In looking ahead to the Washington Capitals’ first-round Stanley Cup playoffs series against the Florida Panthers, we recently held a media roundtable with several beat reporters who have covered the Capitals all season.
The Capitals are the heavy betting underdogs against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Panthers, with the series set to begin Tuesday in Florida. This marks the first time in 10 years the Capitals will open the postseason on the road as the lower-seeded team in their first-round series.
Participants in our roundtable included Tarik El-Bashir (The Athletic), Andrew Gillis (NBC Sports Washington), Tom Gulitti (NHL.com), Samantha Pell (The Washington Post), Ben Raby (WTOP & Capitals Radio), Sammi Silber (Washington Hockey Now) and Stephen Whyno (Associated Press).
What are your initial thoughts on the series?
Samantha Pell (Washington Post): First thought that comes to mind is a high-scoring matchup on both sides. The Capitals will need to score a lot of goals against Florida with their high-octane offense. I think it will be a really tough series for the Capitals, but I do think this a series that we can see go six or seven games.
Tarik El-Bashir (The Athletic): I’m actually less concerned about the Panthers than I would have been about the Rangers. This time of year, goalies play an outsized role in determining outcomes and the Rangers have the best in the league in Igor Shesterkin. [Panthers goalie Sergei] Bobrovsky isn’t a bad goalie, but if you look at his history, he hasn’t been great in the playoffs and he hasn’t been great against the Capitals. And the Panthers, while they’re a high-flying team that scores a lot of goals, they don’t play great defense. I think they’re still the better team, but I am more confident that the Capitals can pull an upset against the Panthers than against the Rangers.
Tom Gulitti (NHL.com): I think the Capitals are going to have to try to control the puck in the series and use their physicality to wear Florida down. That’s their hope, I believe, in the series — to make it a long series by wearing them down with their physicality, by keeping the puck, by forechecking and pressuring their defense, and by keeping the puck out of their own end where they’ve had some issues with their goaltending. I think we saw their blueprint for how they’re going to have play in this series in that game against Colorado a few weeks ago. That’s how they’re going to have to play: they really controlled play with their structure, they didn’t turn the puck over and feed into [Colorado’s] transition game or the counter-attack game that’s similar to Florida’s.
Ben Raby (WTOP and Capitals Radio): The Panthers were an easy watch all season, scoring goals in bunches and showing an incredible knack for the comeback. No team had more third-period comebacks this season than Florida. When the Capitals and Panthers last met on Nov. 30, Florida rallied from three goals down in the third period to stun Washington 5-4 in regulation. I’m curious if the Capitals jump out to an early lead or are ahead heading into the third period, if they can collectively lock things down and get the necessary saves from whomever is starting in goal.
What is the biggest Capitals’ storyline heading into the series?
El-Bashir: I would say it’s a tie going in Game 1 — the status of Alex Ovechkin and then who starts in between the pipes. I’m not sure I can really distinguish one being more important than the other. It looks like Alex Ovechkin is going to give it a go. It doesn’t look like he’s 100 percent, but 75 percent of Alex Ovechkin is still better than most players in the league.
Andrew Gillis (NBC Sports Washington): It’s the goaltending situation. We’re probably going to see both goalies in the series. It’s going to be a yin and a yang thing with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. I think if you can get decent goaltending, you can hang around in the series. But if you get two goalies that are giving up soft goals or giving up goals that they shouldn’t, then Florida is going to have their way with them. It’s going to be pretty tough for the Caps if they can’t get at least average goaltending.
Stephen Whyno (Associated Press): Alex Ovechkin is going to play. So, the biggest storyline is goaltending. If one of these teams gets great goaltending and the other team gets bad goaltending, then that’s the series. Period.
Sammi Silber (Washington Hockey Now): Definitely the goaltending. Whether it’s going to be Samsonov or Vanecek, I think it will unfold by one of them emerging as the hot hand and the team riding with it.
