The Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets await their Round 1 series opener on Thursday night at 7:30 PM at Capital One Arena in Downtown D.C. The meeting will be the first time these teams have faced each other in the playoffs. Here are five keys to the series for the Capitals:
The Capitals are younger than they were in the past, and with youth comes more speed, which has proven to be a difference maker in the playoffs of recent years. The Capitals have been at a disadvantage when it comes to speed in each of the past three seasons. Their lack of speed cost them against the Pittsburgh Penguins two years in a row, and the Capitals also struggled to contain the Toronto Maple Leafs’ speed in the first round last season, despite winning the series in six games.
The Capitals are a faster and younger team than they have been in years. The addition of rookie-forwards Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, and Shane Gersich heading into the playoffs adds some quickness to the lineup. The oldest of those players is Stephenson, and he is only 23. Vrana has been a mainstay in the Caps’ lineup this year, playing in 73 games, and Stephenson played 67 regular season matchups. Gersich is the new kid on the block, having signed an entry-level contract just last month and appeared in three contests. All three youngsters are expected to make their playoff debut against Columbus.
The Jackets are a year younger (average age of 26) than the Caps (average age of 27), but the Caps’ rookies hope to use their speed to make a difference.
2. Trust Your Game
The Capitals are going into the playoffs with an 8-2-0 record in their last 10 games and 12-3-0 record in their last 15, sporting the best record in the NHL since March 9. Washington has had to earn their wins this season, unlike the previous two years where the wins came easy and they cruised to back-to-back Presidents Trophies. This year the team didn’t wrap up the Metropolitan Division championship until April 1. The team is entering the playoffs hot and played strong games against top opponents like Pittsburgh and New Jersey to close out the regular season so this team should feel confident about their game heading into the postseason.
The Capitals also tend to play better against top opponents. When the Capitals are motivated, they have proven that they can beat just about anyone. High expectations and nerves affect every team in the playoffs, but the Caps seem to have a habit of gripping their sticks a little tighter than most in the postseason. They also have a habit of coming out hot in the first game of the series and then suffer a letdown when the adrenaline fades. The Caps need to focus on playing the game that has brought them this far and stay particularly focused on puck control. If the Capitals play their own style and don’t try to mimic Columbus’ game, they will win the series.
3. Defensive Zone Exits
The Caps will have to improve their zone exits if they want to go deep in the playoffs because the young Blue Jackets will pressure the puck relentlessly in the Caps’ zone. Washington will have to avoid rushing blind passes, play the puck hard off the boards to get it past the Jackets and focus on north-south passing. Dmitry Orlov has proven to be skilled at getting the puck out of the zone in high-pressure situations by flipping the puck over the defenders and out to neutral ice.
Columbus has averaged 33.7 shots per game, the fifth most in the NHL. To make life easier for Philipp Grubauer and Braden Holtby, the skaters’ focus must be on clean defensive zone exits to avoid high-percentage scoring chances for the opposition.
4. Get Pucks on Bob
Blue Jackets’ goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky went 37-22-6 this year with a .921 save percentage (12th best in the league), a 2.42 goals against average (11th best), and 5 shutouts (tied for 4th best). His record against the Caps this season is less impressive, going 1-3-0 with a .868 save percentage and a 3.04 goals against average. Bobrovsky has also given up four or more goals in against the Capitals in eight of the last 18 times he has played them. In his career, he has a .900 save percentage and a 3.02 goals GAA, the highest any opponent.
Bobrovsky has faced the sixth most shots in the NHL and the most in a single season of his career this year at 1,993, but has given up 158 goals. It will be crucial for the Capitals to put the puck on net after averaging a league-low 29 shots per game during the regular season.
Despite the Capitals’ success against him, nothing can be taken for granted against a world-class goalie who has won the Vezina Trophy in two of the last six seasons. The Capitals need to pressure Bobrovsky, get to the front of the net, and get rebounds in order to beat the Russian netminder.
For the Caps, goaltending will be Coach Barry Trotz’s most difficult decision in the playoffs. While Bobrovsky has been hot in recent months, one goaltender has been even better down the stretch: Philipp Grubauer. Grubi has been outstanding since November, going 15-5-0 and leading the league with a 1.99 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. Caps long-time starter Braden Holtby had an offseason after stellar back-to-back 40-win campaigns, going 34-16-4 with a career-high 2.99 goals against average and a career-low .907 save percentage. Holtby appears to have returned to form in recent weeks, going 5-1-0 in his last six starts, giving Trotz a difficult choice to make for Game 1. At the same time, having two strong goalies is a problem any coach would welcome.
5. Top Lines Need to Stay Hot & Bottom Six Need to Step Up
The Capitals will need their top guys to be leaders. Regular season statistics get thrown out the window when the playoffs start, and the top scorers will have to rise to the occasion at the most important time of the year. Last year, Nicklas Backstrom led the Capitals with six goals and seven assists in 13 post-season contests. T.J. Oshie had four goals and eight assists, while Evgeny Kuznetsov tallied five goals and five assists. Captain Alex Ovechkin managed five goals and three assists. John Carlson had just two goals and two assists. These players — the Caps’ top five scorers this year, will have to carry their hot regular season performances into the playoffs.
The Capitals will also need depth scoring from Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, and Chandler Stephenson to make a deep run. All three showed flashes of brilliance this year with dazzling goals, but they also went through prolonged scoring droughts that they can’t afford to repeat. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup the past two seasons large due to the fact that everyone stepped up, especially their rookies. Forwards Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust were called up from their AHL affiliate and produced right away, combining for 22 goals and 15 assists in the playoffs. While most of that production came from Guentzel (13 goals and 8 assists), Rust and Sheary made timely contributions.
With contributions from everybody in the lineup, the Capitals will make it very difficult for the Blue Jackets to win the series.
By Harrison Brown