a few -- Scuderi is a pretty good example -- would be in line for a pay increase.
What's more, the Penguins will have to replace the guys they opt against bringing back (or who choose to go elsewhere) and that will cut into the total.
What's more, there are two major factors that mitigate against the Penguins acting aggressively in free agency, at least where big-ticket talent is concerned. They have made it clear that holding onto homegrown talents like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal and Brooks Orpik is their top priority, and general manager Ray Shero has made long-term, big-money investments in all of those guys. Those five alone will have a cap hit of about $30 million in 2009-10. Throw in Sergei Gonchar ($5 million) and Kunitz ($3.725 million), and Shero won't have much latitude to commit to major contracts, especially when it's pretty much assumed that the cap ceiling will drop significantly in 2010-11 because of a decline this season in the league-wide revenues on which the cap range is based.