The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
For the first time in the history of the franchise, the Washington Capitals go into the postseason on a playoff winning streak. The defending Stanley Cup champions open their championship defense on Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena carrying a four-game postseason winning streak, sweeping the Vegas Golden Knights in the Cup final last spring after dropping the first game of the series. For the Caps, defending a championship is new. So is facing the Hurricanes in the postseason. This will be the first playoff meeting of the clubs.
Washington Capitals (48-26-8)
Carolina Hurricanes (46-29-7)
Then and Now I
This year’s version of the Capitals looks a lot like last year’s version in many respects. One in which this group is clearly better is in scoring offense. The Caps averaged 3.38 goals per game, the second highest average of the “Rock the Red” era (since 2005-2006, which was still “black and bronze,” but whatever), trailing only the 2009-2010 juggernaut that average 3.82 goals per game, the highest in this era of hockey until Tampa Bay eclipsed it this season (3.89 goals per game).
The Caps did experience a slight deterioration in their shots on goal differential, their own shots on goal dropping from 31.9 shots per game last season to 31.5 shots on goal per game this season. On the other side of the ledger, shots on goal allowed this season were up (30.4) from last season (29.0), the result being a shot differential dropping from plus-2.9 per game to plus-1.1.
Extending that statistic to its next level – shot attempts at 5-on-5 – the Caps have improved this season. Their shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 jumped from 47.98 to 49.04, representing a change in differential of plus-158, year-to-year. It enabled the Caps to jump in ranking from 24th in this category last season to 18th this season.
If there was an area that might cause a sense of dread among Caps fans, it might be the idea of playing with a lead. Consider that last season, the Caps went 28-0-1 when leading after one period, their .966 winning percentage being the best record in the league when leading after 20 minutes. This year, that record was 27-7-3, the .730 winning percentage ranked 20th and second-worst among playoff qualifiers in the East (the New York Islanders were 22-4-5/.710). On the other hand, this was a club that lost once in regulation last season when leading after two periods (36-1-3), their .900 winning percentage ranked 11th. This season, they slipped a bit (37-3-1), their .902 winning percentage almost unchanged and also ranked 11th.
Then and Now II
This is the first meeting of these teams in the postseason, but it is not as if they do not know one another. They have a history dating back to the Southeast Division days. It has been a successful history from the Caps’ point of view. Washington has not lost consecutive games to the Hurricanes since 2013, when they lost games in October and December. In 23 games between the clubs since then, the Caps are 17-5-1.
That record includes a four-game sweep of this year’s season series that was not so much dominating as it was consistently good enough:
How Caps of you to notice…
In the Alex Ovechkin era, the Caps are a team that dominates opponents on home ice in the regular season. In the playoffs, not so much. Since 2007-2008, when the Caps reached the postseason for the first time with Ovechkin on the roster, the Caps are 305-119-51 on home ice in the regular season, but only 34-28 in the playoffs. The postseason winning percentage (.548) ranks 11th in the league over that span.
How Caps of you to notice II…
In 121 postseason games in franchise history, the Caps have recorded more than 40 shots on goal 15 times. Only once did they do so and win a game in regulation, beating the New York Islanders, 5-1 with 41 shots on goal on April 23, 2015. Their overall record in such games is 4-11, three of the four wins and six of the 11 losses coming in overtime. Oddly enough, the Caps have allowed more than 40 shots on goal to opponents 15 times in their postseason history and have a record of 6-9, four of the wins and eight of the losses coming in overtime.
We made the point last year at this time, and we will make it again. The Capitals have never swept a best-of-seven playoff series. Only four times have they won a series in five games (1990 against the New York Rangers, 1998 against the Ottawa Senators, 2011 against the Rangers, and last year's Cup final against Vegas).
The Magic Number
The Caps have scored four or more goals 33 times in 121 postseason games in their history. They lost only one of them in regulation, that being Game 1 of last year’s Stanley Cup final to the Vegas Golden Knights, 6-4. They have one other loss in that situation, a 5-4 overtime loss to Columbus in Game 2 of last year’s first round series.
