Today is the day. The President’s Trophy winning Florida Panthers enter the playoffs with their best shot to capture their first Stanley Cup in Franchise history. However, in order to reach the promised land, the Panthers must change history. The Panthers have not won a playoff series since their magical run in 1996, when they went to the cup finals. The Panthers have lost seven consecutive playoff series, putting up a dismal 9-27 playoff record since their Game 7 win in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals. The Panthers have the offensive firepower to break that 26-year curse, but it won’t be easy. In their way stands the Washington Capitals. As a result of the extreme polarization of the Eastern conference this year, the 100-point Capitals drew the Eastern conference’s 8th seed, which means that for the first time in NHL History, all eight teams in a conference have triple digit points. The Capitals have tons of playoff experience, especially in heartbreak. The Capitals won their franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2018, but have been first round exits for each of the last three seasons. The Capitals have tasted glory and they want it back.
THE BIG MATCHUP: ALEXANDER vs ALEKSANDER
Since 2004, the Capitals have been led by one man, their captain Alex Ovechkin. Arguably the greatest goal scorer in NHL History, Ovechkin currently ranks 3rd all time in NHL career goals and with no sign of his production slowing down, it is nearly certain the Great 8 will take home the NHL all-time goal scoring crown. Ovechkin has 71 career postseason goals, tied for 16th all-time, but keep in mind that out of the top 20, he has played the third least amount of games of those guys in the postseason. Ovechkin is a Panther killer, putting up a hat trick earlier this season in the Capitals lone win against the Panthers, as well as an additional tally in another matchup. Ovechkin is a menace on the man advantage, with his name already etched in the record books as the NHL’s all time powerplay leading scorer w/ 285 goals and had 16 this year on a struggling Washington powerplay, which contributed to his total of 50 goals this season. Ovechkin missed the final few games of the season with an upper-body injury, but will play tonight
Meanwhile, the Panthers captain is also an Alex, although he spells it as Aleksander. Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov has become one of the league’s elite talents. Despite being born to a Russian father, Barkov was born and raised in Finland and has emerged as arguably one of the top Finnish talents to play in the NHL. Barkov missed significant time with injury, but led his team w/ 39 goals in 67 games, which would’ve put him on pace for a 48 goal season. Unlike the boisterous, heart-on the sleeve and aggressive Ovi, Barkov leads by example, making the smart plays, keeping his temper and playing with a near trademark discipline. Barkov has struggled throughout his postseason career, so it is uncertain how he’ll play this year.
The Washington Capitals scored 275 goals this season, which is nothing to sneeze at. Ovechkin had more goals than the next two leading goal scorers on the Capitals combined, which Tom Wilson and Evengy Kuznetsov each had 24. The Capitals offense like the Panthers can roll four lines that can score. After Ovechkin, the team scoring is significantly balanced. The Capitals had bad injury luck, losing Anthony Mantha, TJ Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom for significant periods of time. The Caps are fully healthy now. The Russian connection of Ovi and Kuzy leads the way w/ Conor Sheary riding shotgun. Sheary had his best offensive campaign since his 2016-17 campaign w/ Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. After them, follows trade deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson, who has 6 points in his 18 games since returning to Washington; Backstrom, a great playmaking center and Tom Wilson, who is the guy you want to be most wary of other than Ovechkin. Tom Wilson is what happens if you combine Brad Marchand and Pat Maroon. He’s not as skilled as the Rat, but he has solid skill. He has size, like Fat Pat and he plays an annoying style like both guys, as well as frequently playing dirty. He was the one who may have ended the Dad Bob streak earlier this season, when he scored a goal on Bobrovsky and proceeded to “accidentally” punch him in the face while skating by, forcing Bob into concussion protocol. Wilson will try to take cheap shots, and its important that the Panthers are able to handle him in a disciplined measure. Remember, Tom Wilson managed to cost a GM and team President their jobs by making a dirty play. On the third line, Anthony Mantha is a strong power forward and TJ Oshie has great hands. They are centered by two-way Danish dynamo Lars Eller, a very underrated player. Their fourth line is arguably one of the best in hockey, with Garnet Hathaway, Nic Dowd and Johann Larsson.
