Thursday, April 26, 2018

Capitals vs. Penguins in Game 1: How Must is "Must?" A Look Back at Games 1

According to the Web site,, going into this year’s NHL postseason teams winning the first game of their best-of-seven series won their series almost 70 percent of the time.  So winning Game 1 matters, right?

No.  Not for the Washington Capitals when facing the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Ten times the Caps took the ice against the Penguins in a Game 1.  Here are the results for those games and those series…

Not pretty, is it?  This year’s Game 1 will have an interesting twist with the Penguins missing key pieces, Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin.  It is hardly the first time in the history of these Games 1 that something noteworthy happened.  For instance…

There was the first one, in 1991, in which the Caps trailed by a 2-1 margin going into the third period.  However, the Caps stormed back with three unanswered goals – Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate, and an empty netter by Kelly Miller – to escape with a 4-2 decision.  Happy times.  Except, it was the only win the Caps would record, the Penguins winning the series in five games and going on to win the Stanley Cup.

And there was 1992, when Peter Bondra scored the game’s first and last goals, and goalie Don Beaupre stopped 32 of 33 shots to power the Caps to a 3-1 win.  The Caps would take a 2-0 lead in winning Game 2 and a 3-1 lead after four games before dropping the last three by a combined 14-7 margin to lose in seven games.  The Pens went on to win another Stanley Cup.

The 1994 series was notable for what took place before Game 1.  The regular season ended for the clubs in very different fashion.  Pittsburgh wrapped up their season on April 11th, the Caps on April 14th.  With the series opening on April 17th, Pittsburgh had almost a full week to nurse injured players back to health, while the Caps had half as long.  Or at least this was the argument Caps General Manager David Poile made… loudly.  If it was mere gamesmanship, it worked.  The Caps won Game 1, 5-3, and then went on to win their only postseason series against the Penguins, four games to two.

In 1995, the Caps let the Penguins get out to a 3-1 lead, the last two of those goals scored 57 seconds apart in the first two minutes of the second period.  Things looked bleak.  The Caps crawled back on a goal by Sergei Gonchar and then tied it with a shorthanded goal by Steve Konowalchuk.  The Caps opened the third period by turning the tables on the Penguins, scoring goals 1:48 apart in the first three minutes to take a 5-3 lead.  Jaromir Jagr got the Penguins back within one late in the period, but the Penguins got no closer in a 5-4 Caps win.  After the Caps recorded back-to-back 6-2 wins in Games 3 and 4 to take another 3-1 lead, going to the second round seems a foregone conclusion.  The Caps might have thought so, too after taking a 2-0 lead in the first period of Game 5.  And then they went on a power play late in the period with a chance to drive a stake through the Penguins’ heart.  Think a series can’t turn on a single play?  You could argue that a whole career turned on a play with under three minutes in the first period of this game.  Jaromir Jagr beat Caps goalie Jim Carey for a shorthanded goal with 2:30 left in the first period to get the Penguins back to within a goal.  Starting with that goal, the Pens outscored the Caps in Games 5-7, 15-4, to take the series in seven games.  Carey would play in only five more postseason games for the Caps, losing all three of his decisions, and would be out of hockey by the end of the decade.

The 1996 series is notable for four things, two of which came in Game 1 and have been largely forgotten with time.  First, the Penguins stormed out to a 4-1 lead 31 minutes into the game.  The Caps came back, though, scoring five unanswered goals to close the scoring in a 6-4 win.  The second thing coming out of that game that might cause Caps fans to shake their collective heads in reflection was that the comeback was led by Todd Krygier, who had two goals in that game, including the game-winner 12:26 into the third period.  Krygier would figure prominently later in the series.

The head-shaking might stem from the fact that it was late in the second period in Game 4, just after the Penguins cut a 2-0 Caps lead in half on a Jagr shorthanded goal, that Krygier, the designated personal agitator of Mario Lemieux, caused Lemieux to “lose his noodle…”

For his trouble, Lemieux was charged with instigator, slashing, fighting, and game misconduct penalties, earning him an ejection.  Krygier got two minutes for roughing.  A reasonable person would think that with the best or second best player on the planet (depending on how one still felt about Wayne Gretzky) in the locker room for the last period, that the Caps would be in pretty good shape.  Yeah, that’s what the reasonable person would think.  Caps-Pens is not a realm for the reasonable, though.  Petr Nedved, who would loom oh-so-large later in this game, tied the game eight minutes into the third period to send the game into overtime.  And then another…and another…and…another.  Nedved ended the affair 19:15 into the fourth overtime with a power play goal for a 3-2 win to draw the Pens even at two games apiece.  They went on to win the series in six games.  Odd thing about that four-overtime Game 4.  All five goals were scored on special teams.  Two power play goals apiece and Jagr’s shorthanded goal.

Game 1 in 2000 was part of the league’s seemingly interminable policy to make the Penguins feel comfortable.  This year, it was back to scheduling.  Let Tony Kornheiser tell the story.  It mattered, perhaps for the only time in this postseason rivalry.  Capitals head coach Ron Wilson whistled a happy tune -- "I'll give Pittsburgh all seven games at their place and we'll still win” – but it would have been nice if the Caps won that Game 1 on home ice before heading to Pittsburgh.  The Penguins scored three goals in the first 12 minutes, added three in the second period, and won going away, 7-0.  The other four games were all one-goal affairs, but the Pens won three of them to win the series in five games.

Game 1 in 2001 was one of the strangest in this series.  It was the “Year of the Moose” in Pittsburgh, Johan “Moose” Hedberg capturing the herring scented hearts of Penguin fans after going 7-1-1 to close the regular season.  He got the call in Game 1 and showed no sign of playoff jitters.  The only blemish on his performance was a power play goal by Peter Bondra 35 seconds into the second period.  Fortunately for the Caps, Olaf Kolzig was even better.  Although he faced fewer shots than Hedberg (16 to 27), he stopped them all in a Caps 1-0 win.  Odd fact in this game… Mario Lemieux logged more than 24 minutes, most on the team, and did not have a shot on goal.  It didn’t matter in the end, though.  Pittsburgh won Game 6 in Pittsburgh in overtime, courtesy of rough ice that led to a Sergei Gonchar giveaway at his own blue line and a series-clinching breakaway goal by Martin Straka, his only goal of the series. 

