Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
While most teams will give all they have in a best-of-five qualifying round series to make the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, eight teams, including the Washington Capitals, will play a three-game round-robin against the other top seeds in the Eastern Conference‘s top-four to determine seeding. The Capitals may have already locked up a Stanley Cup Playoff spot, but there is still plenty on the line as they can grab the top seed in the East. To do it, they will have to get through some very tough teams in Boston, Tampa, and Philadelphia. NoVa Caps looks at how the Capitals match up against the other three teams.
2019-20 regular season result: 100 points, first in NHL, Presidents’ Trophy Winners
Season series: 2-1-0 Capitals, though Bruins outscored them 11-9
- 11/16 at BOS: Capitals, 3-2 (SO)
- 12/11 at WSH: Capitals, 3-2
- 12/13 at BOS: Bruins, 7-3
Team leaders: F David Pastrnak (48 goals, 95 points), F Brad Marchand (59 assists), G Tuukka Rask (26 wins)
Offense: The Bruins have the league’s most potent scoring trio with Pastrnak, who tied Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin for the league-lead in goals, Marchand, and center Patrice Bergeron as they combined for 107 of the Bruins’ 227 goals (over 47% of the team’s scoring). They had only one other forward who had tallied 40 or more points (center David Krejci: 43) and no one else hit 20 goals, though forward Jake DeBrusk recorded 19 in 65 games. If you go deeper than Krejci, no other players on the Bruins got into the double-digit goal total.
Meanwhile, the Capitals’ average of 3.42 goals-per-game ranked second in the NHL. They had four 20-goal scorers and center Evgeny Kuznetsov was just short, recording 19 in 63 games. The Capitals also had five 50-point scorers with forward T.J. Oshie just missing the target, posting 49 in 69 games.
Defense: The Bruins were the only team in the NHL this season to finish with a goals-against per game below 2.5, allowing just 2.39, and won the Jenning Trophy for fewest goals allowed. They beat the Capitals by just a hair in shots-against per game as their average of 30 barely edged the Capitals’ average of 30.2.
The Capitals’ defense may boast the best defenseman in the NHL this season in John Carlson, but their average of 3.44 goals-against per game since December 23 — the Capitals’ final meeting with the Bruins, was the worst among the 24-teams in the tournament and just edged out the league-worst Detroit Red Wings (3.56) and 30th-place Ottawa Senators (3.47). In addition, the Capitals’ average of 3.58 goals-against per game after January 28 was the worst in the NHL. The Bruins have plenty of solid young defensemen in Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, and Brendan Carlo.
Goaltending: The Bruins’ .934 team save percentage was the best in the NHL this season with Tuukka Rask posting a solid .929 save percentage and 2.12 goals-against average. Jaroslav Halak wasn’t too shabby either, recording a .919 save percentage and a 2.39 goals-against average, beating out both Ilya Samsonov (.913) and Braden Holtby (.897), who arguably had the worst season of his NHL career. Though, Holtby improved after the team’s bye week. The Capitals’ team save percentage of .9125 ranked 24th.
Special teams: The Bruins’ 25.2% power-play efficiency was second in the NHL only to the Edmonton Oilers (29.5%) while their 84.3% penalty-killing efficiency was third, behind only the San Jose Sharks (85.7%) and Oilers (84.4%) for a combines 109.6 special teams percentage. 10 Bruins scored at least one power-play, with Pastrnak the only player in the NHL to hit 20 power-play goals this season.
Meanwhile, eight Capitals netted power-play goals with Ovechkin and Oshie (23 combined) outscoring the rest of the Capitals on the man advantage (19) despite a ton of talent on the unit. The Capitals’ underperforming power-play finished 17th with a 19.4% efficiency. Though, their 82.6% penalty-killing efficiency was eighth, giving them a combined special teams percentage of 102. Since December 9, the Capitals’ 15.6% power-play efficiency is the fourth-worst in the NHL. They were fifth with a 24.5% efficiency earlier in the season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
2019-20 regular season result: 92 points, second in Eastern Conference
Season series: 3-0-0 Capitals, who outscored Tampa Bay 12-6
- 11/29 at WSH: Capitals, 4-3 (OT)
- 12/14 at TB: Capitals, 5-2
- 12/21 at WSH: Capitals, 3-1
Team leaders: F Nikita Kucherov (33 goals, 52 assists, 85 points), F Steven Stamkos (.509 goals-per-game), G Andrei Vasilevskiy (35 wins)
Offense: The only team who scored more often than the Capitals were the Lightning, who edged them out by 0.05 goals-per-game. Both Kucherov and Stamkos averaged better than a point-per-game and center Anthony Cirelli, who recorded 16 goals and 44 points in 68 games, and forward Alex Killorn, who scored 26 goals and 49 points in 68 games, each enjoyed career years. It was the third straight year that the Lightning have led the NHL in scoring, averaging 3.64 goals-per-game over that span. Unlike the Bruins, the Lightning have their scoring spread throughout their lineup as every player who played at least 10 games this season scored a goal.
While the Capitals had four 20-goal scorers, the Lightning boasted four 25-goal scorers, though no one else hit 20. It’s close as each team is deep upfront and has a lot of firepower but the three-time defending scoring leader has to get the nod, though.
