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Rink Roundtable: Round 1 Begins

With mere hours remaining until the Caps kick off their 2022 postseason, it’s time for the Rink crew to take stock of what lies ahead in the opening round.

Washington Capitals v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Q1: What three players need to step up their game for the Caps in their opening-round series against the Panthers?

J.P.: Vitek Vanecek (and/or Ilya Samsonov… I’m counting this as one player), Nicklas Backstrom and Martin Fehervary. For the Caps to have any chance in this series, they’re going to need surprisingly competent goaltending, a strong two-way effort from their second line (especially if they’re matched against the Barkov line), and nearly mistake-free hockey from their top-four defensemen. For that to happen, Vanecek, Backstrom and Fehervary (or those guys as a proxy for what I mentioned) will need to be better.

Peerless: First, Iltek Samsonecek. Either of the goalies, who I will count as one for this question. Florida led the league in scoring offense. For context, their 4.11 goals per game was the first time a team averaged at least four goals a game in the regular season since the Pittsburgh Penguins did it. In 1995-1996. They are an offensive juggernaut. If either (or both) of the Caps’ goalies play like they did in the last two months of the season (they combined for a 3.26 GAA and .892 SV in 27 games since March 1st), this will be a quick and quiet exit for the Caps.

As for the skaters, Lars Eller springs to mind. His rate of production in goals and points on a per-game basis rank at or near the middle of his career statistics by season. But his season cleaves into two parts. In his first 40 games, he was 8-13-21, plus-3, and shot 12.5 percent. Not a bad first half. But the second half – 32 games, 5-5-10, minus-7, and he shot 9.6 percent. He needs to ramp up his production, but that is only half the story. As the third line center, he is going to have to be on top of his defensive game. His even strength goal differential was minus-8 at even strength in those last 32 games, 25th of 27 skaters. That won’t cut it.

As for the third player, I feel I need to pick a defenseman here, and in that regard, I’m going off the beaten path and take John Carlson. Not that he needs to improve on his offense. He had a career year in goals (17) and topped 70 points for the third time in his career. But there are times, it seems, when he has a moment of brain-lock in his own end and ends up in the frame when a critical goal is scored against the Caps. That can’t happen against a team that seems likely to get its share of goals without the Caps making it easier for them.

Luke: The obvious answer is goaltending, whoever it’s going to be. At the very least it will need to be average, but to beat an offensive juggernaut it will have to be top tier. Both the Caps’ young goalies have shown that top tier play at times, but none of it consistently. Someone will need to come up big to beat the Panthers. Second obvious answer is that your best player, Alexander Ovechkin, will have to be his best as well. Caps will need some clutch scoring to get ahead of the Panther and try to put them in a deficit that even they find hard to recover from. You’ll need your best player doing his thing to make that happen. Lastly, whoever is playing with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov will have one of the toughest but most important jobs. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are stellar players but they are all offense. Whoever plays with them will have to hustle their ass off to keep the puck out of the defensive zone and in the offensive zone as much as possible.

Alex: As everyone else has already pointed out, goaltending is the obvious choice for the top of the list here. Whatever happens in the Washington crease is going to make or break this series for them. Aside from that, I think 2018 Playoff Evgeny Kuznetsov is going to need to make a reappearance. This is less of a “he needs to step up bigtime compared to this season” and more of a “he needs to maintain what he has been doing this season” issue, but I do not think the Caps make it a competitive series without consistent play from Kuznetsov. Finally, I agree with JP in that Martin Fehervary needs to be at the top of his game in this series. Defense is going to be key for the Caps here, but stifling the Panthers’ high-octane offense is not going to be an easy task. For them to even make an attempt at that, Fehervary will need to get back to where he was at the beginning of this season and play some really effective defense.

Becca: Since everyone’s beaten the goaltending horse to death, I won’t say one/both of the netminders... but yeah, those guys for sure.

Outside of the net, I’m going with T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, and Anthony Mantha. The Caps will need to be very aware of their defensive side against a team like Florida and stifling their attack will be Job #1 for sure - but if you limit the other team to three goals and can’t score four, you’re still going to lose. That’s where this trio comes in, regardless of where each one fits into the lineup.

All of them have the ability to set a tone on this team that they’re going to need in this series. You’ve got Oshie’s tenacity, Wilson’s physicality, and Mantha’s pure shot - all of which can be combined with their offensive skills to chip in secondary scoring. This team just feels different when Oshie in particular is going 100%, and all three of these guys will need to be at the top of their game if there’s any hope of toppling the Cats.

Q2: What is the Caps’ biggest strength vs. the Panthers? Their biggest weakness?

J.P.: The Caps’ biggest strength should be their experience behind the bench. This is Peter Laviolette’s 20th season as an NHL head coach. He’s coached 1,348 regular season games, 148 playoff matches (winning more than half) and taken three different teams to the Finals. Andrew Brunette wasn’t even an NHL head coach on opening night this season. Granted, he spent three years as an assistant under a pretty decent bench boss (on-ice, at least), but the Panthers were one-and-done in the last two postseasons and didn’t make the playoffs in that first year. You can win a lot of regular season games with a talent advantage (just ask Bruce Boudreau’s Caps), but you know I like to harp on how coaching in the playoffs is a totally different skill than doing it in the regular season. If the Caps have an edge in this series, this is where it is… in theory.

