It doesn’t get any bigger than this in the regular season, as the Capitals face the league’s two best teams this weekend. First up, the Florida Panthers come to town with the league’s best record for the Capitals’ traditional “Black Friday” game. Then the Capitals will head south on Saturday in advance of their tilt with the league’s second best team, the Carolina Hurricanes, on Sunday in Raleigh.
It’s early in the season, and the Capitals are still dealing with quite a few injuries to key players, but the next two games will tell us a lot about this current Capitals team and their ability to match-up with the league’s best.
The Panthers continue their scorching-hot start to the season, having lost just two games in regulation in their first 19 played. Aaron Ekblad scored 2:39 into overtime to give the Panthers their record-tying 11th straight home win, topping the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 on Wednesday night.
The Panthers have received balanced scoring from throughout their lineup to start this season. Jonathan Huberdeau (6g, 13a), Anthony Duclair (9g, 8a), Aleksander Barkov (9g, 8a) and Aaron Ekblad (6g, 11a) lead the Cats in scoring.
Sergei Bobrovsky continues his top-level form, starting the season 9-0-2 with a 1.90 goals against average (GAA) and a .940 save percentage. Backup Spencer Knight is 5-2-1 with a 2.98 GAA and a .904 save percentage.
WASHINGTON, WOUNDED BUT WINNING
The Capitals continue their own impressive play to the start the 2021-22 season, going 12-3-5 in their first 20 games, and are currently tied in points with the Carolina Hurricanes atop the Metropolitan Division.
The Capitals continue to deal with a number of injuries, including Nicklas Backstrom, Anthony Mantha and T.J. Oshie, who will all miss Friday’s scrap with the Cats. As of Wednesday, center Lars Eller remains in quarantine in Anaheim, and is expected to return to D.C. in the next few days. It’s uncertain if Justin Schultz, injured in Wednesday’s game against the Canadiens, and/or Conor Sheary, who missed the Canadiens game, will be able to play against the Panthers on Friday.
LAST TIME OUT
The two teams met back on November 4 in Sunrise, Florida, with the Panthers taking a closely contested battle 5-4 in overtime. The game was chaotic from the start, with scheduled starter Ilya Samsonov not ready for puck drop, requiring Vitek Vanecek to unexpectedly assume the net for the first 1:45 of the first period before Samsonov could re-enter the game. After giving up three goals, Samsonov was again relieved by Vanecek. On the Panthers side, Sergei Bobrovsky exited the game after the first period with an upper body injury, and was replaced by Spencer Knight.
The Panthers would strike quickly in the first period with goals from Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad for a 2-0 lead at the end of the first period.
Daniel Sprong would get the Capitals on the scoreboard just 43 seconds into the middle frame, but the Panthers would answer with a goal from Brandon Montour and a power play marker from Barkov to make it 4-1.
But the Capitals battled back. Alex Ovechkin would cut the lead to two goals with less than two minutes left in the middle frame and Tom Wilson would score his first goal of the season with 17 seconds left in the period to make it 4-3 at the second intermission.
Connor McMichael scored his first career NHL goal to tie the game, 4-4, early in the final frame. Regulation would end with the game tied, 4-4. The Panthers would win it in overtime.
Inside The Numbers
The Capitals struggled to find goals in the early going, particularly against Bobrovsky, but did much better when Bobrovsky was replaced by Spencer Knight to start the second period. Bobrovsky gave up no goals on 13 shots in the first period while Knight yielded four tallies on 29 shots in the final 40 minutes of play.
While the goals were initially tough to come by, the Capitals did fairly well in generating shots and scoring chances, dominating the possession metrics for the game.
Two lines (at the time) did well at generating offense. The Mantha – Eller – Sprong line was dominant prior to Mantha colliding with John Carlson. The Sheary – Eller – Sprong line and the Sheary – McMichael – Leason lines did not fair as well.
Special Teams and Shots
The first graph plots the current power play and penalty kill percentages for both teams. It also includes face-off winning percentages and average shots for and shots against per game for each team. (Stats at five-on-five) [Click to enlarge]
Special teams are fairly equal and both teams are struggling from the dot heading into Friday’s contest. It will be interesting to watch the shot counter for the Panthers, who are generating the second most shots per game in the league, while the Capitals are giving up the second fewest shots per game in the league this season.
As one would expect, both teams are doing well with possession metrics and goal differentials. [If you have a question about any of the stats used below you can refer to our NHL Analytics Glossary]
The Panthers have been dominating high-danger goals for so far this season. The Capitals have done well, but not as well as the Panthers. This will be a key stat to watch on Friday. Both teams are also doing well in goal differentials, but the Capitals are doing much better so far this season.
Sergey Bobrovsky is expected to get the start for the Panthers on Friday. For the Capitals, it’s still unknown who will get the start. Ilya Samsonov has been the hotter of the two goaltenders, and might be Laviolette’s preference. If Bobrovsky and Samsonov get the starts, the game will feature two goaltenders who have yet to lose a game in regulation so far this season.
LET’S DO THIS
The annual “Black Friday” game is always a raucous affair at Capital One Arena. Family members, cooped up with in-laws all day on Thanksgiving, seem to let it all out for the Capitals on Friday. Home ice advantage will be in full effect.
Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
Happy Thanksgiving, Caps Nation!
By Jon Sorensen