Enjoy these anxiety-ridden weeks. The Washington Capitals are making their eighth straight playoff appearance and are in the postseason for the 14th time in 15 years.
These aren’t your father’s NHL Playoffs, where 16 of 21 teams made the postseason from 1980-91. With the addition of the Seattle Kraken this past fall, now just 50% of the league’s teams advance to the playoffs.
And for every impressive run like the one the Caps are in the middle of, there are droughts for former powers like the Detroit Red Wings (six straight missed postseasons after making the playoffs from 1991-2016).
So while we’ll spend the next week (or longer, one hopes) wondering if the late-season slide was a mirage or something that matters, how much left in the tank after 82 regular season games the oldest team (average age 29.5 years according to Elite Prospects) in the league has, or which goaltender we’ll see shine/struggle, enjoy the pursuit. At least until they trail three games to none. Then you can begin your cursing.
Matchup: The Capitals (44-26-12) face Florida (58-18-6) for the first time ever in the playoffs. They went 1-1-1 against the Panthers in the regular season, with all three games taking place before Dec. 1. Alex Ovechkin (four goals with two assists) and Tom Wilson (two goals with three assists) produced the most against the Panthers while Florida saw 11 players score its 13 goals against the Caps. Again, these games all took place before most people had their holiday decorations up.
Causes for Confidence: Ovechkin (50 goals and 40 assists) is coming off of his most productive season since 2009-10 (his 90 points over 77 games played a whisker better than his 56 over 48 in 2013). Evgeny Kuznetsov (24-54) enjoyed his best season since the 2017-18 Stanley Cup season and Tom Wilson set career highs in goals (24) and assists (28). John Carlson (17 goals and 54 assists), Dmitry Orlov, and Nick Jensen shined on the blue line. The power play improved as the season progressed (12th best in the NHL since Feb. 1 after ranking 29th on Jan. 31) while the penalty kill was No. 12 for the whole year. They also know how to win, having a big part of their 2018 Stanley Cup-winning nucleus still in place and even brought back a veteran (Marcus Johansson played with the Caps from 2011-17) who departed before the dream season.
Causes for Concern: Let’s get the goaltending issues out of the way. Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov both had opportunities to become the No. 1 netminder for a contender. While each had their moments, neither locked down the No. 1 spot. So we could see both, which is rarely a good thing. The team also ended the regular season with an 0-3-1 thud that included a pair of poor efforts against the going-nowhere New York Islanders (outscored 9-2 in two games over three nights) and a third period wilt against Toronto where Alex Ovechkin left with an upper-body injury.
Is Ovie 100%? I’d take the captain at 8% over quite a few players (OK, perhaps I’m exaggerating) in the postseason. The health of veterans T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom has been touch and go this season as well.
They also haven’t won a playoff series since taking the Stanley Cup four years ago, losing 12 of their last 15 playoff games. Not counting 2020 (and the pandemic-bubble neutral site), Washington hasn’t won a road playoff game since 2018 when they captured the Cup in Vegas. And they won’t have a chance at home-ice advantage unless they reach the final against Los Angeles, Dallas or Nashville (the bottom three seeds in the Western Conference).
Hot Sticks: Carlson led the team in April with 16 points (six goals and 10 assists) while Ovechkin’s eight goals and Kuznetsov’s 11 assists paced the Caps in those categories. Each was awesome during the 2018 Cup run. Secondary scorers Conor Sheary and Anthony Mantha both recorded nine points in the regular season’s final month while Lars Eller and Garnet Hathaway each found the net four times in April. Can one of those four become this year’s Devante Smith-Pelly (seven goals in the playoffs after seven in the regular season)?
Playing the Panthers: Florida posted the best record in the NHL to take their first-ever President’s Trophy. For the record, the President’s Trophy winner hasn’t captured the Stanley Cup since the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks (and that was a lockout-shortened season). They also averaged a league-best 4.11 goals per game, the most in the NHL since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins (who — yes, beat the Caps that year in the first round — lost in the Eastern Conference Final to Florida). They went 12-3 in April and while they lost three of four in the final week of the regular season by a combined score of 22-12, they had already locked up home-ice for the postseason.
Keep Your Eyes On: Jonathan Huberdeau (30 goals and 85 assists) led the Panthers in scoring while three others scored 30+ goals. Sam Reinhart put up the most points (16 goals with 15 assists) on the power play, a unit that ranks fifth in the NHL. Defensemen Gustav Forsling (+41) and Mackenzie Weegar (+40) headline their blue line. The Panthers’ 2.95 goals allowed per game is tied with the Caps for 12th in the league, with their primary goaltender this season being 33-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky (39-7-3 with a 2.67 GAA but he allowed six goals in 85 minutes during his last two appearances). Their other option in the net is April’s Rookie of the Month Spencer Knight (19-9-3 with a 2.79 GAA) who shut out Ottawa April 28 in his final regular season appearance.