The Cast of Skaters
The big difference in scoring offense on an individual level came from sources that should make Caps fans feel pretty good about the future. Tom Wilson improved by eight goals from last year to this (from 14 to 22), while Jakub Vrana upped his goal total by 11 (from 13 to 24). That 19-goal improvement by those two players is more than the total year-to-year improvement of 18 goals. To that add the seven-goal improvement by T.J. Oshie (from 18 to 25) and Brett Connolly (from 15 to 22), and the improved contributions by the forwards has been considerable, even with Lars Eller dropping off some (from 18 to 13 goals).
On the back end, the Caps were off a bit in goal scoring from last season, down from 39 to 35 among the defensemen. That is the product of Dmitry Orlov’s struggles to get anything to the back of the net. He did not have a goal over his last 34 games this season (he did have 14 assists), going 0-for-43 shooting after posting three goals on 58 shots over his first 48 games. Dry spells have not been a problem for John Carlson. His scoring numbers are not much changed from last season (15-53-68) to this (13-57-70), and that is a good thing. He and San Jose’s Brent Burns are the only league defensemen to have topped 65 points in each of the last two seasons. And, while Carlson’s plus-minus rating was “even” last season, this year he was plus-21, his best year in that category since 2010-2011, when he was also plus-21. Carlson led the Caps in total scoring against Carolina this season with seven points (2-5-7). The skaters’ numbers over the four-game season series play out as follows for each team:
Working with a net
In the expansion era of the NHL, starting in 1967-1968, there have been 49 goaltenders appearing in at least 50 postseason games. Of that group, the Capitals’ Braden Holtby ranks third in goals against average (2.04) and second in save percentage (.929). Only five active goaltenders have appeared in more postseason games than Holtby (82), and if things go well, he could be third on that list by the second round, depending on how Nashville’s Pekka Rinne fares. He is fifth in wins (45) and could also find himself in third place on that list by the second round. Further, he has been dominant against Carolina, sporting a career 16-6-0, 1.98, .937 record with two shutouts, a record that includes a perfect 4-0-0 record this season.
On the other side, the expectation is that Petr Mrazek will get the call to open the series against Washington. Mrazek is in his first season with Carolina after spending parts of six seasons in Detroit with the Red Wings and 17 games with Philadelphia last year. He had a good year with the Hurricanes, posting a goals against average of 2.39, his best since a 2.33 GAA with the Red Wings in 2015-2016, and a save percentage of .914, also his best since that 2015-2016 season with Detroit (.921). He did benefit, however, from a relatively light workload. He faced only 27.8 shots per 60 minutes.
An odd fact about Mrazek. He has 11 playoff games of work in his career, the first ten of which were against the Tampa Bay Lightning while he was with Detroit. He was 4-7 in those 11 games. In the four wins, three came via shutout, and he stopped 110 of 112 shots (.982 save percentage). In the seven losses, he allowed 131 goals on 147 shots (.891). But since he last faced Tampa Bay in April 2016, he has appeared in only one postseason game, logging 31 minutes while stopping 12 of 14 shots in mop-up duty in a 7-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins as a Philadelphia Flayer in April 2018.
Mrazek has had most of the work against the Caps this season, going 0-2-0, 2.56, .915 in 117 minutes over two appearances. If he falters, there is Curtis McElhinney, who has two playoff game appearances nine years apart in which he stopped 28 of 33 total shots faced (.848 save percentage). He has one win in nine career regular season appearances against Washington (1-5-0, 3.67, .866).
Who’s Hot ‘n’ Not?
For the Capitals over the last ten games of the regular season…
- Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie led the team with four goals apiece.
- Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team in points with nine apiece, Oshie going 4-5-9 and Kuznetsov going 3-6-9.
- Nic Dowd had two of the team’s six game-winning goals, the
only Capital with more than one.
- Matt Niskanen had more shots on goal without lighting the red lamp than any other Capital (0-for-21).
- Alex Ovechkin slowed down at the end, posting three goals on 48 shots (6.3 percent).
- Tom Wilson had a team-high 13 giveaways over the last ten games.
