NHL Playoff Preview: Washington Capitals vs. Florida Panthersby Jack Gaffney May 3, 2022 0 comments
The Presidents Trophy-winning Florida Panthers have arguably been the NHL’s best team from wire to wire. Their elite talent and production have south Florida hoping for the team’s first Stanley Cup Finals birth since 1996. Their first obstacle on the path is the Washington Capitals, who made it into the postseason as the second Eastern Conference Wildcard. These two teams played three times this season, with all three games being decided by one goal each. The home team won each time, which gives the Panthers the edge entering into what should be an interesting first-round matchup.
Leading the charge for the Panthers goalie tandem is the veteran Sergei Bobrovsky. The Russian won 39 of his 53 starts on the year, putting up a 2.67 GAA and a .917 save percentage. Last postseason against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he did not look sharp, putting up a goals against over five in just two starts. In the event that happens again against Alex Ovechkin and co. Florida has a great backup option in Boston College’s Spencer Knight. His numbers were not too far off Bobrovsky’s this season, and he has two playoff starts to his name from last year.
Now for the Capitals, Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek made 39 starts each this season. Vanecek had the better season of the two, but it seems like the Caps are tight-lipped about who will get the game one nod. Goaltending was a big issue last year against the Boston Bruins. Specifically in that series’ third game where Samsonov misplayed a puck in his own end, then proceeded to give up a wraparound goal in 2OT to Craig Smith. This feels like a very clear advantage for the Panthers.
Interestingly enough, the Panthers and Capitals gave up the exact same amount of goals for the season, 242. The gigantic news for the Florida defensive group is that Aaron Ekblad will be back for this series, maybe even for game one tonight. He led all Panthers defenders with nearly 25 minutes of ice time a night, along with 57 points in 61 games. MacKenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling, and Radko Gudas, who put up 355 hits, should also play a big role in this series as Ekblad gets back up to speed.
For the Caps, John Carlson is still the leader on the back end, putting up just under 24 minutes of ice time a night on average. However, the two big contributors for Washington this season have been Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen. The duo were the only players for the Capitals to have a plus-minus over 20. They may have the postseason milage advantage which is a plus, but give the edge here to the Panthers.
Starting off with the Capitals this go around, their special teams were solid on the whole, but there are some notes. They put up 47 power-play goals on the year, but only converted 18.7 percent of the time on the sixth most power plays in the league. No surprise, but Ovechkin led the way with 16 of those goals. As for the penalty kill, the Capitals ranked just outside of the top 10 in goals against and penalty kill percentage. That will be important against the Panthers with their ability to score at will.
The Panthers’ power play ranked second in the NHL only to the Colorado Avalanche. They totaled 63 goals and converted on 24 percent of their Eastern Conference-leading 261 power-play opportunities. The penalty kill of the Panthers may be something worth monitoring in this series, however. That is because it ranked just outside of the bottom third in the league. Furthermore, no Eastern Conference playoff team killed penalties at a worse percentage (79.7). If they get sloppy, Ovechkin will absolutely make them pay from the left dot. Advantage Capitals.
This matchup is between the No. 1 and No. 10 offenses in the NHL. There should be no shortage of goal scoring in this one, putting it lightly. For the Capitals, it was Ovechkin leading the way with another 50-goal campaign, but only Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov had 20-plus goals for the rest of the team. This isn’t to say the depth scoring for the Capitals is inept perse, just a tad top-heavy. Last season’s big trade acquisition Anthony Mantha played in just 37 games, and only put up 9 goals. Furthermore, he has just two goals since March 26.
Now for the NHL best Panthers offense, there’s no shortage of goal scoring on their roster. They had six players with over 20 goals, nine with over 15, and 13 with over 10 goals. Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Reinhart, and Anthony Duclair led the way for this squad, each putting up 30-plus goals. Huberdeau also led the league in assists with 85, and only trailed Connor McDavid in total points. By a wide margin, advantage on offense for the Panthers.
The X-Factor for the Capitals is the aforementioned Mantha. If they can get him going offensively, that would be massive, as it would give Washington another reliable producer against the favored Panthers squad. He was more or less along for the ride last postseason with just two assists against the Bruins, so a better outing against Florida would be massive. Now for the Panthers, look for Duclair to be a big piece. He has just six playoff games in his career, all last season, and was a minus-three with no points. Coming off the best season of his young career, look for the Quebec, Canada native to make up for last year in a big way.
After parting ways with Joel Quenneville, Andrew Brunette stepped up and the Panthers never missed a beat. Switching from a multi-time Cup Champion head coach who was 7-0-0 to begin the year had disastrous potential, but Brunette got this Florida group to a 116-point season in his first year as a head coach. Moving on to the veteran Peter Laviolette now, who is in his second season manning the bench in D.C. The Capitals have taken a step back in his second year, but that isn’t completely on him. He also has a slew of postseason experience, making it to Cup Finals with the Philidelphia Flyers, Nashville Predators, and ultimately winning with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. Not a stretch to say Laviolette gets the edge here.
Like the rest of the round one matchups in the east, this Capitals-Panthers series should be a good one. Would not expect the streak of one-goal games these two teams had in the regular season to stick, but any blowouts would be a shocker. Taking everything into account, it is hard to not like the Panthers in this series. Ovi and the Caps should be given a fighting chance here, but the Panthers are a wagon in every sense of the word.
Prediction: Florida 4-2
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