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Rink Roundtable: Round 1 Awaits

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Looking ahead to Round 1 with the Rink crew

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Washington Capitals Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time again... playoffs, baby! The Rink crew chats about what we expect to see in this first round series against the Jackets.

What do you think will be the key factor for a Caps win over the Blue Jackets?

Becca: For me, the Caps’ biggest strength - in this series and in the playoffs in general - is their depth up the middle. Tactics and systems change from year to year but seemingly the one constant among Cup contenders is strong center depth - and with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Lars Eller holding down their top three lines, the Caps have that. Whether they can step up and be the game-changers the Caps need them to be is another question, but if they do, Columbus just doesn’t have the same level of skill up the middle and over the course of a seven-game series that can (and should) make a difference.

Peerless: Structure in the defensive end. Columbus reminds me a lot of the old 1980’s Caps teams. They have some top-end skill (Panarin), but their character is mostly as a bunch of lunch-pail guys who bring a willingness to work every night and make your life difficult. I think for the Caps, that will mean being smart with the puck in their own end, to foil whatever forechecking or net-crowding the Blue Jackets deploy. If Columbus has their own way setting up in the Caps’ end and/or keeping them from exiting/clearing the zone, the goalie decision won’t matter a lot. Columbus will end up getting far too many chances from close in against a team that spent their entire year, it seems, struggling with shot attempt differentials.

Jason: Like a marginal football player trying to make the roster, the key will be special teams. The Blue Jackets have the 5th-worst penalty kill in the NHL, and they give up the 12th-most scoring chances/60 with a man in the no-no bad boy timeout box. What’s more, they give up the 4th-most goals/60 shorthanded.

What is all of this to say? The Capitals will need to pounce on the power play.

As I mentioned in my preview of Sergei Bobrovsky and as you can see here, Columbus does a good job of preventing shots from the tops of the circles. Which, as you may recall, is known by red-clad fans everywhere as “Ovi’s Office.” If the Capitals and Ovechkin can work their magic on the man-advantage, Washington might be able to pull this one out.

Pepper: As discussed on the latest JRR with Isabelle Khurshudyan, Coach Trotz needs to stick with what worked in the regular season and avoid making dramatic changes like we’ve seen in the past two playoff campaigns, for example benching Dmitry Orlov (2016) and going with seven D and benching Brett Connolly after a full season of productive, third-line play (2017). He can’t get trapped again into reactivity versus his seasoned, Cup-winning opponent behind the bench. Starting Philipp Grubauer is, by contrast in my opinion, an example of being proactive and an effort to maintain recent momentum heading into the second season.

Kevin: Not gonna complicate this one. If Phillip Grubauer is good, I think they win. If he doesn’t, it’s academic. Columbus is a top 10 possession team (Washington indexes at 24), a top 3 team in shot share (Washington indexes, again, at 24), and Sergei Bobrovsky had the League’s 3rd highest 5v5 save percentage among goalies with a 2000 minute TOI threshhold. If you throttle that threshhold back to 1500 minutes, you elucidate that Phillip Grubauer had the highest 5v5 save percentage in League. Special teams are certainly a wildcard, but if you prescribe to the notion that the game is won at five-a-side, it’s tough to imagine the Caps pulling this one out without a strong show from the guy between the pipes.

J.P.: I largely agree with Kevin - the Caps’ netminder(s) needs to outperfom Bobrovsky. No small order, of course, but it’s hard to see the Caps advancing without having the better goaltending, since they’re not going to outshoot the Jackets.

Who’s your Game 1 goalie?

Becca: Has to be Philipp Grubauer. I love Braden Holtby and in no way believe that he’s done being the team’s #1 goalie, but he just hasn’t been himself for months… and at the other end of the rink, the Jackets will have a goalie who is very much himself in Sergei Bobrovsky. The Caps have to go with the hot hand.

Peerless: I went back and forth on this. My heart kept saying, “Holtby,” as a guy looking for some postseason redemption after last year and as a guy who has been elite in that situation in the past. But I always learned, “bet the streak,” and that meant my head said, “Grubauer.” It isn’t a matter of his having “earned” the shot. It’s just that he’s been one of the most, if not the most, efficient and effective goaltenders in the league since January 1st. The Caps need to take advantage of that, of having the “hot goalie” for once.

J.P.: Barry Trotz made a difficult choice in naming Grubauer the Game 1 starter, but it was the right one. Grubi has been one of the League’s best goalies (context notwithstanding) since Halloween and I think an argument can be made that he was the team’s MVP this year (okay, runner-up). He earned it, he gets it.

Jason: Braden Holtb-.....wait, what’s that? Oh, no, uh...nevermind. I’m changing my answer to Philipp Grubauer. [Ed note: Added well after Trotz’s announcement]

Kevin: Feel like I kinda gave away the milk on my first answer...

Predictions?

Becca: ...pain? But also Caps in 6.

Peerless: There will be moments, but the Caps will not face elimination in this series and will win in six.

Jason: Caps in 5 and here’s why: because life is a fickle mistress and to trust her is folly and to err.

But really, I expect this series to be very close. And it can be close even if the Caps win in five. I think we’ll see a lot of close games, but with Washington ultimately squeaking out quatre of the first cinq.

Kevin: I’m not as sunnily dispositioned as my contemporaries above. Blue Jackets in 7, with Barry Trotz adding Torts to the list of bench bosses who have coached circles around him in the NHL’s second season.

J.P.: I hate this match-up for the Caps. I’d have preferred Jersey or Philly. But you get what you get. Everything in my head says “Jackets in five” (Torts with a great goalie in the playoffs? What could go wrong?). But fortune favors the bold - Caps in five.

Pepper: Caps in 5, for the simple reason that the Jackets have one goalie with playoff hiccups and the Caps have two playoff-dependable ones.