Biggest weakness? Goaltending. Next.

Peerless: Biggest strength for the Caps – playoff experience. Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov lead active Panthers with 16 postseason games played with the team. Alex Ovechkin has almost ten times that number (141). Twelve active Capital skaters have more than 16 with the club. Florida has more talent, to be sure, but the Caps have seen (and suffered) a lot more in terms of game situations. Biggest weakness – depth in scoring. The Caps have three players with more than 70 points. Florida has three with more than 80. The Caps have one player with more than 30 goals. The Panthers have four with 30 or more. The Caps have one player averaging at least a point per game. Florida has four (including late-season acquisition Claude Giroux). Shoot, they even have a defenseman knocking on that door (Aaron Ekblad averages 0.93 points per game). Then again, so do the Caps (John Carlson averages 0.91 points per game), but still.

Luke: Caps biggest strength is probably their game when they play away from DC. They had the best road record in the league this season, and for whatever reason they just seem more like themselves when they play on the road. There’s usually a full 60-minute effort, and that’s what they’ll need against the team with the best home record in the NHL this season. On the flip side of that coin, the Caps’ biggest weakness is their home record. They have the worst home record of any team in the playoffs... going up against the fourth-best road team.

Alex: Their biggest strength is playoff experience, both behind the bench and on the ice. Peter Laviolette and the Capitals have done this before many times, and Andrew Brunette and the Panthers really haven’t. The postseason stress and atmosphere should be familiar territory for the Caps, but the Panthers remain relatively untested. Everyone knows playoff hockey is different, and both Laviolette and the Caps have that experience in spades. The downside of that experience, however, is the Caps’ biggest weakness: age. Washington is going to be the slower team on the ice this series, which has the potential to really come back to bite them. This also leaves them more susceptible to injury, which is worrisome especially because it has proven to be an issue this season.

Becca: The Panthers are a stacked team overall, but I think the Caps might have a slight edge on defense. I’d put the six blueliners the Caps have gone with all season up against their crew, which has old pal Radko Gudas patrolling the second pair (no offense, Radko). As for weaknesses... again, goaltending’s gotten a shout-out already, so I’m going to go with speed, or lack thereof, which kind of ties into what Alex noted about their overall age. Granted, the Panthers have a couple of oldies on their team, as well - it is South Florida, after all - but the Caps’ best players are also their oldest and generally slowest, and that could be an issue.

Q3: Predictions - hit us with ‘em.

J.P.: The task ahead is incredibly tall. It’s really tough to pick the Caps to even make much of a series out of this match-up, much less pull off the biggest upset in franchise history. I just don’t have enough faith in the goalies’ ability to keep it close, so I’m calling for a gentleman’s sweep: Kitties in five.

Peerless: This could end up being an odd series. Florida’s historic performance on offense aside, the Caps are not unfamiliar with playing (and yes, losing) to a playoff opponent with a deep and prolific offense, chiefly in their wars against the Penguins. The Caps will not outscore the Panthers. If there are 7-5 games in this series, don’t count on the Caps being on the long side of those decisions. It means this is going to come down to the goalies keeping the Panthers in the three-goal range. That’s a tall order. Our head says “Panthers in five,” but if you read our stuff elsewhere, you know we don’t always take that route. Caps in seven.

Luke: The Panthers give off a zibe of being a team to get upset in the playoffs. They remind me of so many Caps teams that have been upset. Even as positive as I am, hard to see the Caps getting out of this with their inconsistent goaltending. I’d be happy if we made it to six games, but it will probably be five.

Alex: The chances of the Capitals upsetting the Panthers are low, but never zero. I agree with Luke, I think the President’s Trophy-winning Panthers have a bit of a “lose in a Round 1 upset” vibe. If the Caps can pull it off, I think it takes a full seven games. Pushing the series to a full seven games works in Washington’s favor, in my opinion. However, a Panthers victory will be quicker; I think the Caps win just one and Florida wins in five. I keep going back and forth, but I’m going to be bold and say Caps in seven because why not.

Becca: Y’all know me. I’m a ridiculous optimist. This time around, though... I just don’t feel it. It’s a tough matchup (as any matchup they got in the East would be). I’d love to be proven wrong, and if the Caps find another gear this could be a much tighter series, but for now I’m going Panthers in 5. Sigh.

Poll

Your turn: how do you predict this series will end?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Caps in 4
    (4 votes)
  • 1%
    Caps in 5
    (4 votes)
  • 25%
    Caps in 6
    (55 votes)
  • 17%
    Caps in 7
    (38 votes)
  • 4%
    Panthers in 4
    (10 votes)
  • 21%
    Panthers in 5
    (46 votes)
  • 25%
    Panthers in 6
    (56 votes)
  • 1%
    Panthers in 7
    (4 votes)
217 votes total Vote Now