It would be eight more years before the rivalry was renewed, 2009 marking the first meeting of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in the postseason. Four days after the Caps dispatched the New York Rangers in a seven-game thriller of a series, the Caps hosted the Pens in Game 1.  The stars did shine, Crosby opening the scoring four minutes into the game and Alex Ovechkin giving the Caps a lead before the first intermission on a power play.  But it would be lunch pail guys like Mark Eaton for the Pens and David Steckel for the Caps who would also figure in the scoring before Tomas Fleischmann won it for the Caps with a goal in the second minute of the third period in a 3-2 win.  The teams held serve with home wins in each of the first four games before home ice didn’t matter anymore.  The Caps won a game in Pittsburgh, but the Pens won both games in Washington, including an emphatic 6-2 win in Game 7 on their way to their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

In 2016, Game 1 featured showing Caps fans what can happen when one player puts the team on his back, at least for one game.  And it was not Alex Ovechkin.  Andre Burakovsky got the Caps started with a goal mid-way through the first period, but the Penguins grabbed the lead with goals less than a minute apart mid-way through the second period.  Then, T.J. Oshie took over. He tied the game 12 minutes into the second period, and then he put the Caps in front in the fourth minute of the third period.  Nick Bonino tied it for the Pens mid-way through the period, but Oshie ended things 9:33 into overtime to complete his hat trick.  It was the first hat trick for a Capitals player in a playoff Game 1 since Dino Ciccarelli did it in New Jersey against the Devils in a 5-4 win in 1990.  Nice, to be sure.  That is, until the Pens won the series in six games on their way to another Stanley Cup.

Last year, something unusual happened to the Caps in Game 1 against the Penguins.  They lost. It was only the second time in ten Games 1 that it happened, the first time since 2000, breaking a three-game Game 1 winning streak against Pittsburgh.  In what would represent the underlying theme of this series (and the 2016 one, for that matter), it was that Bonino guy – the one who ended the Caps’ season in overtime in Game 6 to close out the 2016 meeting of these teams – who scored the game-winning goal in the 13th minute (13…bad luck) of the third period to push the Pens to a 3-2 win.  The Caps would lose Game 2 by a 6-2 margin, but they did fight back to win three of the next four games to force a Game 7.  But, these things, whatever path they take, almost always led to the same place…Pittsburgh winning the last game, a 2-0 win in Game 7 on their way to their fifth Stanley Cup.

With Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin out for Game 1 in the opening game of this year’s series, the question is raised, “is Game 1 a must win game for the Capitals?”  We think it is the wrong question considering the arc of this series.  The question we would ask is, does it matter?  Bill Murray has the answer…

It’s first to “four,” not first to “one.”

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinal, Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

In the movie, “Groundhog Day,’ Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors awakens in Punxsutawney to do a report on Punxsutawney Phil and the town’s Groundhog Day festival.  Stranded in the small town, Connors goes to bed and wakes to what appears to be a rerun of Groundhog Day.  The ritual of waking up every day to Groundhog Day will be repeated by Connors for what seems years, if not decades.

Playing – and losing – to the Pittsburgh Penguins has put the Washington Capitals in the unenviable role of Connors, spending every spring, it seems, having to face the Penguins and having to endure the disappointment of the same ending in what seems by now endless repetition.

Well, here we are again for the third consecutive season and for the eleventh time since the teams first met in the postseason in 1991.  It has been 24 years since the Caps won their only series against the Penguins.  Is it time for “Groundhog Day” to end?

Washington Capitals (49-26-7)
Pittsburgh Penguins (47-29-6)

Then and Now

The “then and now” with regard to these two teams is a bit different. Starting in 2009, these teams have met three times in the postseason, and the results in the second season bear little resemblance to those in the regular season.

At a high level, in those three seasons (2008-2009, 2015-2016, and 2016-2017), the Caps enjoyed an overall 7-2-3 record in the regular season. Alas, in the postseason the Pens put up, in the famous construction uttered by basketball legend Moses Malone, fo’ fo’ fo’. Four wins in each of the three postseasons to win each series and post an overall record of 12-8.  Here is the recent postseason history of these clubs compared to regular season records in those years:

Breaking it down by year, the Caps did not have an overall losing record against the Pens in the regular season in any of the three years, and only in 2015-2016 did they lose games in regulation. It hardly needs repeating that the Caps had “no” winning postseason record in any of those three years.

And the differences between regular and postseason spread to both home and road records. The Caps earned the majority of available standings points both at home (9 of 12) and on the road (8 of 12) over those three regular seasons. The postseason was another story. The Caps had a winning record on home ice only in the 2016 postseason, and that was perhaps the product of not having the play a Game 7 on home ice, the series having ended in Pittsburgh in overtime in Game 6. They did win two of three games in Pittsburgh last spring, their only winning road record, but it was not enough to overcome a 1-3 record on home ice. The Caps had overall losing records both at home (5-6) and on the road (3-6) against the Pens in those three postseasons.

So…this season the Caps and Pens split four games, each team splitting games played on their respective home ice. Does that advantage the Caps? The Pens? Does it argue for a long, evenly matched series?


Here is the 2017-2018 season series summary...

And here are the regular season series scoring rankings for players on each team:

How Caps of you to notice…

The Caps have faced the Penguins ten times in the post season coming into this series. They won once, beating the Pens in six games in 1994. Since then, the Caps have beaten seven different franchises in the postseason – Boston Bruins (1998), Ottawa Senators (1998), Buffalo Sabres (1998), New York Rangers (2009, 2011), New York Islanders (2015), Philadelphia Flyers (2016), and the Toronto Maple Leafs (2017)… and lost to the Penguins…wait for it… seven times.

How Caps of you to notice II…

With his first point in this series, Alex Ovechkin will be all alone in second place in franchise history in points recorded against the Penguins in the playoffs. He currently has 26 points, tied with Michal Pivonka and Calle Johansson. Peter Bondra leads with 31 points. Ah, but here is the “how Caps of you to notice” part of that. Bondra…31 points in 39 games. Johansson…26 points in 36 games. Pivonka… 26 points in 31 games. Ovechkin? He has his 26 points in 20 games. He has points in 15 of those 20 games.

Never Ever

The Caps might have lost to the Pens nine times in ten postseason series, but they’ve never been swept, so there’s that.

Never Ever II

The Caps have played 30 playoff games in Pittsburgh. They have not once shut out the Penguins. In fact, they have never held the Penguins under two goals in any of those 30 games.

It just doesn’t matter…

The Caps have won Game 1 eight times in ten tries against the Penguins. They won a series only once. That’s OK, they lost both series in which they lost Game 1, too.

