Photo: Boston Herald
The Metropolitan Division playoff matchups have now been decided and the Capitals will face the Columbus Blue Jackets in a best of seven first-round series. The Capitals and Blue Jackets, two of the hottest teams in the league in the last month, will meet for the first time in the postseason. Washington won three of the four games against Columbus this season, beating them 4-3 on December 2 at Capital One Arena, 3-2 on February 6 at Nationwide Arena, and 4-2 on February 9 at Capital One Arena. Columbus beat Washington 5-1 in the most recent meeting between the two teams on February 26.
After the Capitals lost Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, and Nate Schmidt in the offseason, many expected the Capitals to take a step back with 26% of last year’s production moving on, but Washington was able to overcome those losses to claim a third consecutive Metropolitan Division title with a 49-win, 105-point campaign.
After Alex Ovechkin‘s production dropped from 50 goals in 2015-16 to only 33 last season, many speculated that his days as an elite goal scorer were over. Ovi silenced those critics when he opened the season with seven goals in two games, including back-to-back hat tricks. The 32-year old never looked back en route to a 49-goal, 87-point season, his highest total since 2009-2010, when he had 109 points.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has had the best season of his NHL career with 27 goals and 83 points, eclipsing the 25-goal mark and 80-point mark for the first time in his five-season career. He is coming into the playoffs hot, tallying points in 10 of his last 11 games with seven goals and 19 points. He has also recorded a point in four straight games (two goals, four assists).
With the losses in the offseason, the Capitals have had players other than Ovechkin and Kuznetsov picking up the load. John Carlson led NHL defensemen with 15 goals and 68 points while having to guide rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey in their first NHL seasons. Lars Eller also picked up his scoring production, eclipsing 18 goals and 35 points for the first time in his career. Tom Wilson has turned into a major role player for the Capitals, killing penalties, drawing penalties, and being the Capitals’ “fix-it” guy. Wilson has impacted a line every time he’s been put with them and brings energy to everyone he plays with. On the season, Wilson tallied 14 goals and 35 points, hitting the 30-point plateau for the first time in his career. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov also hit the 10-goal plateau for the first time in his career and 30-point plateau for the second consecutive season.
The Capitals were relatively quiet at the trade deadline but they made two moves that may prove to the best of any Brian MacLellan has made during his four years as general manager of the team. The Caps acquired Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks and Jakub Jerabek from the Montreal Canadiens. Since Kempny was acquired on February 19, the team has allowed 59 goals. Only the Florida Panthers (58) have allowed fewer goals out of any Eastern Conference team in that span.
The Capitals have an interesting situation in goal. After a shaky start (largely the product of little goal support by the Caps’ offense), Philipp Grubauer has been fantastic in the last several months. His .923 save percentage is tied with Los Angeles Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick and Winnipeg Jets’ goalie Connor Hellebyuck for 10th in the NHL while his 2.35 goals against average ranks seventh in the league. Heading into Thursday’s game against Nashville, Grubauer posted a 15-7-2 record with a 1.99 goals against average and a .935 save percentage in his last 30 appearances and has made Capitals’ coach Barry Trotz really contemplate who he wants as his playoff starter. Grubauer is also 11-4-0 with a .929 save percentage and a 2.16 goals against average in 19 games since the All-Star break. Grubauer has played Columbus only once, when he came in to relieve Holtby this year. Grubauer had 18 saves and no goals against in 38:52 of ice time.
Coming off two consecutive seasons with Vezina Trophy nominations (including a win in 2016) and a Jennings Trophy Award last season, Braden Holtby has had a down year by his standards, going 34-16-4. Holtby appears to have regained his confidence in recent weeks, winning 5 of his last 6 starts to close the season.
Lifetime against Columbus, Holtby has 21 starts and is 14-4-2 with a save percentage of .914 and a goals-against average of 2.62. Holtby was 3-1 against the Jackets this year, starting all four games against Columbus. In 59 playoff starts, Holtby is 29-30-0 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.00 goals against average.
Columbus Blue Jackets
After a rough February, the Blue Jackets are going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs hot. They are 14-2-2 in their last 18 games going into the playoffs and had a season-long 10-game winning streak in that span.
This will be Columbus’ fourth all-time playoff appearance but they have lost in the first round in each of their previous three postseason appearances.
The Blue Jackets made one of the biggest blockbuster trades during the summer, acquiring skilled winger Artemi Panarin, winger Tyler Motte, and a 2017 sixth-round pick from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for winger Brandon Saad, goaltender Anton Forsberg, and a 2018 fifth round pick. The trade came after the team couldn’t match the Pittsburgh Penguins’ offensive fire power in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, where they fell in five games to the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
Panarin was not expected to be the player he was in Chicago after he parted with star winger Patrick Kane, who put up 106 points with Panarin on his line in 2015-16 and had good chemistry with him. All Panarin has done without Kane is lead the team in scoring while establishing a career-high 82 points in his first season in Columbus, including 27 goals and a career-high 55 assists. Panarin is coming into the playoffs hot on the heels of a five-game point streak that ended Saturday night against Nashville; Panarin had two goals and 11 assists in that five-game span. He also has 12 goals and 31 points in his last 24 games. He also had three goals and four points in four games vs. Washington this season.
Artemi Panarin may have had a phenomenal regular season but Columbus does not possess a lot of fire power besides “The Bread Man.” No other player has 60 points and only one other has 50 (Seth Jones: 57, and he is a defenseman.) The next highest scoring forward on Columbus is Pierre Luc-Dubious (48). Only two more players have 40 points (Cam Atkinson: 46, Oliver Bjorkstrand: 40). Columbus’ average of 2.89 goals ranks 17th in the league and 15th among all playoff teams. Only the Anaheim Ducks, who rank 18th, scores fewer goals with an average of 2.81 goals per game. The Blue Jackets’ 17.3 power play percent efficiency ranks 25th in the NHL and the worse among playoff teams.
The Blue Jackets’ offense may not be as strong as the Capitals’, who average 3.12 (good for 12th), but their 2.74 goals against per game ranks 10th in the NHL and first among all Metropolitan Division teams. Their penalty kill is 25th in the league with an efficiency of 76.5%, which ranks the worst among playoff teams.
Columbus boasts the reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who went 41-17-5 last season with a league-leading .931 save percentage and a 2.06 goals against average. This season, he had a record of 37-23-6 with a save percentage .921 and a goals-against average of 2.42 goals against average. In his career against Washington, he is 7-10-2 with a save percentage of .900 and a goals-against average of 3.02.
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets Highlights From 2017-18
The matchup features a battle of the last two Jack Adams’ winners, awarded to the best coaches of the year. Capitals’ coach Barry Trotz won the trophy in 2015-16 when he led the Capitals to a franchise record 56 wins, and Blue Jackets’ coach John Tortorella won it last season when he led Columbus to a franchise record 50 wins. Trotz’s teams are 39-50 in the playoffs and the Capitals are 20-19 in Trotz’s tenure. Tortorella led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the franchise’s first and lone Stanley Cup in 2004 and is 44-50 in 94 career playoff games but only 1-4 with Columbus. Tortorella also won the Jack Adams’ Award in 2003-04.
By Harrison Brown