The Washington Capitals (44-26-12 regular-season record, second wild-card in Eastern Conference) and Florida Panthers (58-18-6, first place in Atlantic Division) will clash in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in the 2022 first-round best-of-seven series. NBC Sports Washington will carry series coverage locally while the networks of Turner Sports and ESPN will cover it nationally.
Regular-Season Series Recap
The Panthers took two of three regular-season meetings (Capitals: 1-1-1) by a combined score of 13-12 but the teams have not met since November 30. The Panthers took 2-0 and 4-1 leads in the first game against the Capitals at FLA Live Arena on November 4, coughed up both, but won 5-4 in overtime. After the Panthers scored first when they visited Capital One Arena on November 26, the Capitals scored three unanswered again and ultimately won 4-3 with captain Alex Ovechkin earning a hat-trick. Four days later, the Capitals roared out to 2-0 and 4-1 leads in Sunrise before the Panthers outshot them 27-2 and scored four straight in the third period to win it 5-4.
The Capitals did not have center Nicklas Backstrom or right-wing T.J. Oshie in any regular-season games against the Panthers due to injury and left-wing Anthony Mantha played just 7:03 before sustaining a shoulder injury that required surgery and kept him out for four months. Capitals left-wing Conor Sheary and Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov both missed two of those games.
Regular-Season Team Leaders
Points: LW Alex Ovechkin, 90 (16th in NHL)
Goals: Ovechkin, 50 (fourth)
Assists: D John Carlson/C Evgeny Kuznetsov, 54 (T-24th)
Plus-Minus: D Nick Jensen, +32 (T-18th)
TOI-per-game: Carlson, 23:48 per game (21st)
Points: LW Jonathan Huberdeau, 115 (T-second)
Goals: Barkov, 39 (18th)
Assists: Huberdeau, 85 (first)
Plus-Minus: D Gustav Forsling, +41 (T-sixth)
TOI-per-game: D Aaron Ekblad, 24:55 per game (13th)
Regular-Season Team Stats
Goals-Per-Game: Capitals – 3.29 (10th) Panthers – 4.11 (first)
Goals-Against Per Game: Capitals – 2.95 (T-12th) Panthers – 2.95 (T-12th)
Power Play: Capitals – 18.8% (23rd) Panthers – 24.4% (T-fifth)
Penalty Kill: Capitals – 80.4% (12th) Panthers – 79.5% (16th)
Shots-Per-Game: Capitals – 31.4 (14th) Panthers – 37.3 (first)
Shots-Against Per Game: Capitals – 29 (sixth) Panthers – 30.7 (10th)
Regular-Season Five-on-Five Advanced Stats
Corsi-for Percentage: Capitals — 50.55% (14th) Panthers — 56.36% (first)
Expected Goals-For Percentage: Capitals — 50.58% (15th) Panthers — 55.88% (second)
Scoring Chances-For Percentage: Capitals — 50.4% (14th) Panthers —56.71% (first)
Team Save Percentage: Capitals — .9164 (16th) Panthers — .9158 (18th)
Shooting Percentage: Capitals — 8.97 (seventh) Panthers — 8.95 (eighth)
PDO: Capitals — 1.006 (11th) Panthers — 1.005 (T-12th)
Gs Vitek Vanecek, Ilya Samsonov (Capitals) – The Panthers averaged over four goals-per-game and 37 shots-per-game in the regular season. If the Capitals have any chance of an upset, they will need more consistent goaltending after Vanecek, 26, went 20-12-6 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.67 goals-against average and Samsonov, 25, posted a 23-12-5 record, an .896 save percentage, and a 3.02 goals-against average during the regular season, where both coughed up the starting job. Head coach Peter Laviolette has not ruled out using both goaltenders during the first round after neither was able to hold onto the starters’ role permanently.
D Ben Chiarot (Panthers) – With Ekblad (leg injury) out, the 30-year-old has played an average of 20:56 per game, including 2:22 on the penalty kill (both fourth among team defensemen), since the team acquired him from the Montreal Canadiens on March 17. He has earned two goal, seven points, a +4 rating, a 58.06% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage (45.79% with Canadiens), 59.07% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage (43.14% with Canadiens), and a 59.08% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage (45.1% with Canadiens) in 20 games with the Panthers. This is expected to be a high-scoring series with two high-octane offenses and middling defenses, so whichever team commits to two-way play better will likely win.