Singing for the Unsung

We had Tom Wilson as the possible unsung hero of the first round or a deep run. He has not disappointed so far, going 2-1-3, plus-3 (best plus-minus among forwards) on the team in Round 1. But as a team goes deeper, so more players need to step up. Who might we add to this list? One thing that the Penguins have gotten that the Caps have not in their recent playoff matchups is contributions from bottom six forwards. Recall that last season, the Caps did not get a goal in the entire postseason from Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, Jay Beagle, or Daniel Winnk. All but Winnik are returning with perhaps an eye at redemption. But another forward might be worth watching.

Chandler Stephenson got second line minutes late in the series against Columbus, but this seemed more a product of the injury that forced Andre Burakovsky to the sideline. He probably projects out more as a third-line player at this point. But the point here is that Stephenson gives the Caps a dimension they did not have with Beagle, Wilson, or Winnik last season – speed. It was on display in Game 6 against the Blue Jackets when he ran down a chip out by Jay Beagle with the Caps shorthanded and then seemed to surprise Cam Atkinson with his speed as he cut to the net and slid a backhand between goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s pads in the series-clinching win. If Stephenson can combine that speed and those soft hands often enough against the Penguins (and anything would be welcome considering last season), the Caps would be a better bet to move on.

And who might that be for Pittsburgh?

It’s hard to find an “unsung” player on a team seeking a third consecutive Stanley Cup. The assistant trainer’s assistant has had feature stories about him at this point. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin might qualify, though. He has a goal and an assist in six games this postseason, second among Penguin defensemen in points (Kris Letang has seven). His 1-5-6 scoring line is precisely the same as last year’s the difference being that he compiled that goal and five assists in 25 games last season, while doing it in six game thus far this postseason. More important, perhaps, is his ice time. He is second on the club among defensemen in both total ice time per game (22:27) and in even strength ice time per game (18:47). H averaged only half a shift per game less than Letang in the first round. He will get big minutes, and one would think they have to be productive, or at least not a liability in his own end, for the Pens to keep their hopes of a three-peat alive.

Specialty of the House

As we noted in the first round preview, “special teams are always a fertile area for consideration as a deciding factor in a series.” With the Caps and Blue Jackets, the focus was on both power plays being productive down the stretch of the regular season. In the second round, the focus might be on the irresistible force (the Caps’ top-ranked 33.3 percent power play in the first round) versus the impenetrable object (the Penguins’ third-ranked 90.5 percent penalty kill).

There might be a bit too much dependence on the power play for the Caps, though. In the first round (pending results of Game 7 in the Boston-Toronto series), no team had more power play opportunities than the Caps (27), and no team had more power play goals (nine).

However, the Penguins found themselves shorthanded quite often in the first round series against the Flyers, their 21 instances being fourth-most in the opening round. The odd part of the Penguin penalty kill in the first round was that it was perfect on the road – 13 for-13 – while among the worst at home (6-for-8/75.0 percent, tied for 12th among 16 teams).

The other end of the special teams match-up pits a mediocre first round power play (Pittsburgh, at 20.0 percent, is ranked eighth of 16 teams) against an average penalty kill (Washington is tied for seventh at 83.3 percent). But again, the odd part is the Penguins’ performance on the road versus at home. On home ice, their power play is a woeful 1-for-13 (7.7 percent), while it is a blistering 33.3 percent (4-for-12), the small population of instances aside. Those differences might be exacerbated in the second round, considering that the Caps are a perfect 11-for-11 in road penalty kill, but only 9-for-13 at home (69.2 percent), second-worst among the 16 teams in the first round. That fact must be tempered, though, by the Caps switching goalies in Game 2. Braden Holtby is 19-for-19 in saves while shorthanded, replacing Philipp Grubauer, who was juts 6-for-10.

You have to be this tall to ride this ride

We noted in the opening round preview that “rookies can make a mark in the post season, but it would not be the way to bet.” Our view on the Caps’ rookies, Jakub Vrana in particular, still holds. But what about the Penguins. So far, only two rookies have dressed for the Pens, and only one – Zach Aston-Reese – dressed for all six games of their opening round series against the Flyers. Reese was productive in limited work in the regular season, going 4-2-6, plus-2, in 16 games, one of his goals a game-winner. He had one point (an assist) and was minus-1 against the Flyers in Round 1, giving the impression that his contributions are likely to be modest. Not that the Penguins are in any particular need of rookie production.

The Tender Mercies of ‘Tender Tendencies

We will say this right up front. This series is as likely to turn on the play of Braden Holtby for the Caps, if not more, than any other factor. Consider that in his postseason career, Holtby is 5-8, 2.57, .908, with no shutouts against the Penguins in 13 appearances. Those are not awful goals against average or save percentage numbers, but in 51 playoff games against everyone else, he is 28-23, 1.85, .937, with three shutouts.  And those number differences are not a postseason aberration, either.  In 20 career regular season appearances against the Penguins, Holtby is 8-9-2, 2.90, .911, with two shutouts.  Against everyone else, he is 217-80-33, 2.38. .920 with 30 shutouts in 341 appearances.  You have to wonder just what the Penguins have on Holtby.

Holtby has tended goal in some overall bad luck, too, or at least without a lot of support.  Among goalies with at least 25 postseason games played, a goals against average of 2.25 or less, and a save percentage of .920 or better, only Patrick Lalime has a win loss record closer to .500 (21-20 in 41 games) than Holtby (33-31 in 64 games).

As for Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray, he has an interesting postseason history of his own.  Before this season, two postseason appearances, two Stanley Cups.  But there is where the similarities in those two seasons begins and ends.  He was very good in his first trip to the postseason, appearing in 21 of the Penguins’ 24 games in the 2016 postseason, posting a record of 15-6, 2.08, .923, with one shutout.  Only three rookie goaltenders since the 2005-2006 season had a lower GAA (one of them being Braden Holtby: 1.95 in 2012), and only Ilya Bryzgalov in 2006 had a higher save percentage (.944, minimum: 10 games played).  Part of that record came at the Caps’ expense, against whom Murray was 4-2, 2.40, .921 with one shutout.

Murray’s second trip to the postseason ended the same way, with a Stanley Cup, but he spent a good portion of it watching, not playing.  He missed the last 11 games of the Penguins’ run to the Cup with a lower body injury.  He was on his way to putting up better numbers, posting a 7-3, 1.70, .937 record with three shutouts before going down to injury.