What is your under-the-radar storyline?
Pell: I think the underrated storyline is the play of Evgeny Kuznetsov and if he can actually bounce back and perform well in the playoffs. He has not done well in the playoffs since the 2018 Cup run and I think for him, he had such a consistent regular season that it will be really interesting to see if he can carry that into the playoffs and break out.
Silber: Definitely the secondary scoring. I think while Washington needs to tighten defensively against a group like this, I also think offensively they’re going to need more than just the top line or top power play. They’re really going to need the middle-six to step up consistently.
Whyno: Coaching. Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette has never coached in a playoff series in his career. This is not Joel Quenneville, who has won the Stanley Cup three times. Peter Laviolette has a Stanley Cup ring and three trips to the Final. We’re going to find out real quick if Andrew Brunette is as good of a coach as he’s looked in the regular season. We’ve seen this with other coaches, where you kind of let guys go during the regular season, and then it comes down to strategy and matchups and adjusting in the playoffs and if Peter Laviolette outcoaches Andrew Brunette, then that is a major storyline.
Raby: The potential impact of the Capitals shutdown line. For all the attention that the headliners naturally receive in any playoff series, the Capitals checking line of Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway and trade deadline pickup Johan Larsson could be leaned on heavily against the NHL’s highest scoring team. Dowd and Hathaway have embraced these challenges before and both are coming off career years offensively.
Who can be the Capitals’ X-factor in this series?
El-Bashir: I’m going to go with Anthony Mantha. I think he’s played very well over the last month since coming back from his injury. He’s the type of player when you look at home at 6-foot-5, 234 pounds, he looks like a guy who should make an impact in the playoffs. He’s not a big hitter — he’s not Tom Wilson — but he can still muscle guys in front of the net and he can muscle guys in the corners when he wants to. If he can stay hot and chip in a few goals, he’s my X-factor.
Gulitti: I also think the X-factor is Anthony Mantha. He’s playing on the third line and he’s played decently there and if he can give them some production, he can be a difference maker. I think they need him to be.
Whyno: Evgeny Kuznetsov. We saw during the 2018 Cup run when he was the leading scorer and, along with Alex Ovechkin, drove that bus for them. If Kuznetsov is ‘Playoff Kuzy,’ then the Capitals have a better chance than people are giving them credit for.
Pell: I think the X-factor is T.J. Oshie. He always talks about the heart, hustle and effort — and if they don’t have every single player playing like T.J. Oshie in the playoffs, then I don’t think this Caps team can make it to six or seven games. Lars Eller said the other night that this team was not emotionally invested in the last three games of the regular season and that’s not what you want to hear going into the postseason. So, I actually think as cliché as it sounds, it’s all about effort and if they’re all playing like T.J. Oshie, I think the series can go six or seven.
Fill in the blank: The Capitals will win if ________
Gillis: They control the pace. I know it sounds like a basketball term, but they can’t get into a run-and-gun series with Florida. I think what they’ve got to do is slow this thing down, take some pressure off whoever is going to be in net, and turn it into a more physical series.
Whyno: The Capitals will win if they can beat the heck out of the Panthers enough and take them out of their offensive game. I’ll add to that the caveat of the Panthers not being able to adjust to playoff hockey, which the Capitals have shown they’re pretty good at.
El-Bashir: It’s going to be tough sledding. But I think they win if they can, over the course of the series, get some secondary scoring and get competent goaltending.
Gulitti: The Capitals can win if their goaltending holds up. Goaltending for the Capitals has to play solid. I don’t know if they’re going to be able to shut down Florida’s offense, but they can’t give up any free goals in the series. There are going to be goals scored anyways, so they need to play solidly and competently. They’ll win if they get that and if they’re able to get to Bobrovsky. I think that is an area the Capitals can exploit — they know how to score goals when they’re playing the right way, and Bobrovsky has not been that good in the playoffs.