It’s that time of year again... but this time it’s all different, because the Caps are headed to the postseason as the defending champs. The journey to repeat doesn’t get off to an easy start by any stretch, with the feisty jerks from Carolina awaiting them in Round 1.
We discuss what we think this first round will have in store for the Caps.
Q1: Obviously we all want the Caps to repeat as champs, and anything short of that will be a disappointment of sorts. But as a fan, is there something short of a repeat that would still make you feel this season was a success?
Becca: There is for sure a part of me that thinks anything short of another Cup will be a bit of a failure - it’s almost exactly the same roster coming back but without the ghosts of the past and with the swagger of a champion. As hard as it is to repeat, the pieces are all in place to make it happen. That said, it IS really hard to repeat, even under the best circumstances, so my more logical side would like to see them get to at least the Eastern Conference Final - because we’re done with this “can’t get out of the second round” nonsense - before declaring this season any sort of success.
J.P.: Hmm. I’m not sure I can get to “success” if they fall short (of at least making it to the Final). But the reality is that the Caps have followed up a Cup win with a Division win (a rare enough feat on its own) and Alex Ovechkin led the League in goals (again) with yet another 50-goal season, and there’s really no sense that the ride is close to ending. So there’s a sense that they’re playing with house money, to an extent. That said, there’s really one ultimate goal and that’s the repeat. Will I be as disappointed as in year’s past should they fall short of that ultimate goal? If I’m being honest, no, not at all - last year’s win buys a lot of good will. But I’d say that there is a small zone of “success” that doesn’t result in Cup stands and fountain angels, and that’s probably getting to the Conference Final on the low end and losing the Final on the upper bound.
Peerless: For me, it is not so much the “when” (first round, Cup final) as “how.” I think back to the 2012 first round series between the Caps and the Bruins. The Bruins were the defending champions and were a two-seed in the Eastern Conference. The Caps finished as a seven-seed. Both teams played tough and gave no ground. All seven games were settled by one goal, four of them settled in overtime, including Game 7. I was impressed by the Bruins in that they did not “lose” the series to poor play, nor were they sitting back on their championship laurels only to be overwhelmed by a hungry challenger. They ultimately lost on a flukish play on which a dump in was blocked back into the neutral zone to start a break for the Caps that they converted on a rebound. If the Caps give that kind of consistent, series-long effort; if they do right by themselves and give the effort one expects from a defending champion, I would be satisfied, in whatever round it happens.
Jason: I mean, no, right? It’s good for the general mental health of Capitals fans that Todd Reirden didn’t crash the Ferrari, so to speak, by managing to win the Metropolitan Division again.
But that’s kind of just it: it would have been disappointing had they not. Now, I don’t think it will be strictly disappointing if they fail to win the Stanley Cup again, but the bar for “success” has been forever raised by last year’s team. With 95% the same roster, heck no it’s not a “success” to fall short of last season in any way.
Greg: I go back and forth on this question a lot! To reiterate what J.P. said above, in a lot of ways, this season has already felt like a success. The Caps have again won the division, Ovie scored 50 goals, and they played really fun and enjoyable hockey for the last 30-ish games. I’ve always been a big believer in enjoying the regular season for its own sake, and not let negative postseasons intrude into that enjoyment (Dan Steinberg made this argument a few years ago.) I’m also not expecting a ton from the Caps this postseason, as I think they’re probably the 3rd or 4th best team in the East (behind Tampa and Boston for sure, and maybe the Leafs as well.)
That being said...how can you be satisfied after what happened last summer? Just seeing what the Caps run did to the city, and how excited everyone got has me jonesing for the Caps to make another deep run. I also see a team that has the talent and ability for a deep run, particularly if they get hot and everything starts coming together.
So...let’s split the difference and say an ECF appearance would be pretty satisfactory to me.
Alex: I’ll admit, I’m struggling a bit with this question. It’s sort of a yes and no kind of deal. The Caps really raised the success bar last year, so anything short of that again, especially with almost entirely the same roster, should automatically feel like a disappointment, right? They’ve proven that they can do it, so wouldn’t anything other than a repeat of last year fail to be a “success”? At the same time, though, it’s hard to be disappointed in a team that brought the Cup to DC last year.
I think, at the end of the day, I’m generally on the same page as Peerless. If the Caps give consistent effort throughout every series they play in, if they give it their all, then I guess I can’t be that mad. As long as they play like they know then can, and like everyone knows they can, whatever happens happens. C’est la vie and all that. If you can’t tell, I’m just trying to be zen about this whole playoffs thing.
Q2: What do you think is the Caps’ biggest advantage over the Hurricanes? What concerns you the most about the matchup?
J.P.: “Experience” is an obvious advantage, but I think it’s probably overblown, so I’m going to go with “talent,” specifically high-end finishing talent and, presumably, an edge in net. This, in part, is why the Caps have consistently for years outperformed “expectations” at five-on-five - because they have elite shooters and playmakers and one of the circuit’s top netminders:
Over that same span, Kuznetsov has trended pretty darn similarly (perhaps unsurprisingly, as his performance is a not-insignificant driver of the team's performance from a goal differential perspective). This is not a small sample - we're talking ~400 games. 2/ pic.twitter.com/9qoVb1rugN— Japers' Rink (@JapersRink) March 27, 2019
By the same token, the ‘Canes have consistenly underperformed expectations due to a relative lack of talent (despite playing a system that dominates shot share). You can see some of that in this chart:
Call it “luck” if you want, but there’s more going on here, and at least some of that is a talent gap (one which Carolina has closed considerably over time).