This series matches two goalies who are among five having appeared in at least 25 postseason games, posted a goals against average of under 2.00 (both are at 1.99), and recorded a save percentage of .925 or better (Holtby is at .931, Murray at .926) with at least four shutouts (Murray has six, Holtby has four).  San Jose’s Martin Jones is the only other active goalie on that list (Patrick Lalime and Dominik Hasek are the others (numbers from 

Management Matters

There is the good news and the bad news about Capitals head coach Barry Trotz.  The good news is, Trotz is the only head coach in team history to lead his team to the second round of the postseason in four consecutive years.  The bad news is, in Nashville and in Washington, Trotz teams have gone no further.  Five times – two with Nashville and three with Washington – Trotz’ teams failed to move to a conference final after winning their first two series.  And, of 32 coaches with at least 90 games of postseason coaching experience in the NHL, Trotz has the second-worst win-loss percentage (.453/43-52).  Only Jacques Martin’s record is worse among that group (.450/50-61).

At the other end of the spectrum is Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan.  His early coaching career was not the stuff of legend.  In one full season with the Boston Bruins (2003-2004) he did reach the playoffs, but the Bruins were eliminated in the first round by the archrival Montreal Canadiens.  Fast-forward 11 years to the 2016 post season, and Sullivan, who was an in-season replacement for Mike Johnston, led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup, duplicating the in-season replacement to Stanley Cup journey of Dan Byslma in 2009.  After repeating with the Pens last season and winning in six games in the first round this postseason, Sullivan is 39-23 as a playoff coach.  Among 39 coaches to have coached in at least 30 games but fewer than 75, that is the most wins, and his .629 winning percentage is also best among that group.

The Caps will win if…

They can keep from getting hurt by forwards not named “Crosby,” “Malkin,” or “Kessel."  Last season, the Penguins got goals from nine different forwards in their series against the Caps, and they had points from 12 of the 14 forwards who dressed in the series.  In 2016, it was goals from nine forwards and points from 11 of 13 forwards to dress.  It is one thing for Crosby or Malkin to get their points, and frankly the Caps did a pretty good job of containing them, if not shutting them down.  But the Pens have had game-winning goals from Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino (two, including a series-clincher in overtime in 2016), Eric Fehr (ugh…), Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel.  The “un-star” performances have done in the Caps more than they have been dominated by Crosby or Malkin.  Keep that from happening this time around, and perhaps the Caps get to go to the third round for the third time in team history.

The Penguins will win if…

The continue to make Braden Holtby look ordinary, especially at even strength.  Of the four goalies to dress for the Caps against the Penguins since they met in 2009, Holtby has the best goals against average (2.57) and the best save percentage (.908), but that only serves to illustrate one reason the Caps have had so little success against this team in the postseason.  Those are not, by the standards Holtby has set in the playoffs since he came into the league, good numbers.  But where things take a turn is at even strength.  Of 31 goalies to have appeared in at least ten playoff games since 2012, Holtby’s .938 save percentage at even strength against teams other than Pittsburgh would be fifth best in the league over that span.  But against the Penguins, that even strength save percentage is .908.  Only two in that same group of 31 goalies have worse even strength postseason save percentages over that span.  If Holtby cannot improve on that even strength save percentage, the Penguins will dish out another helping of disappointment with a side of bitterness to the Caps.

In the end…

There is a curious lack of pressure on either of these teams.  The Penguins are playing with house money, in a way, having won the Stanley Cup in each of their last two seasons.  Yes, a third-straight Cup in the salary cap era would put them in the conversation of most impressive dynasties in the expansion era, but being the first team to win consecutive titles since the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998 is quite an accomplishment.

For the Capitals, this was not supposed to be a season with a deep postseason run.  Expectations of a much deeper team weighed heavily on them the past two seasons, but this club, having lost a half dozen skaters from the squad that lost Game 7 to the Penguins last spring, was thought to be a borderline playoff team by many prognosticators and on no one’s short list of Cup contenders.  Within the context of this season, the Caps are playing with house money, too.

However, the Caps do have one thing in common with the fictitious Phil Connors.  Those repetitions might have permitted them, by sheer repetition, to figure out a way to either beat the Penguins on the basis of x’s and o’s, or beating them on the basis of the cumulative level of experience that they obtained in playing them.  For Caps fans who think this tale never ends differently, just remember.  In the end, Phil got the girl and broke the spell.

Capitals in six…that’s right, six.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Washington Capitals: Three Games In and Things to Impress Your Friends With

Here we are, half way to where we expect the Caps to win this series, and we have some odd facts to amuse and amaze you...

  • After three games, one Capital is a “plus” player.  Christian Djoos, who having played one game is plus-1.
  • Ah, but 15 of 20 skaters to dress so far are over 50 percent in shot attempts-for at 5-on-5, and the team is second in shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 with 55.13 percent (Winnipeg is first at 62.07 percent).
  • Coming into this series, the Caps had a 7.8 shooting percentage in the postseason since 2008.  That was 23rd of 30 teams over that span.  After last night’s win they are 7.5 percent in this series (10 goals on 133 shots).  They rank 14th of 16 teams in 5-on-5 shooting percentage (4.3).
  • Last night the Caps recorded 45 shots on goal, the second time in this series they had at least that many shots and the ninth time they did it since 2008.  Last night was just their second time in nine tries that they won when posting at least 45 shots on goal, the other time coming in 2011, when Jason Chimera scored on the Caps’ 53rd shot to beat the New York Rangers, 4-3, in double overtime in Game 4 of their first round series that the Caps would win in five games.
  • John Carlson is averaging 30:45 per game in ice time in this series.  Not only does that not lead the league (Seth Jones is averaging 32:42 for Columbus), he doesn’t lead his own team.  Dmitry Orlov is averaging 31:04 and ranks second in the league in average ice time.
  • Different management approaches.  Capitals rank second through fifth in average ice time (Matt Niskanen is fourth at 30:42, and Alex Ovechkin ranks fifth at 28:22).  Meanwhile, Blue Jackets rank first through sixth in shifts taken per game played (Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, David Savard, Ryan Murray, Ian Cole, and Zach Werenski).  Five Capitals rank in the top 15 in time on ice per shift (no other team has more than two).  The highest ranking Blue Jacket in time on ice per shift is Pierre-Luc Dubois, tied for 47th at 49 seconds per shift.
  • No team has had more power play chances so far than the Caps (17, tied with San Jose), and that includes teams that have played four games.  No team has more power play goals than the Caps, either (six, also tied with San Jose).
  • The Caps’ goal scoring follows an odd, and a bit disturbing trend.  Four goals scored in the first periods of the three games, three in the second period, two in the third, and one in overtime.  Ten of the 11 goals they have allowed have come after the first period.
  • Through three games, the Caps have spent 3:58 killing penalties in overtime, 0:01 on their own power play.  Stop that!
  • Last night was the 70th one-goal game played by the Caps in the postseason since 2008.  No team has played more.  In fact, consider that the two teams ranked second and third – Pittsburgh (68) and Chicago (66) – have won multiple Stanley Cups in that span, while the Caps have not lasted past the second round, and you get a feel for just how embedded the one-goal decision is in recent Caps playoff history.  That they are 32-38 in those games (19 of the losses in overtime) is just depressing.