Vanecek/Samsonov (Capitals) – At five-on-five, Vanecek recorded a .926 save percentage, a 2.10 goals-against average, a 7.88 goals-saved above average, and a .850 high-danger save percentage while Samsonov posted a .904 save percentage, a 2.74 goals-against average, a -11.20 goals-saved above average, and a .792 high-danger save percentage. Vanecek allowed two goals on 15 shots (.867 save percentage) while playing 36:22 in the Capitals’ 5-4 overtime loss in Florida on November 4, his lone career game against the Panthers. Samsonov earned an .879 save percentage (80 saves on 91 shots) and a 4.54 goals-against average in three games against the Panthers this season. Neither netminder started against Florida in their respective careers previously.
Sergei Bobrovsky (Panthers) – The 33-year-old improved this season as he went 39-7-3 (led NHL in wins) with a .913 save percentage (19th), a 2.67 goals-against average (tied 17th), and three shutouts (tied 13th). At five-on-five, Bobrovsky posted a .918 save percentage, 2.39 goals-against average, 0.28 goals-saved above average, and a .854 high-danger save percentage. In 27 career regular-season games against the Capitals, Bobrovsky has gone 10-13-5 with an .898 save percentage, a 3.05 goals-against average, and two shutouts, including 1-1-0 with an .887 save percentage and a 3.36 goals-against average in three games against them this season. Bobrovsky also posted a .900 save percentage and a 3.18 goals-against average in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ six- game first-round series loss to the Capitals in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Projected Game 1 Lineups
Ovechkin — Evgeny Kuznetsov — Tom Wilson
Marcus Johansson — Nicklas Backstrom — Conor Sheary
Anthony Mantha — Lars Eller — T.J. Oshie
Johan Larsson — Nic Dowd — Garnet Hathaway
Martin Fehervary — Carlson
Dmitry Orlov — Jensen
Trevor Van Riemsdyk — Justin Schultz
Scratched: LW Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, C Connor McMichael, D Matt Irwin, D Michal Kempny
Injured: LW Carl Hagelin (eye)
Carter Verhaeghe — Barkov — Claude Giroux
Huberdeau — Sam Bennett — Anthony Duclair
Noel Acciari — Anton Lundell — Sam Reinhart
Mason Marchment — Eetu Luostarinen — Patric Hornqvist
Chiarot — MacKenzie Weegar
Gustav Forsling — Brandon Montour
Robert Hagg — Radko Gudas
Scratched: C Joe Thornton, D Lucas Carlsson, C Ryan Lomberg, LW Maxim Mamin
Injured: Ekblad, D Markus Nutivaara (undisclosed)
Keys To Series
Structure — The Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy but allowed close to three goals-per-game during the regular season. While it may have worked then, it will not in the postseason where teams will lock down tighter defensively. If the Capitals play with a more organized system, they could have a good shot at knocking the Panthers out.
Experience – The Panthers have a core of Barkov, Huberdeau, Weegar, and Bobrovsky where only one (Bobrovsky) has played past the first-round in their NHL career and the skaters have combined for just 26 career postseason games worth of experience. Meanwhile, nine members of the 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Capitals are still on the team. In addition, Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette has been on the job for only barely a full season.
Focus – The Capitals have shown signs of potential in the past two months of the regular season as they beat the Metropolitan Division-winning Carolina Hurricanes twice, the Western Conference-winning Colorado Avalanche in their own building, and the red-hot Boston Bruins. They have also turned in clunkers like this past week when they dropped both games of a home-and-home to the New York Islanders, who were already eliminated from postseason contention. If the Capitals are motivated and want to do well, the Panthers could be in for a long series. All of the pressure is on the opponent and the Capitals have done well when they have been the underdog in the past.
Goaltending – Both teams have among the NHL’s top offenses but also most mediocre goaltending. With Bobrovsky being more experienced than Samsonov and Vanecek, having the edge in goal could go a long way for Florida with offense heavily in their favor. While Bobrovsky was among the league-leaders in wins, he posted solid but not Vezina Trophy-screaming numbers.
Speed – The Capitals have one of the oldest teams in the league with an average age of 28.4 years old while the Panthers have one of the fastest. With the amount of offensive skill that Florida has, they could be able to expose the Capitals by being quick up and down the ice.
Keep Firing Pucks On Net – With an NHL-high seven 20-goal scorers during the regular-season and an inexperienced, mediocre goaltending tandem at the other end, the best idea for the Panthers would be to try and pressure Vanecek and/or Samsonov as much as possible. While both had highs in the regular season, neither one’s save percentage was sparkling.
The Panthers have a much better shots and goals differential. Special teams will be a hey to the series, as the Panthers penalty kill is mediocre at best (17th in the league).
Possession, Shot and Goaltending Metrics
To no surprise, the Panthers have much better possession metrics than the Capitals while the shooting and goaltending metrics are essentially the same.
By Harrison Brown