As to what concerns me most about the matchup, it’s that “shot share” point, one which you can see clearly here, via expected goal rates:
No team had a higher expected goal differential rate at five-on-five this season than did the ‘Canes; not Tampa, not San Jose… no one (and certainly not the Caps).
So the big question becomes (and we touched on this in The Narrative the other day): can the Caps’ presumed talent advantage overcome what we can reasonably expect to be a sizable shot share deficit over a four-to-seven game sample? We’re about to find out.
Peerless: I think the Caps’ biggest advantage is having played 24 games in last year’s playoffs, having fallen behind at some point in every series, having stared down elimination – twice – to a team thought to be better, to winning all four series on the road. The Caps never did well in past postseasons dealing with adversity. And, if you subscribe to the idea that every champion faces that dark night of the soul and skates through it, the Caps never did that either. Those are tests that the Caps passed (unlike in past years, when they gained experience but did not profit from it). Except for Justin Williams, Carolina just doesn’t have that well of situational experience to draw from. Oh, and goaltending.
As for concerns, I think that the only thing that can sink the Caps here is a mix of complacency and related factors. They swept the season series against the Hurricanes, and the five-point margin between the clubs at the end was the closest Carolina got to the Caps since they were four points back on March 5th. The last time Carolina was ahead of the Caps in the standings was November 12th. A combination of complacency, perhaps looking ahead to another matchup against Pittsburgh in the second round, and unfamiliarity with this opponent in the postseason could combine to sink the Caps.
Jason: Are you kidding me? Goalies. The answer is in net. Braden Holtby is a Vezina winner and Stanley Cup champion. Peter Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney are probably lovely gentlemen, but they don’t scare me. At all.
This is the single biggest reason why many Caps fans wanted Carolina over, say, Columbus or Pittsburgh. Sergei Bobrovsky or Matt Murray getting on a hot streak at the wrong time can torpedo opponents. While that could obviously still happen for Mrazek, it seems less likely.
Becca: Experience for sure plays at least a small role, and it’s not just about the age difference - even the “veterans” who have been with the ‘Canes for a long time are getting ready to taste their first playoff action, and it can be overwhelming. Beyond that, though, I think the depth of scoring talent up front for the Caps is an advantage. Carolina has been able to get contributions throughout their lineup, and they’ve for sure got some good young talent in guys like Aho and Teraveinen, but it’s hard to see them matching up with the Ovechkins and Kuznetsovs and Tom Wilsons for a four to seven game run.
As for concerns, I also worry about the Caps potentially looking past the ‘Canes to the Penguins or Islanders and getting overtaken by an upstart Carolina team… but not that much. To me, the one bonus of this team having to shake off so much bad stuff in the past before finally succeeding is that they (hopefully) have a bit of a buffer against taking anyone lightly - because they know anything can and does happen in the playoffs.
Greg: I agree with J.P on the shot share point, that’s what keeps me up at night with the Carolina match-up. As I went into last week, the Canes do a great job of generating a ton of shots, while the Caps are much more middling in those metrics. Analytics aside, Carolina also really has nothing to lose in this series. For them, making the playoffs was the big accomplishment, and anything else seems like gravy at this point. To me, this seems like a team that ought to play fast and loose, something that could be a difficult situation for the Caps now-jumbled defensive pairs.
In terms of Carolina’s weaknesses, agreed with everything people have said about their long standing goaltending problems. I would say this though: Carolina’s 5v5 save percentage is 92.07%...which is only .01% lower than the Caps this year.
Alex: Goaltending and experience. Carolina’s goaltending duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney is a big improvement for them compared to last year, but I’m not sure either of them are going to pose a challenge for the Caps. And of course, Mrazek could get on a hot streak like Jason said, but that seems unlikely for a guy who split his team’s workload (and some of the harder matchups) with someone else this season.
I agree with J.P. in that experience is an obvious and probably overblown advantage, but I think it still plays a part. The Hurricanes’ roster is relatively young and lacking in playoff experience, and almost the entirety of the Capitals’ roster has been to the big dance before. The Canes are young and hungry, and while that could fuel them to a series victory, it could also be their downfall. It’s up to the Caps to remain calm and collected and stifle the excitable Canes..
Q3: Series predictions… go!
J.P.: These are the Champs we’re talking about. Caps in five.
Peerless: I keep waffling back and forth between the Caps in five and the Caps in six. I went with six in our scribbles, so that’s where I’ll settle here. Caps in six.
Jason: Opponents weep, tickets cheap, four-game sweep. Caps in quattro.
Greg: I’m a bit more bullish on the Canes than most of my Japers people...so I’ll say Caps in seven.
Alex: The Canes might put up a bit of a fight, but the Caps will come out on top. Caps in six.
Becca: Bunch of lousy homers around here… but yeah, Caps in five.