Photo: Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: The Rest of the 2018 Stanley Cup Tournament First Round

Having taken a look at the Washington Capitals first round matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets, we can turn our attention to the other series on the first round NHL playoff schedule. And there are quite a few interesting series in there. 

Tampa Bay Lightning (54-23-5)
New Jersey Devils (44-29-9)

Here is the “David and Goliath” series.  Tampa Bay was on just about everyone’s short list to come out of the East to the Stanley Cup final.  You would have had to look hard to find anyone who thought the Devils would find their way into the postseason.       

Tampa Bay did not disappoint, but the Devils were overachievers.  It makes the Devils something of the darlings of the East, but one would rather be the Lightning.  They scored more than half a goal per game more than New Jersey (3.54 to 2.96), had a better power play (23.9 percent to 21.4 percent), better shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (51.63 to 48.60).  But as they say in the TV ads at 3:00 am… “BUT WAIT!”  New Jersey won all three meetings against the Lightning this season, and Tampa Bay scored only three even strength goals.  All three games were one-goal decisions, one of those in a Gimmick.  Does that mean the Devils have the Lightning’s number?  Well, no.

Lightning in 6


Boston Bruins (50-20-12)
Toronto Maple Leafs (49-26-7)

This will be the 15th time these Original Six clubs have met in the postseason, but the first since 2013 and only the second meeting since 1974.  But familiarity with one another is not a problem.  They have met 73 times since the dark 2004-2005 season, the Bruins leading the series with a 43-19-11 record in that span.  This year, though, Toronto took a big wet bite out of that advantage the Bruins have enjoyed, winning three of the four games the teams played.  Boston stumbled at the finish, losing four of their last five games and going 7-5-4 over their last 16 contests.  On the other hand, the Maple Leafs wrapped up the season going 10-4-0 in their last 14 contests.  This could end up being the most competitive of the eight first round series.  We think Toronto has one more year to wait before advancing past the first round.

Boston in 7


Pittsburgh Penguins (47-29-6)
Philadelphia Flyers (42-26-14)

This series is one in which Caps fans root for the meteor, or a gamma ray burst, or bad meat in the cheese-steaks or Primanti’s sandwiches.  There is no team here to root for.  For Caps fans, the best outcome would be seven four-overtime games.  This would be one of those series in which one might say that because these teams are bitter rivals with a long history of antagonism toward one another, the Flyers would have a puncher’s chance, figuratively speaking.  Well, the Penguins won all four meetings of the clubs this season, and although two of them were in overtime, Pittsburgh still found a way to score five goals in each of the four games.  Given the lingering uncertainty in goal for the Flyers and whether Brian Elliott is sufficiently healthy to make a difference, this could be a short series.  But out of hope, we’ll give the Flyers one more win than our head says is likely.

Pittsburgh in 6


Nashville Predators (53-18-11)
Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9)

This is a series that pits “Team With Unfinished Business” against “Team Just Happy to Be Here.”  Nashville made it to the Stanley Cup final last year and followed that up with a Presidents Trophy this season.  Colorado hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2014, and they haven’t won a postseason series since 2008 (Joel Quenneville, who went on to bigger and better things, was their coach).  Nashville won all four games between the clubs this season, outscoring Colorado, 19-11.  Sweeping a team in the postseason is hard, and that’s the only reason we think…

Nashville in 5


Winnipeg Jets (52-20-10)
Minnesota Wild (45-26-11)

This is a series for hockey junkies, teams with rabid local followings but not much of a national footprint.  It could be entertaining, though.  There are the Jets with the second-ranked scoring offense in the league (3.33 goals per game) and perhaps the next great dominant goal scorer in Patrik Laine.  On the other hand, the Wild aren’t slouches in scoring, ranked 11th overall (3.05).  They are similarly ranked in scoring defense, the Jets ranked fifth (2.63 goals allowed per game) and the Wild ranked 11th (2.79).  Both clubs have special teams indexes – power play plus penalty killing percentages – over 100 (Winnipeg at 105.2 and Minnesota at 101.7).  Winnipeg won three of the four games in the season series, but all three wins came before December 1st , and the clubs haven’t met since the Wild secured their lone win on January 13th.  Winnipeg finished the season on a 11-1-0 run, but five of those wins were in extra time, and two of them were in Gimmicks.  The Wild struggled down the stretch, going 6-4-4 to close out their regular season.

Winnipeg in 6


Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7)
Los Angeles Kings (45-29-8)

Vegas didn’t luck into their finish this season.  They were both a top ten scoring offense (3.27 goals per game/5th) and a top-ten scoring defense (2.74/8th).  They tied for tenth in both power play (21.4 percent) and penalty kill (81.4 percent).  But the Los Angeles Kings are a flinty sort of team, the best scoring defense in the league (2.46 goals allowed per game) and stingy with the shots they allow (30.9 shots allowed per game, eighth fewest).  They also played the Golden Knights tough this season, the teams splitting four games, each team getting one of their wins in overtime.  The difference, if there is one, is that the Kings won their two decisions in the last two meetings of the season, in late February.  Late February also happens to be the last time Los Angeles lost consecutive games.  They went 12-5-3 since then to finish the season.

Los Angeles in 7


Anaheim Ducks (44-25-13)
San Jose Sharks (45-27-10)

Things were looking really good for San Jose when they won eight in a row as March was winding down.  Then they went and finished 1-4-1 in their last six games.  On the other hand, the Ducks had a better finishing kick, going 10-1-1 in their last dozen games, scoring 40 goals in the process while allowing just 23 and shutting out opponents three times.  San Jose is a better possession team, as indicated by shot attempts at 5-on-5, and is more efficient on both sides of special teams (20.6 percent to 17.8 percent on power plays, 84.8 percent to 83.2 percent on penalty kills).  And, the Ducks put a little too much pressure on their own goaltenders in allowing 33.1 shots per game, seventh-most in the league (only Colorado has allowed more among playoff teams in the West).  There isn’t much to read in the season series.  Although San Jose won three of the four games, three of the games were decided in the Gimmick, two of which the Sharks won.  This will be close.

