With two games left and much to be decided as far as the playoffs go, we figured it was time to do a little pre-postseaon inventory and discuss what lies ahead for the Caps as they attempt to defend their crown:
Q1. Which team do you want the Capitals to draw as their first-round opponent and why? Who would you rather avoid?
The Peerless: I’ve never been much of a fan of that particular “who do you want to/not want to face” hypothetical, since it betrays a feeling of weakness. That said, looking at the records of the teams the Caps could meet in the postseason, it appears that Carolina struggles most with stiff opposition. They are just 8-14-3 against teams in the East that were playoff eligible as of Wednesday morning. The team that has done best among teams the Caps could reasonably face in the first round is Pittsburgh. The Penguins have a 14-8-3 against playoff-eligible teams in the East as of Wednesday morning, which tells me that the Pens have the capacity to raise their game that Carolina does not yet have. I’m just glad the Caps don’t have to face Florida, against which they were 0-2-1 this season, the only team in the East against which they did not have a win.
J.P.: Does a lion care whether its facing an antelope or a zebra on the savanna? It does not - it just knows when it’s time to eat, then it gets on down. That said, lions also typically like to avoid circuses (with the notable exception of in Madagascar 3), so let’s get rid of Pittsburgh and, for that matter, the Columbus Blue Tortses. That leaves the ‘Canes and Habs, and I’ll take this king of beasts over either of those ungulates (2010 notwithstanding). (There are substantive reasons for these preferences, but everyone else will cover those.)
Kevin: I’m fine with anyone besides Pittsburgh. Between the Caps and the Pens, you’ve got the last three Cup winners, and on top of that either team has only ever lost to the other in a season in which that other team went on to Do The Thing. It’s already a shame that this seemingly perennial matchup happens in the second round instead of the third. For it to be in the first round would just be a disservice.
Bryan: I’m right there with you Kevin -- anyone but Pittsburgh is my answer as well. It was promising to see that there finally seems to be some traction about the possibility of changing the playoff format away from the current one, which everyone seems to hate. I feel like there ought to be a bit of a build towards another potential Pens matchup, although I’d never look past anyone in the first round, but going against Pittsburgh in the first round feels like going straight off the high dive without even testing to see if the water in the pool is warm or cold.
Alex: I like to think that the Capitals could do well against any of their possible opponents. That being said, I personally want at least the first round to be less about some crazy narrative and more about actual hockey, so I’m in the same boat as J.P. on this one. A first round Washington-Pittsburgh series? Too much drama. A first round series with Tortorella? Too much drama. Give me the Hurricanes or Canadiens, please. Out of those two, I think Carolina makes me less nervous, and by less nervous I mean neither of them really make me that nervous but the Caps just finished a season sweep of the Canes with a pretty solid home-and-home and that’s pretty fresh in my mind. Carolina and Montreal actually look pretty similar on paper (almost identical, really, it’s a little weird). However, as of Thursday morning, Montreal has an 11-10-4 record against playoff-eligible teams in the East while Washington swept the season series against Carolina. I’d pick Carolina.
Greg: As noted last week, I’d very much like to play the Islanders and avoid the Hurricanes and Penguins, if possible. The Islanders pick is simple for me, as they just don’t have a ton of talented skaters and are getting by on luck and goaltending - something that isn’t super sustainable for a long playoff run. Trotz is going to Trotz-up the neutral zone, so it probably wouldn’t be a terribly fun series... but one I think the Caps can win. In terms of who I’d like to avoid, the ‘Canes have fantastic underlying numbers, a dangerous roster loaded with scorers, and a great blue line. On the other hand, the Pens have elite top-end talent, surprisingly good goaltending this year, and are 9-1 in their last 10 postseason series. So pass on both of them.
Jason: Oh please give me Carolina all day. I am terrified of a hot Sergei Bobrovsky or Carey Price. I don’t think the Hurricanes have the goaltending to best the Caps over seven.
Becca: I’m going with the majority here and saying I’d like the Caps to draw their longtime division rivals down in Raleigh. Go down the line and the Caps have the advantage over the ‘Canes, from goaltending to scoring ability to pure playoff experience (something that’s often overrated by pundits and GMs alike but does have some value, especially when talking about a lot of young first-timers going up against the defending champs). As for who I’d like to avoid... I think the Caps could beat whoever they may face, but I don’t like the fact that both Columbus and Pittsburgh have chosen now to get hot, and either would be a much tougher, more vitriolic battle to kick off the playoffs.
Q2. If the Caps are going to defend their title - or even make a decent playoff run - this spring, who needs to step up his game?
The Peerless: To me, this gets back to who was critical at critical times last spring. In that context, the obvious pick to me on paper is Andre Burakovsky, the hero of Game 7 in Tampa against the Lightning in the conference final. He’s had a challenging year, and while he had been playing better with more consistency of late, he has one point in his last 12 games. The Caps need him to produce in the postseason, not just put up nice Corsi numbers. The Caps managed to succeed with his two goals in that Game 7 being his only goals in the postseason. I don’t know if the Caps can afford that again.
J.P.: This is an easy one to me - it’s Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov. Even before the season-ending injury to Michal Kempny, the Caps’ nominal second pair was going to have to be good for the team to have any success… which is a long ways from where they’ve been for most of the 2018-19 season. Here, via Natural Stat Trick, is what they’ve done as a pair at five-on-five so far this season (top), and what they did during last year’s Cup run (bottom):
The shot, goal and high-danger-chance shares really stand out (and not in a good way). If the Caps’ second pair can’t get its poop in a group, the team’s stay in the playoffs could be short. (Related, it’ll obviously be incumbent upon the rest of the D-corps to step up in Kempny’s absence - it’s hard to overstate how big that loss is for the defending champs.)
