The Washington Capitals will open the playoffs in an unusual spot this season, finishing in just the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and opening the postseason by facing the Presidents’ Trophy winning Florida Panthers in the first round.
It’s the first time Washington has opened the playoffs on the road since 2012, when they were the seventh seed against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, and the first time facing the league’s best regular-season team in a playoff series since their second-round matchup against the New York Rangers in 2015.
While the Capitals finished the regular season with 100 points – their sixth straight season reaching the century mark in a full 82-game schedule – they still will have to turn in a strong series to have any chance of upsetting the Panthers, who finished 22 points ahead of them in a very top-heavy Eastern Conference race.
So, while on paper the Capitals will be heavy underdogs to the Panthers, what will they need to do against them to have a shot at advancing to the second round for the first time since their Cup run in 2018?
Goaltending Needs to Be Solid
The question mark of the Capitals’ 2021-22 regular season revolved around the uncertainty of the team’s young goaltending tandem, and that hasn’t changed as the playoffs begin. Both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have had chances to win the starting role as the season progressed, and both have been erratic in their performances this year, particularly with some ugly goals allowed down the stretch.
Vanecek, who started the 2021 Playoffs as the starter before getting hurt in the first period of Game 1 against the Bruins, likely will get another shot this spring to open the series as he has been the slightly more consistent and statistically better netminder of the two.
Vanecek is the less spectacular of the tandem, less likely to make the highlight save but more likely to not allow a series-altering gaffe, as Samsonov did in overtime of Game 3 in Boston. Vanecek finished with a 20-12-6 mark and a 2.67 goals-against average (GAA) this year, along with a .908 save percentage (SV%), while Samsonov recorded a 23-12-5 mark, a 3.02 GAA and a .896 SV%.
Both netminders struggled in the final week of the regular season as the Capitals had a chance to move up into third place in the Metropolitan Division standings. Having said that, with a more consistent regular season, Vanecek will likely be tasked with trying to slow down the Panthers’ potent offense. Florida led the NHL with 340 goals, besting the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs by 25 goals.
Clearly, with an offensive total over four goals per game, the Capitals will need to have their netminders make key saves. While neither goalie has really been solid overall this season, a good performance at this time of year will help erase a subpar regular season with both looking for raises as restricted free agents this summer.
Ovechkin Leads the Offense
One of the reasons Washington’s offense sputtered in the last week of the regular season was the three-game absence of Alexander Ovechkin, who apparently injured his shoulder late last Sunday against Toronto. As a result, the Capitals scored just five goals in their last three contests with the captain watching from the press box.
Ovechkin should be back for Game 1, and Washington will need significant offense from the 50-goal scorer, who played a big role in the three regular-season meetings between the Caps and Cats this season.
Washington’s first game against Florida was back on Nov. 4 against a Panthers team on a nine-game unbeaten streak to open the season. After the Capitals fell behind 4-1, Ovechkin helped stop the Panthers’ momentum. The Capitals’ captain scored their second goal to make it 4-2, and then added a pair of assists as they managed to force overtime, where they fell 5-4.
In the second game of the season series the night before Thanksgiving at Capital One Arena, Ovechkin recorded a hat trick and the game-winner as the Capitals edged the visiting Panthers 4-3.
Three nights later, Ovechkin was held off the scoresheet, and while Washington was able to build a 4-1 lead after 40 minutes, the Panthers rallied with four in the third, including a goal with 15 seconds left in regulation fo the Capitals’ only regulation loss in the three contests (1-1-1).
While Washington doesn’t have the offensive total the Panthers did this season, they also didn’t get full seasons from some of their biggest weapons in Nicklas Backstrom, Anthony Mantha and T.J. Oshie, and are still dangerous when healthy, and this will include Ovechkin.
Facing the Capitals in the Florida cage will likely be Sergei Bobrovsky, who faced the Capitals in the first round in 2018 as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets. With him going 2-4 with a .900 SV%, a series where he slowed the Capitals offense at home in the first two games before Lars Eller’s overtime goal in Game 3 in Ohio turned the series, and eventually the playoffs, Washington’s way.
Bobrovsky has largely struggled in the playoffs with a .899 career SV%, and if he is subpar again, backup Spencer Knight could come into play, but he did struggle in two appearances against Washington this year, allowing five goals on 36 shots. However, Knight, who was the NHL’s Rookie of the Month in April as he just turned 21, would have a lot of pressure on him to help the Panthers reach their lofty expectations should he come into play.