San Jose in 7

Monday, April 09, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: 2018 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal, Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Sixteen teams in search of sixteen wins and one rather large silver cup.  That is now what we are down to, and for the Washington Capitals it is their 28th visit to the postseason in franchise history.  They will face the Columbus Blue Jackets in their pursuit of a first-round series win for the 14th time in club history.  It will be Washington’s first ever meeting with the Blue Jackets in the postseason.

Washington Capitals (49-26-7)
Columbus Blue Jackets (45-30-7)

Then and Now I

Comparing this year’s Capitals and last year’s in terms of their regular season performance, the odd thing to note is that despite losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Daniel Winnik, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Kevin Shattenkirk (and the 68 goals they recorded), the Caps scoring offense this season (3.12 goals per game) was just slightly off last year’s pace (3.18).

As expected, the defense was leakier, allowing 2.90 goals per game this season compared to a league-best 2.16 goals per game allowed in 2016-2017.  And the Caps could not score their way out of their defensive problems this season.  Not that could do so in 2016-2017, but they had so many fewer instances of having to.  In 2016-2017 the Caps allowed four or more goals in regulation/overtime 15 times and had a record of 3-11-1.  All three wins came in overtime.  This season, they allowed four or more goals 23 times, but could not improve on their win total, going 3-16-4, one win coming in regulation (6-4 over Montreal on March 24th), another in overtime (against Carolina to open the 2018 portion of the season), and the third in a Gimmick (that one on Opening Night against Ottawa).  This has some potentially ominous implications for the Caps, because Columbus leads the entire NHL in goals scored since March 1st (74 in 19 games/3.89 per game).

The same pattern appears in the special teams.  The 2017-2018 power play (22.5 percent) was not far off the 2016-2017 edition (23.1 percent), and the opportunities were almost identical to a scary degree – 131 home power play chances in each year and 113 chances on the road this season compared to 116 last year.  This year’s home power play was much more efficient (25.2 percent compared to 21.4 percent last season), while last year’s road power play was substantially better (25.0 percent to 19.5 percent this season).

What sticks out are the shot attempt numbers, and this year’s club does not compare favorably to last year’s.  The 5-on-5 shots attempts-for percentages in every situation posted among the NHL statistics were worse this year than last.  Overall (47.98 to 51.81), ahead (45.17 to 48.87), behind (53.35 to 54.96), and in close situations (46.59 to 53.85).

Then and Now II

These teams know one another.  Since Columbus joined the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division in the 2013-2014 season, the teams have faced off 22 times as division rivals, the Caps holding a 14-5-3 edge.  The 2017-2018 series reflected a similar dominance by the Caps in terms of wins and losses, Washington winning the first three games of the series before dropping the season series finale in Columbus in late February.

How Caps of you to notice…

Since the 2008 playoffs, when the Caps returned to the postseason for the first time since 2003, only six teams in the league have won more postseason games than the Caps (47).  All six of those teams have been to at least one Stanley Cup final – Pittsburgh (90), Chicago (76), Boston (59), Detroit (56), the New York Rangers (55), and San Jose (52).  Alas, the Caps have not.

How Caps of you to notice II…

Since the Caps first reached the postseason in 1983, no team in the NHL has more losses on home ice, although they are in decent company. Their 66 losses over that span are tied with the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens.  The difference is that Detroit has 108 home wins in that span, and Montreal has 82.  The Caps’ 64-66 all-time record on home ice in the playoffs is one of seven teams with a sub-.500 record on home ice in the postseason since 1983 (.492), and none of those seven teams have played more games on home ice in that period than the Caps.

Never, until now…

The Columbus Blue Jackets will be the 13th team that the Caps have faced in the postseason.  The Caps do not have an enviable record when facing a team for the first time in the playoffs.  Starting with their first appearance against the New York Islanders, in the best-of-five Patrick Division Semifinals in 1983 and most recently in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017, the Caps have a 4-8 series record against teams they met for the first time.

It might not be as bad as all that, though.  Those early playoff years were rough.  From 1983 through 1991 the Caps faced a team for the first time in the postseason six times and lost five of those series.  Only in the best-of-five Patrick Division semis in 1984 did the Caps come out on top of a team they were facing for the first time, sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers, a series memorable for current Caps TV analyst Craig Laughlin scoring the game-winning goal in the second and third wins of that three-game sweep.

The last first-timer series in that early period was a five-game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1991 Patrick Division Finals.  The Pens went on to win their first Stanley Cup and have rained grief and disappointment on the Caps in the decades since.

After that loss to the Pens in 1991, the Caps did not face a team they had not already faced in the playoffs until 1998.  After dispatching the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (the Caps were swept by the Bruins in the 1990 Wales Conference Finals), the Caps faced in the next three rounds teams they had not yet faced in the post season.  They defeated the Ottawa Senators in five games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they beat the Buffalo Sabres in six games to advance to what was, and remains the only Stanley Cup Final in which the Caps have participated.  There, they fell to the Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep, ending their modest two-series winning streak against teams the faced for the first time.  Detroit was the third, and to date last team to beat the Caps in their first postseason meeting and go on to win the Stanley Cup.  The Islanders did it in 1983, and the Penguins did it in 1991.

That loss to the Red Wings set off a three-series losing streak against first-time opponents, the Caps dropping a six-game series to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2003 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and a seven-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 Eastern Conference quarters that stands as perhaps the most stunning postseason loss in team history.  

Series involving teams the Caps play for the first time tend not to be dull affairs lacking drama.

Never Ever

The Caps have never…ever swept a best-of-seven series.  Only three times have they won a series in five games (1990 against the New York Rangers, 1998 against the Ottawa Senators, and 2011 against the Rangers).

Odd Capitals First Round Fact

Over the last three seasons, no team in the NHL has played more first round playoff games than the Caps (19).  No team has more wins, either (12), the product of being the only team in the last three years to have three first round series wins.  Turns out it’s not “one and done,” but “one is fun!”