Defense: Since the last time the two faced off on December 21, they have been trending in very different directions defensively as the Lightning’s average of 2.33 goals-per-game in that span is second to only the Bruins (2.27). The Lightning’s average of 30.9 shots-against per game was 12th. While the Capitals feature one of the Norris Trophy favorites, the Lightning boast the reigning winner in Victor Hedman, who had another solid season with 11 goals, 55 points, and a +27 rating in 66 games. Their depth goes further than that though as Ryan McDonagh is one of the best shutdown defensemen in the game and Mikhail Sergachev also hit the 10-goal plateau. Former Capitals’ defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk also had a nice bounceback season with eight goals, 34 points, and a +22 rating in 70 games. Hopefully, the pause benefitted Michal Kempny and former Bolt Radko Gudas on the Capitals as both were trending downhill before the pause.
Goaltending: The Lightning boast reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, who led the NHL with 35 wins for the third straight year (he co-led in 2017-18). He was also a nominee for the award in 2018. In addition, Vasilevskiy posted a solid .917 save percentage and a 2.56 goals-against average. During the Bolts’ surge the second-half of the season, the 25-year-old went 21-5-1 with a .928 save percentage (seventh in the NHL during that span), a 2.26 goals-against average (sixth), and three shutouts (tied third). Curtis McElhinney had a fine first season in Tampa, going 8-7-3 with a .906 save percentage and a 2.89 goals-against average.
Even though Holtby played better leading up to the pause, Samsonov went 1-4-1 with an .873 save percentage and a 4.11 goals-against average after the All-Star break and Holtby still didn’t match Vasilevskiy’s numbers the second half of the season. This seems like a no-brainer.
Special teams: After leading the NHL in power-play efficiency last season, the Lightning tied the Toronto Maple Leafs for fifth with a 23.1% scoring rate on the man advantage this year. They had four different players with at least five power-play goals this season and surprisingly, Kucherov wasn’t one of them. In addition, six players had at least 10 power-play points. The Lightning tied the Colorado Avalanche for 13th with an 81.4% penalty-killing efficiency but was 82% efficient during their second-half surge.
The Capitals have the talent on their power-play unit but have underperformed the past couple of years and was horrific the second half of the season. Their penalty-kill gets the edge of Tampa’s but the Bolts’ power-play gives them the advantage.
2019-20 regular season result: 89 points, fourth in Eastern Conference
Season series: 3-0-1 Flyers (who outscored the Capitals 16-8)
- 11/13 at PHI: Capitals, 2-1 (SO)
- 1/8 at PHI, Flyers, 3-2
- 2/8 at WSH: Flyers, 7-2
- 3/4 at WSH: Flyers, 5-2
Team leaders: C Travis Konecny (24 goals, 61 points), F Jakub Voracek (44 assists), G Carter Hart (24 wins)
Offense: The Flyers boasted four 20-goal scorers during the regular season and forward James Van Riemsdyk came up just short of that mark, posting 19 in 66 games. In addition, they had four players who posted at least 50 points. The team averaged 3.29 goals-per-game this season, including a league-high 3.62 after January 7 when they tied the Bruins with a league-best 19-6-1 record. Forward Scott Laughton was a nice surprise for the Flyers this season as he posted 13 goals and 27 points in 49 games. Basically, the Flyers’ offense is not as spread out as the Lightning’s but not as top-heavy as the Bruins’. They still likely cannot match the Capitals’ firepower.
Defense: The Flyers’ average of 2.77 goals-against per game tied the Lightning for seventh in the NHL this season and was tied for third with a 2.38 goals-against per game from January 8 onward. In addition, the team allowed the fewest shots in the league as they averaged only 28.7 shots-against per game and led the NHL with a 54.6% faceoff-winning percentage for the second straight year. They had three defensemen who finished the regular season with at least eight goals and 25 points, respectively and feature plenty of up-and-coming blueliners with Travis Sanheim, Ivan Proverov, and Phillippe Myers in the lineup.
The Capitals were rotating defensemen at the time of the pause with Gudas, Michal Kempny, and Jonas Seigenthaler all taking turns after the team acquired Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks at the trade deadline. They have the depth on paper but have to be more committed to defense as they were before Christmas to have success.
Goaltending: Philadelphia is not one of the candidates to be a hub city to resume the rest of the season and Carter Hart went 4-10-1 with an .857 save percentage and a 3.81 goals-against average away from Wells Fargo Center. Since the Flyers are presumably the fourth-place team heading into the round-robin and will not have last change in any of the round-robin games, that could give the Capitals an advantage in offensive matchups. Holtby found his game again in the last month leading up to the pause but has been known as a slow starter out of the gate. While this is a season resumption, he will likely have gone at least five months in-between games, which is pretty similar to what he experiences in-between seasons. Brian Elliott posted a save percentage of just .899 during the regular season and is not getting any younger at age 35. Hart has also never played a Stanley Cup Playoff game in his young career. Though Holtby had arguably the worst season of his NHL career, he bounced back and led the Capitals to the Stanley Cup in 2018 the last time he had a down year. The experience is a big game-changer here.
Special teams: The Flyers were slightly above the league average with a 20.8% power-play efficiency and 11th with a 81.8% penalty-killing rate. The team had six players with at least 13 power-play points and eight with at least four power-play goals. While they edged the Capitals in power-play efficiency, that was only by a slight margin and we all know how good the Capitals’ power-play has been throughout the Ovechkin era even if it has been trending downward the past four years. The Capitals also outperformed the Flyers on the kill, which gives them the advantage in both categories.
By Harrison Brown