For the Hurricanes over the last ten games of the regular season…
- Defensemen Dougie Hamilton led the team in goals with five.
- Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen led the team in points with ten apiece, Stall going 4-6-10 and Teravainen going 3-7-10.
- Another defenseman – Justin Faulk – led the team down the
ten-game stretch with two game-winning goals, the only Hurricane with more than
- Sebatian Aho did not record a goal on 24 shots in the last ten games.
- Forward Lucas Wallmark was a team-worst minus-5 in the last ten games.
- Justin Williams was charged with ten giveaways in the last ten games, most on the club.
Looks at Rooks
Last season the Caps dressed three rookies for more than 20 postseason games – Chandler Stephenson (24 games, 2-5-7, plus-3), Jakub Vrana (23 games, 3-5-8, plus-5), and Christian Djoos (22 games, 0-1-1, plus-5). And this was after the Caps dressed four rookies for at least 50 games in the regular season (the three mentioned plus Madison Bowey) and nine in all over 82 games. It did not seem to hurt the club.
With so few roster changes this season, the Caps had fewer occasions to dress rookies for any lengthy stretches. Forward Travis Boyd did appear in 53 games, and defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler dressed for 26 games. Tyler Lewington and Nathan Walker dressed for a handful of games as well. Of this group, Boyd would appear most likely to get ice time, and his regular season (5-15-20, plus-6) suggests he could be a contributor in a limited, likely fourth line role. His 0.38 points per game was 15th among rookies appearing in at least 50 games.
Carolina is at the other end of the use spectrum for rookies. Ten rookie skaters dressed for the Hurricanes this season, Andrei Svechnikov (82 games) and Warren Foegele (77 games) being regular fixtures in the lineup. Svechnikov will certainly get some consideration for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. He tied for third in this year’s rookie class in goals scored (20, with Toronto’s Andreas Johnsson and was tied for seventh in points (37, with Chicago’s Dominik Kahun). What he did not do was produce a lot on the Hurricane power play, despite averaging 1:55 per game in ice time. He had only one power play point over his last 23 games.
Foegele did not come into the league with the second-overall pick buzz of Svechnikov, and the third-round pick (67th overall in the 2014 entry draft) has had a bit of an uneven go of it. He did finish the season with 10 goals, one of 13 skaters in double digits for the Hurricanes, but he was a team worst (and by a large margin) minus-17. He had a bit of a rough go of it down the stretch. He did record goals in each of his last two games of the regular season, but over his last 29 games was still just 4-1-5, minus-6.
The teams have almost identical special teams indices, but they get there is somewhat different ways. Washington has a better power play (20.8 percent) than Carolina (17.8 percent), but a worse penalty kill (78.9 percent) than the Hurricanes (81.6 percent) in the regular season to get to a special teams index of 99.7 to 99.4 for Carolina.
Home ice has been kind to the Caps’ power play in terms of getting opportunities. They had 133 power play chances in the regular season, sixth-most in the league. When coupled with Carolina’s 125 shorthanded situations faced on the road, which ranks in the top half of the league (tied for 13th most), the Caps might benefit from getting some man advantage chances. The Caps had six power plays on home ice in the season series, converting one (16.7 percent).
On the other side of the ledger, Carolina had 128 power play chances on the road this season, fifth-most in the league, converting 25 of them (19.5 percent), a slightly better conversion rate than their overall performance. Adding to that concern, the Caps were shorthanded 130 times this season, the fourth-highest total in the league, and allowed 30 goals, tied for the most power play goals allowed on home ice in the league (with Colorado). If Carolina is to break through in Washington, it might be on the basis of the Caps being undisciplined. The good news is that Carolina was 0-for-4 on the power play in their two regular season games in Washington this season.
When the series shifts to Carolina, things are a bit different. The Hurricanes have not had a high volume of power play chances at home this season, the 119 chances tied for 21st in the league. They did little with the chances they had, too, converting only 19 for a 16.0 percent power play on home ice, 23rd best in the league. The Caps can, however, get in some trouble on the road in this area. They were shorthanded 131 times this season, 10th in the league. Their power play goals allowed (25/13th) and penalty kill rate (80.9 percent/12th) were similarly ranked.
