Few could have predicted this a week ago. The Capitals, having already turned to both of their goalies and having been without Tom Wilson for all but three shifts early in their first-round series, lead the Florida Panthers two games to one.
The same Capitals who spent the final 62 days of the regular season in the second wild card spot are in the driver’s seat against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers.
“I think something you realize when you’re a little older, it doesn’t matter where you’re seeded,” veteran center Nicklas Backstrom said before the series began. “In the playoffs, anything can happen.”
That the Capitals lead the series is noteworthy in itself. But how the Capitals are doing it may be most impressive. The Capitals didn’t escape Games 1 and 3 as the benefactors of some puck luck. They haven’t relied on their goalies to steal games. Simply put, they’ve been the better team.
Beginning in Game 1, the Capitals have shown the blueprint for a potential upset with solid play defensively. Florida finished the regular season as the NHL’s highest scoring team in 26 years.
In Washington’s series opening win, the Capitals limited the Panthers’ speed and transition game through the neutral zone. They created (and capitalized on) turnovers and forced the Panthers to ice the puck as their options closed. The Capitals have successfully slowed the Panthers for much of the series, with the exception coming in the second half of Florida’s 5-1 win in Game 2.
The Capitals responded in Game 3 Saturday with a 6-1 win of their own as they again held the Panthers’ high-octane offense in check. Before a sellout crowd at Capital One Arena, the Capitals received timely saves from Ilya Samsonov, won the special teams battle and had a balanced attack with six different goal scorers. They also brought plenty of physicality — another common theme in the series- and appeared to frustrate the Panthers as the game wore on.
“They’re putting a lot of pressure on themselves,” Panthers Interim Coach Andrew Brunette said of his team after Game 3. “We’re trying to alleviate it. But it’s something they have to go through. We’ve got to find a way to be free. Maybe getting pounded here will kind of loosen us up a little bit.”
The upstart Panthers finished with the best overall record during the regular season and set franchise records across the board for most wins (58) and points (122). A late-season 13-game winning streak was also a franchise best. Adversity in the second half of the season was limited. The playoffs are proving to be a different story.
Consider that the Panthers were 39-0-1 during the regular season when leading at the second intermission. In the series opener, the Capitals rallied from a 2-1 second-intermission deficit and beat Florida 4-2.
The Panthers’ power play ranked fifth on the circuit during the regular season. Washington is a perfect 9-for-9 on the penalty kill in the series.
The Panthers finished 22 points clear of the Capitals in the Eastern Conference standings. Yet the Capitals are playing with a quiet confidence in this first-round series.
As Alex Ovechkin noted before the series began, it’s a clean slate come postseason time.
“It’s going to be totally different games than the regular season,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously, they have a very solid group of guys, best team in the regular season. But in the playoffs, it’s going to be different. It’s going to be a different mindset. It’s going to be different speed. It’s going to be a different battle level.”
The Capitals are showing the value of that battle experience. The Panthers, who last won a playoff series in 1996, are still figuring it out.
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