Singing for the Unsung

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Philden Holtbauer or Bralipp Grultby.  Caps fans will expect these players to make significant contributions in the postseason.  But star-power, while necessary, is insufficient for winning a postseason series.  Look back to last year.  The top of the scoring list was populated by the expected suspects: Nicklas Backstrom (6-7-13), T.J. Oshie (4-8-12), Evgeny Kuznetsov (5-5-10), Alex Ovechkin (five goals).  The Caps did not get that “surprise,” that player who breaks through unexpectedly to make critical contributions.  Andre Burakovsky had six points in 13 games, and it says something that the Caps were 3-1 in the games in which he recorded at least one point.  He just didn’t do it often enough.  Lars Eller did not record a goal.  He was one of three forwards who appeared in all 13 games only to be shutout in goals scored (Daniel Winnik and Jay Beagle were the others.

And that raises the question, who among the Capitals who are not stars might be the hero of a series or a deep run?  Put us down for “Tom Wilson.”  He was not an especially big contributor last spring, recording three points, all goals, in 13 games, one of them an overtime game-winning goal against Toronto in the first round.  But this season he showed a much deeper all-around game than merely the “bruiser” role he played over much of his first four seasons.  He set a career record for goals (14), matching his combined total over the previous two seasons.  He also had career highs in assists (21) and points (35).  His plus-10 was a career best, as were his 123 shots on goal and his 11.4 shooting percentage. 

It was more an expansion of his game than a replacement.  His physical edge was still quite evident, Wilson finishing the season with 250 hits (second highest of his career) and a career high 187 penalty minutes.  But it is that expansion in his game, presenting more of an offensive threat that puts Wilson at the top of the list in terms of possible dark horse heroes.  The Caps were 9-1-0 in games in which Wilson recorded a goal this season.  It is his combination of grit and new-found offensive production that can be especially important against a team of lunch pail guys like the Blue Jackets and a coach in John Tortorella who preaches that ethic.

And who might that be for Columbus?

Yeah, Artemi Panarin is the go-to goal getter; he had three of the team’s 12 goals against the Caps this season to lead the team.  Seth Jones is developing into a monster on the blue line.  Nick Foligno has been hurt, but he’s gritty and is the beating heart of this team.  Sergei Bobrovsky has a Vezina Trophy on his resume (two actually).  Those are the guys who are going to have to show up in the postseason for the Blue Jackets to move past the Caps.  Who might be that under the radar guy who could end up being and unsung hero of whom songs are sung in a couple of weeks? 

Here is where we go out on a limb and pick Sonny Milano.  For those of you who have not been paying attention to young Mr. Milano, and chances are you haven’t, he finished the season with 14 goals, good for 16th among rookies this season.  Not impressed?  He did it playing in only 55 games; 42 rookies appeared in more contests.  Still not impressed?  Starting with scoring the game-winning goal against Washington in Columbus’ 5-1 win on February 26th, Milano went 6-3-9 over his last 20 games (the six goals on just 33 shots, 18.2 percent) while averaging just 13 minutes of ice time a night.  Still not impressed?  That run, modest as it might look, roughly corresponded with Columbus’ run since March 1st as the top scoring offense in the league.  And, the Blue Jackets are 13-4-3 in the 20 games in which he recorded at least one point this season.

Specialty of the House

Special teams are always a fertile area for consideration as a deciding factor in a series.  And power plays have been powerful for each of these teams down the stretch.  Since March 1st, Washington was sixth in power play efficiency (25.4 percent), while the Blue Jackets were ninth (23.1 percent).  It might have been even better for each team had they enjoyed more opportunities.  The Caps were tied for ninth in power play chances since March 1st (55), while Columbus was tied for 17th (52).

The top unit for the Caps was effective down the stretch and surprisingly balanced in terms of goal scoring.  No surprise that Alex Ovechkin led the Caps in power play goals since March 1st (5), but Evgeny Kuznetsov had four power play goals of his own, while Nicklas Backstrom added three more.  Meanwhile, John Carlson led the Caps in power play assists in that span with nine, while Backstrom added seven.  The Caps scored power play goals in nine of the 18 games since March 1st and won eight of them.  Avoiding the Caps’ power play will be high on the to-do list for the Blue Jackets.

Columbus did not have the high end total among their power play goal scorers of an Alex Ovechkin, but their power play scoring was more balanced since March 1st.  Seth Jones led the club in power play goals with three in just 15 games played of the 19 on the Columbus schedule.  Pierre-Luc Dubois was the other Blue Jacket with multiple power play goals (2).  Five other players scored one apiece.  Jones also led the club in power play assists over that span with six, followed by Artemi Panarin (five).  The Caps might want to avoid the Blue Jacket power play, knowing that Columbus was 6-0-2 in the eight games in which they scored power plays from March 1st forward.  They also finished with a flair, going 7-for-15 in their last five games (46.7 percent).

While the power plays have been similar in overall effectiveness down the stretch, the penalty killing shows differences between the teams.  Since March 1st, the Caps were 11th in penalty killing (83.0 percent), while Columbus was just 75.0 percent (tied for 21st with the Dallas Stars).  It was in the total shorthanded situations faced that the teams were almost equal, the Caps going shorthanded 53 times in 18 games since March 1st, the Blue Jackets facing 52 shorthanded situations in 19 games.  If the Caps can get the Blue Jackets on the short side of the manpower situation, that might be an advantage for the Caps more than it would be for the Blue Jackets if the situations were reversed.

You have to be this tall to ride this ride

Rookies can make a mark in the post season, but it would not be the way to bet.  Since the dark 2004-2005 season, only two rookies finished a Stanley Cup tournament with more than 20 points – Ville Leino was 7-14-21 for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, and Jake Guentzel was 13-8-21 for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.  Guentzel and Brad Marchand (11 goals in 2011) are the only rookies in that span to finish with ten or more goals as a rookie in the postseason.

That said, do either the Caps or the Blue Jackets have rookies to keep an eye on as pivotal players in this series?  Washington had four rookies appear in more than 50 games this season, two forwards (Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana) and two defensemen (Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey).  If there are contributions to be made from this cohort, it would seem to be more likely from the forwards than the defensemen, neither of whom are certain to get a regular spot in the lineup in this series.  Stephenson and Vrana have entirely different profiles, the former being more of a checking, bottom-six contributor, while Vrana is a skill player who needs to be productive on offense to maximize his contributions.  Vrana did finish tied for 17th in this rookie class in goal scoring (13). However, after scoring ten goals in his first 32 games this season, his production dried up with just three goals in his last 41 games, and his appearances in the lineup became more infrequent.

Columbus dressed five rookies for ten or more games, but only Pierre-Luc Dubois and Sonny Milano dressed for more than 50.  Their contributions had bigger footprints than any Capitals rookie.  Dubois, the third-overall pick in the 2016 entry draft, would appear to bear watching.  He finished with 20 goals (tied for seventh in this year’s rookie class with New Jersey’s Nico Hischier) and 48 points (eighth). 