Certainly, the Capitals are in an unusual spot as the veteran playoff team which eventually overcame the crushing pressure of high expectations, as that role will now be taken on by the upstart Panthers.
Road Ice Advantage for Washington
What made this such an unusual year for Washington is, while they were uncharacteristically near-NHL .500 on home ice with a 19-16-6 mark at Capital One Arena – worst of any playoff-bound team and worst home-ice points percentage since 2006-07 for the Capitals – they were an NHL-best 25-10-6 away from home, which certainly will come into play with the Capitals guaranteed to not have home ice for at least the first three rounds of the playoffs.
The key to Washington’s success has been a more simple style on the road, limiting chances against and not looking to overdo things offensively as they tended to do at home. The Capitals strike first more often than not on the road and are able to control play and wear teams down by not getting into more wide-open track meets as they have at home, something that will certainly be a challenge against the Panthers.
One of Washington’s rare road breakdowns this season came along Panther Parkway in late November, where they lost a three-goal lead to Florida in the third period to come away without a point, and the Panthers have made a regular habit of erasing multiple-goal deficits during the season.
However, the Capitals also are quite aware of the pressure the Panthers will be facing as the league’s top regular-season team, having won the Presidents’ Trophy three times themselves. Despite the honor, the last Presidents’ Trophy team to win the Stanley Cup was the Chicago Blackhawks in the lockout-shortened 2013 season – also the last winner to reach the Stanley Cup Final – and the last 82-game season team to win both the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup was the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings.
More often than not, the Presidents’ Trophy winners have met disappointing ends in the playoffs, with three of those exits coming in the first round since 2010. In the last dozen years, Washington (2010), the Vancouver Canucks (2012) and Tampa Bay Lightning (2019) all were ushered out in the opening round despite stellar regular seasons, something the Capitals will hope to accomplish this time.
Washington also likely will get the support of a healthy dose of visiting fans in South Florida, as the Capitals tend to draw a decent amount of the ticketbuyers in Sunrise between transplants and vacationers, something they wouldn’t have had with a meeting against the New York Rangers. Also, with this being the first playoff series between the two clubs, it’s a chance for Washington fans residing in that part of the country to see the team play in the postseason.
Traditionally, Washington has come into the playoffs with high expectations, and the one year they really didn’t have to deal with them came back in 2018 – and they thrived without the burden of pressure of performing. Now, they will be facing a Florida team expected to take the next step towards that franchise’s first Stanley Cup title, and playing in a relatively pressure-free environment compared to the top-seeded Cats.
With a Florida defense that actually allowed more goals than Washington this regular season, second-worst among Eastern Conference playoff teams, the Panthers will be vulnerable to a team with a potent offense – as the Capitals have.
If Washington can frustrate the Panthers’ attack at home and swing home-ice advantage their way with a win in the first two games in Florida, it would go a long way to bolstering what they hope will be the fourth first-round upset of the NHL’s top regular-season team in a dozen years.
Outlook for Washington
It won’t be easy for the Capitals to pull off an upset that would be its biggest since that 2012 Playoff series against Boston where Washington ousted the defending champs in overtime of Game 7 on Joel Ward’s goal. They will need a much better performance than they’ve gotten lately from their goaltending, a healthy performance from Ovechkin and more solid play in Sunrise to accomplish that feat.
But this also figures to be an atypical series for Washington, one played at a faster tempo than recent series against the Bruins in 2021, New York Islanders in 2020 and Carolina Hurricanes in 2019, and one that shouldn’t produce 2-1 tight-checking affairs.
While it’s a risk to play a wide-open game with the NHL’s top-scoring team, Washington certainly has the offensive talent to hang tough with Florida, and should the goaltending at least manage to outshine Florida’s tandem, the Capitals could have a chance to take out the league’s top regular-season team if they can get those three factors breaking their way.
And, the Capitals still are confident heading into the playoffs with a decent finish to the regular season before taking their foot off the gas in the final week.
“Whatever it is leading up into the playoffs, you want to get into as good of a position as you can,” John Carlson told the media following the regular season finale Friday (from ‘Caps close with a thud, fall into a first-round date with top-seeded Panthers’, The Washington Post, April 29, 2022). “You want to feel as good as you can in your game individually and as a team, and I think over the last month or so we’ve played some of our best hockey of the whole year. So with that said, we are a confident group.”
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.