Kevin: It’s 9 and 2, like J.P. details above, but it’s also 92. Alex Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe last year, and while I was happy to see it happen, I’ve got no problem acknowledging that part of that award was about lifetime achievement. If we’re being honest, it was probably Kuznetsov’s 2018 playoff performance that got the team over a few stubborn humps and, eventually, across the finish line. Without getting into too much detail, Kuznetsov’s game has suffered from stretches of suboptimal play this season, and if a repeat of last year is to be achieved, those need to be avoided.
Alex: Evgeny Kuznetsov feels like an obvious choice to me. I feel the need to clarify that though; he doesn’t exactly need to step up his game, he just needs to make it more consistent. He was on a bit of an upswing last week, but who knows how long that will last. He’s been better about staying out of the box lately, but parts of his defensive play still leave a lot to be desired. Kuznetsov was a huge part of Washington’s playoff run and eventual Cup last year, and they need him to consistently play at that level again.
Greg: I’ll go with a different blueliner than Kevin and J.P. suggested: John Carlson. Carlson has been great this year both at driving possession and racking up points. However, Carlson is also the power play quarterback, and the power play hasn’t exactly been lighting it up lately...so we’ll need to see him step up his game there. Additionally, Carlson is going to have to adjust to life without Kempny, instead playing with Jensen, Djoos or even Orpik. Do I think he’ll be fine without Kempny? Yes, but he’ll need to show that this postseason.
Jason: It’s Andre Burakovsky, but that’s been the story his whole career. “Who is this guy really?”
Is he the streaky, dekey high-flying hero of Game 7 of the ECF last year? Or is he moribund Sysiphus that plays 8 minutes a night on the 4th line?
Becca: I’m in agreement with most of the names above, and I’ll add in Lars Eller for good measure. He’s picked up his game in the last few weeks, but part of what made the Caps so lethal last spring was having strong performances up the middle, top to bottom, and his standout work was a big part of that. I’m not too concerned about it - he’s always been a pretty decent playoff performer, improving his points-per-game rate over the regular season even without last years seven-goal, 18-point outburst - but it’s something to keep an eye on as they head into the playoffs.
Q3. Now that you’ve seen a full season of the Caps (and acknowledging that so much depends on playoff opponent)... any predictions for the next 1-2 months?
The Peerless: This team, by the numbers year-over-year, is so much like last year’s team at similar points in the season, it is almost spooky. Then again, the Caps did not lose a lot in the off-season from among the skaters (Jay Beagle), and they added a defenseman late this year (Nick Jensen) similar to that which they added last season (Michal Kempny). It is almost as if the Caps are playing by a formula – if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. That said, this club can go as far as last year’s, but for one challenge they have never faced, that of being the defending champion, the team everyone will be looking to knock off. I think this team is uniquely suited to address that challenge precisely because so few changes were made from last year. They have been through a lot together. Tampa Bay is going to be the odds-on favorite to reach the Cup final. Despite the delicious fantasy that they meet an end similar to what the Caps suffered in 2010 to eight-seed Montreal in the first round, I think that only the Caps and Bruins have a real shot at keeping the Lightning from reaching the final. And that could be the problem for Tampa Bay. If Boston meets them and fails to knock them off, I think the Caps will and go to a second straight final.
J.P.: I’m not sure if this is more prediction or pure hope, but I’ll predict that Evgeny Kuznetsov makes us forget his somewhat lackluster regular season and reminds us (and the League) why he had a strong case for last year’s Conn Smythe.
Kevin: For the Caps, so much of this season has gone as Braden Holtby goes. I’m predicting another spectacular postseason from Braden Holtby, and I’ll throw ECF berth out as the result. Beyond that, I’m just covering my eyes and sticking my nose in my snifter.
Alex: I like to think that Christian Djoos is going to step up big time. The Nick Jensen move is looking better and better with the injury to Michal Kempny, but I’m hoping Djoos is going to look at this as an opportunity and dial things up a notch or three. I think he can really make a difference on the Caps’ blue line, and this is a chance to prove it. This feels less like a prediction and more like some wishful thinking, but I’m optimistic. Fun fact, that last sentence is pretty much what I title my bracket every year.
Bryan: I like where this team is right now: to the extent that the defending Cup chance are flying under the radar, it seems like Washington doesn’t have any weighty expectations or extreme pressure on them to repeat. This is when the Caps shine -- when they can zone out the noise and play their game. My eye is going to be on the Hagelin-Eller-Connolly third line pairing. These guys are asked to do a ton both at even strength and on special teams, and I have every expectation that at least one of the top six forwards is going to take some time to get their playoff sea legs, meaning that someone from the third line is going to need to stand out. Similar to J.P., I hope that Kuzy can get back to his top form and rises to the occasion in the playoffs, in fact, I have every reason to beleve that he will, but I’d also love to see some secondary scoring support and that begins with those three stalwart veterans.
Greg: I was skeptical last year and it paid off, so I’ll be skeptical again this year! I actually think the Caps might be rife for a first round upset this year, particularly if they end up playing Columbus or Carolina. I think they’ll advance after a nasty 7 game series, and even advance past the Pens again...only to fall to Boston in the ECF. Bonus prediction: I’ve got the Knights vs. the Bruins in the final, with the Knights winning their first Stanley Cup.
Jason: I have absolutely no idea. But if it’s Caps playoff hockey, stick it in my veins.
Becca: One of my biggest takeaways from watching the Caps’ run to the Cup last spring was just how much of it came down to luck and chance as much as talent and hard work... but I also saw how this team was capable of coming together and exorcising demons. So I’m going to say that Ovechkin again leads the team in goals (there’s an out-on-a-limb prediction for you) and that they get to at least the Eastern Conference Final.