The Tender Mercies of ‘Tender Tendencies

This might be the most intriguing series in the first round if you like goaltending drama.  Three of the last five Vezina Trophies are represented in this series, Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky with two and Washington’s Braden Holtby with one.  Both have been among the finalists twice over the last five seasons.  And yet, there is Holtby around whom uncertainty swirls at the moment.   After winning both ends of a home-and-home against Columbus in early February, Holtby finished the season going 6-6-2, 3.79, .880 in 14 appearances and was pulled early from games three times.  His only win in six road appearances in that sequence was in his last road game, a 34-save effort in a 4-2 win in St. Louis against the Blues on April 2nd.  On the good side, he is 5-1-0, 2.68, .911 over his last six appearances.

Holtby’s performance opened up a lane of opportunity for Philipp Grubauer, and he drove through it.  Of 39 goalies in the league to log at least 1,000 minutes since January 1st, Grubauer is second in the league in goals against average (2.14) and save percentage (.931), both to Arizona’s Antti Raanta (1.84/.942).  And here is your interesting Grubauer fact.  Since he came into the league in the 2012-2013 season, none of the 61 goalies logging at least 5,000 minutes has a better save percentage than Grubauer (.923), and he is in a virtual tie with Raanta and Anaheim’s John Gibson for the third best goals against average (all three at 2.29).  It has made for an unexpected – and as of Monday morning unresolved – goaltending controversy.

There is no similar controversy in Columbus, where it is a betting lock that the Blue Jackets will live or die with Bobrovsky between the pipes.  This will not be a Vezina Trophy season for the netminder, now in his eighth NHL season and sixth in Columbus, but replicating last season’s Vezina Trophy and third-place finish in the Hart Trophy voting for league most valuable player would have been a heavy lift.  As it is, his 2017-2018 season is quite respectable.  Among 45 goalies logging at least 1,500 minutes, Bobrovsky finished 10th in goals against average (2.42), 11th in save percentage (.921), and tied for fourth in shutouts (5).  He ramped up his performance down the stretch, going 12-2-1, 2.33, .926, with one shutout. 

But then again, there is his playoff record.  In four trips to the postseason, Bobrovsky is 3-10, 3.63, .887 in 18 appearances, 14 of them starts.  And it is not as if he has improved with time.  Last season he allowed 20 goals on 170 shots (.882 save percentage) in a five-game loss to Pittsburgh.  More strange, perhaps, is that the Penguins were his opponent in each of his last three trips to the postseason.  Much might be made of his 3-8, 3.73, .889 record in 12 games against Pittsburgh, but it is not as if he had more success against the other two teams he has faced in the playoffs – Boston and Buffalo (0-2-0, 3.23, .877 in six appearances).  He has his own spring demons to exorcise.

Management Matters

This series brings together two of the most experienced head coaches in league history.  Barry Trotz has 762 career regular season wins (fifth all-time) in 1,524 games coached (also fifth all-time).  John Tortorella has 575 wins (19th all-time) in 1,175 games coached (18th all-time).

That is where the similarities end, though.  Where Trotz is, by outward appearances, an even-keeled sort who might fairly be characterized as a “players’ coach,” Tortorella is more mercurial in personality, bordering on the volcanic.  Post-game media press conferences can be must-see TV to see how he might respond to a question he deems insufficiently appropriate.  But more important are the performance differences in the post season.  Trotz has made ten playoff appearances as a head coach with Nashville and Washington, posting a record of 39-50 in 89 games.  In each of his last five appearances in the postseason – two with the Predators and three with the Caps – he led his teams to the second round.  None would go further.

Tortorella has had more post season success, but that does come with a caveat.  Nine times he coached teams in the postseason – four with the Tampa Bay Lightning, four with the New York Rangers, and once with Columbus.  He won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004 and went to a Stanley Cup final with the Rangers in 2012.  However, he failed to reach the postseason in his only season with Vancouver, and he is 0-for-1 in series behind the Columbus bench.  His overall record of 44-50 in 94 games is not that impressive as a total body of work, and he has been “one-and-done” in five of his last seven trips to the postseason.  One wonders if perhaps his most successful days in the postseason are in the rear view mirror. 

The Caps will win if…

One of their goaltenders is the real deal.  Is Philipp Grubauer the “real deal” version of what he was in the 2018 portion of the season?  Or, is Braden Holtby the “real deal” of the postseason netminder he has been over most of his career (last year being a noteworthy exception)?  If not, the Caps have to hope that all of their stars shine on offense and get some second and third tier support.

The Blue Jackets will win if…

Their run since March 1st has not been a mirage.  That league leading scoring offense was the product of a league leading 12.4 percent shooting percentage, more than full point better than the next best team, who happened to be the Caps (11.2, second in the league).  The difference is, that 11.2 percent for the Caps is a lot closer to their season norm (10.8 percent overall) than Columbus’ 12.4 percent was to theirs (8.5 percent overall, 23rd in the league).

In the end…

These are two teams that are coming in hot into the postseason.  Since March 1st, Washington is 13-5-0 in 18 games, while Columbus is 13-4-2 in 19 games.  Both teams have formidable power plays over that span – The Capitals are 25.4 percent, the Blue Jackets at 23.1 percent.  But one cannot help but wonder if the Blue Jackets aren’t sitting atop a bubble about to burst.  Since March 1st, Columbus has seven skaters who appeared in ten or more games with shooting percentages over 16.0 percent.  That is more than eight percent of the league total over that period.  If Columbus’ shooting bubble bursts, the pressure shifts to a goaltender yet to realize any success in the postseason.  There is also the matter of the Blue Jackets and their own history of playoff disappointment.  It is not nearly as long or storied as the Caps, but they are 0-for-3 in postseason series in franchise history.

For the Caps, the problems are the usual.  Saying the past doesn’t matter long ago sounded like whistling past the graveyard.  Now, it’s a whole brass band.  And until the Caps win something beyond the second round, the same demons will keep rising up every spring.  But they cannot get there until they win one.  And this team is one that a lot of folks in the world of hockey don’t put a lot of faith in to win one, at least not so much as teams of the past couple of years.  Perhaps that will release the valve behind which so much pressure has built over the years.  It just seems as though the Caps’ foundation coming into this series is of sturdier stuff than Columbus’.  It won’t be easy – for the Caps it never is – but they will advance.

Capitals in six