Flipping the script, Washington had an inability to generate power play chances on the road. They had 103 this season, fourth-fewest in the league. They converted on 19 occasions, the 18.4 percent conversion rate ranked 19th in the league. For Carolina’s part, they did a fair job of limiting power play chances on home ice, the 114 shorthanded situations faced tied for 14th-fewest in the league. Their penalty kill rate on home ice (80.7 percent) was middle-of-the-road (tied for 15th-best).
Behind the Bench
The head coaches in this series took different paths to get to similar places. Washington’s Todd Reirden and Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour are both in their first year behind an NHL bench. Both were players in the NHL, Reirden being a less renowed player, appearing in 183 regular season games for four teams and five postseason games for the St. Louis Blues over two seasons. On the other hand, Brind’Amour skated for 20 seasons with Philadelphia and Carolina, recording 235 goals and 601 points in almost 1,500 regular season games while winning a Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006. What Brind’Amout does not have is Stanley Cup playoff behind an NHL bench despite starting his coaching career as an assistant and development with Carolina in 2011. That experience in the postseason as a coach is something Reirden brings as an assistant in both the Pittsburgh and Washington organizations, helping Barry Trotz to his first Stanley Cup win as a head coach last season.
Each coach comes from a different place in terms of their assumption of duties. Brind’Amour took over a team that had not tasted the postseason since 2009. He was – and is – familiar with the organization, but he had to inject a sense of purpose and focus to raise this group to the next level. By any measure, he succeeded in that.
Reirden’s challenge was more subtle. He was bequeathed a team that won a championship and made few changes in the off-season. The temptation here is to say that all he had to do was show up and not over-coach what was already a winning formula. How many times does that work? Reirden, a low-key sort for public consumption, gave the club a fair amount of slack, and the veteran group did not appear to abuse it. The product of that is a team that, like last year’s, does not panic in the face of adversity. One way in which this evidenced itself was a slightly better record this season when trailing after two periods of games, where the Caps earned points in ten of 27 such games (4-17-6) while earning points in only five of 23 such games last season (3-18-2).
The Caps will win if…
They play close to their average level of skill and focus. That means they cannot take Carolina lightly. One way fans will be able to tell if the Caps are successful in this regard is how they handle Games 1 and 2 at home. Last season they lost those first two games on home ice against Columbus and rallied to win the series on their way to the Cup. Home ice has been a problem in the postseason for the Caps in recent years, and how well they take care of business, being a veteran teams with championship experience, will be an indicator of their focus and effort level against an opponent who, while recording fine underlying numbers this season, has a lot of players with little postseason experience who might look at this year’s trip to the playoffs as “it’s just nice to be here.”
The Hurricanes will win if…
Petr Mrazek can visualize the Capitals in Tampa Bay jerseys. Only twice in seven seasons has Mrazek played in more than half of his team’s games, and he has never started more than 49 games in any of those seven seasons. He is certainly capable of posting good numbers; it is the limited exposure he has gotten that is an issue. And, he is facing the fifth-best scoring offense in the league. What will be interesting to see is if he can extend his magic on home ice. In his last six games at home, he was 6-0-0, 1.15, .963, with one shutout. If he can keep up that level of performance, and either he or his teammates steal a game early in Washington, the Capitals could have their work cut out for them.
In the end…
The Caps are battle-tested in a way Carolina is not, they are deeper, they are more skilled, and the have a substantial goaltending advantage. Until the last game of the season, a meaningless affair with the seeding already settled, they were one of, if not the best team since the trading deadline. Only Tampa Bay had more wins (15) after the trading deadline than the Caps (13, tied with Carolina and Boston). The great unknown for the Caps here is how they handle the role of defending champion, one that the club has never experienced and that only two skaters on the roster (Brooks Orpik and Carl Hagelin) have experienced in their careers before this season. It comes down to how well the Caps focus and take care of business on their side more than anything Carolina does on theirs.
Capitals in six