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The Narrative: Experienced Closers, Heavy Hockey and Playing Favorites

Three things we’re talking about today when we’re talking about the Caps

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Washington Capitals v Carolina Hurricanes - Game Four Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

1. Experienced Closers

With a win in Game 5 of what was a series tied at two apiece, the Caps have found themselves in a familiar position of late - that of a team with an opportunity to close out a series and advance. In fact, this will be the seventh straight series in which the Caps have gotten to three wins, and they’re 5-1 in the previous six with the lone loss coming to Pittsburgh in 2017.

The Caps are also familiar with elimination opportunities coming on the road, with their last six series wins having been earned on the road (the last one at home was against the Islanders in 2015). All in all, as series have worn on, the Caps have stepped up:

Further to that point, here’s how the opposition’s star skaters have fared against the Caps over that span after Game 4:

That’s some very solid work against some terrific players... and a big reason the Caps have had so much success in those games. Another (related) big reason? Braden Holtby. Here are his stats over those 14 games:

That’s 12-2/.943/1.60 in series after Games 4 since 2017 for Holtby, with three shutouts in his last four such games (and a literal Cup win in the other). That’s next level stuff for the League’s active leader in playoff save percentage. And, because you’re curious, Alex Ovechkin has seven goals, four assists over those games and Nicklas Backstrom is at five and seven... which is probably a little less impressive (prior to Saturday night, of course) than you’d have expected.

And so here we go, with Ovechkin and his Capitals teammates poised to advance in the building in which he was drafted nearly 15 years ago, and sitting in a position with which nearly everyone on the club is intimately familiar. (By contrast, the last time the Hurricanes faced an elimination game of any sort in the playoffs, Sebastian Aho was 11 years old and Justin Williams only had one Cup ring.)

Let’s see how much that experience matters tonight.

2. The Return of Heavy Hockey

One thing you heard a lot of in the wake of the Caps’ Game 5 win was that Washington found its physical game and that allowed everything else to fall in line:

More Reirden, via The Athletic:

Yeah, we had been disappointed with our lack of physical play, even when we had success here in Games 1 and 2. We just felt that we really hadn’t imposed our will and played the type of physical brand of hockey that we’re capable of. We knew we had another level to get to. And that was a real strong point, was how we were able to respond in that aspect because I think it is something that makes our team special, is the ability to be able to execute high-end skill play but still be able to really physically be abrasive on the forecheck and then all over the ice and make it difficult for the opposition. So that’s much closer to how our identity needs to look. Certainly, we’re going to need every bit of that going up, back to Carolina here.”

That same Athletic column has quotes from Ovechkin (“We just want to set the tone right away, put the puck deep, hit their D and leave the mark.”), Backstrom (“We needed a better start, play a little more physical. We’ve got to keep doing that. That’s the way we’re supposed to play.”), Devante Smith-Pelly (“They have a lot of skilled D-men. No matter who you are, when you have to keep going back over and over and over and you’re getting hit, to break the puck out, I mean, it takes a toll, I think. You saw that second and third period. Those guys are playing big minutes and we’re making it hard on them.”).

You get the point. And so did the Hurricanes:

You’d imagine the Hurricanes would come out flying for Game 6, hitting everything in white and trying to set the tone in terms of physicality and intensity. It will be incumbent on the Caps to weather that storm - take warning, if you will - and counter-strike with their brand of “heavy hockey.” Remember, the home team has scored first in every game this series so far and has yet to trail for even a second. It would be nice to snap that trend tonight.

3. Playing Favorites

As the Caps try to punch their ticket for the second round, four teams are already there (including the New York Islanders, who are waiting to face the winner of Caps/’Canes). Of those four, three were underdogs in their first round series and the fourth (St. Louis) was essentially a coin-flip going in:

That’s both regular-season Conference champs down, and the two remaining division winners (Washington and Nashville) in tight battles for their respective playoff lives:

Whether it’s parity, luck or a combination of factors unique to each individual series that prevents us from making any sweeping generalizations that broadly apply to all thereby satisfying our desire to explain everything with simple narratives (spoiler: it’s that), pre-playoff favorites are very much on notice as The Year of the Upset is upon us.

For the Caps (or ‘Canes), what this means is that the path to the Finals is getting a little smoother on paper:

All odds are from April 8, pre-playoffs

That said, Columbus and the Isles and whoever wins the Leafs/Bruins series will all be tough outs... as will the Hurricanes. So while we can take a peek at the road ahead, let’s hope that the Caps are focused on the task at hand. If Saturday night was any indication, they certainly seem to be.