The Florida Panthers offense this season has been producing at a historic rate. The team eclipsed 4 goals per game, the first to do so since the 1995-96 season. Ironically the team that had that offense, the Lemieux/Jagr-led Pittsburgh Penguins were snuffed in the ECF by the Panthers, who made it to the cup finals that year on a stifling defense, which some argue ushered in the dead puck era (maybe that’s why we are cursed). The team’s goal scoring crusade was led by Barkov w/ 39, but also had four other members of the 30+ club with Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Reinhart and Anthony Duclair all eclipsing the 30-mark. Jonathan Huberdeau led the league in assists with his dazzling playmaking and was by far the best Panther playoff performer in the First Battle of Florida. The Panthers top 9 is loaded. Along with the four 30 goal scorers, five other Panther forwards eclipsed the 40 point mark on the season, along w/ two defenders. Literally every player on the Panthers offense had a career season. The Panthers offense doesn’t give up either. They have shown they will come back, no matter how far they are down. How effective this strategy is in the postseason is likely not gonna be a great idea, but it does strike that fear into their opponents, that they are never out of it. The Panthers have four lines that can score. You’re able to hold off Verhaeghe-Barkov-Duclair? Okay, now you gotta face Huberdeau-Bennett-Giroux or Marchment-Lundell-Reinhart. If they survive those onslaughts, the fourth line of Lomberg-Luostarinen-Hornqvist can finish you off if you take your foot off the pedal. They cycle effectively, are a beast on the rush and completely overwhelm their opponents when on point. The question is can that offense continue into the postseason?
The Capitals blueline is led by John Carlson, a phenomenal offensive defender who put up 71 points this season. Martin Feherevarty has broken out as an excellent young player and seems like a long-term partner to Carlson, whom the Caps have struggled to find a permanent partner for. Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen, along with Trevor van Riemsdyk and Nick Schultz are both experienced defensive pairs that play solid two-way games. The Caps blueline is very underrated, but they are an older group, and the Panthers have a lot of speed.
The Panthers blueline gets a big boost with the return of Aaron Ekblad, who was on a Norris candidate level season before an injury prematurely ended his regular season for the second year in a row. Thankfully, Ekblad’s injury was a lot less serious this time and he is able to return right away for the postseason. He’ll be paired up w/ dynamic two-way defender Mackenzie Weegar. Behind them are smooth skating Gus Forsling, an underrated Brandon Montour and two bash brothers in Radko Gudas and Ben Chiarot. The Panthers blueline will be playing for the first time at full force tonight since the addition of Chiarot at the deadline.
Washington’s goaltending is a bit of a mystery. Both Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have been mediocre throughout the season, and it seems like Vanecek will get the first crack at the Cats. Samsonov had a hot start that absolutely crashed and burned into a sub .900 save percentage. Vanecek has only one game of postseason experience, while Samsonov’s best known in the postseason for a gaffe that resulted in the Bruins scoring a game winning OT goal, and Ovechkin cursing out his netminder in Russian. Or maybe the Caps could turn to third string goalie Zach Fucale who posted a .924 SVPCT and 1.75 GAA in 4 games of action.
The Panthers will ride w/ Sergei Bobrovsky for Game 1 of the playoffs and presumably for the whole thing. Andrew Brunette gave a ringing endorsement of his previously embattled netminder. After a hot start, Bob has been very up and down throughout the year. He managed to win a league leading 39 games, but some of that was a product of his offense bailing him out. However, he has made the big saves when needed and posted a .913 SVPCT on the year. He also had a solid end to the season w a .917 SVPCT in his last 5 appearances. Bob has a reputation for crumbling in the playoffs, but he has shown that when playing well down the stretch, he can maintain form (2018-19). If Bob sputters, Spencer Knight is there to help. Knight had a solid development year as the 21 year old posted a .908 SVPCT. He had a great two games in the playoffs last year. However, the cats are better off playing 6 on 5 then with Jonas Johansson in net.
Peter Laviolette is a long time NHL Head Coach, having coached since the 2001-02 season. He has one Stanley Cup to his name, winning it in 2005-06 w/ the Canes. He has a 76-72 playoff record and is in his second season behind the Capitals bench. He has made the cup finals on two other occasions, but lost w/ the Flyers to former Panthers HC Joel Quenneville and the Chicago Blackhawks in the now infamous 2010 Stanley Cup Finals and again in 2017 w/ the Predators to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Andrew Brunette is still an interim head coach, but managed to put together a 51-18-6 record in his 75 games leading the bench. A former player, Bruno has largely adopted the tactics used by his disgraced predecessor, the aforementioned Quenneville and his team has been successful. This is his first run as a coach in the playoffs, and although it is all but certain Bruno has an HC job next year (bc if FLA doesn’t keep him, he’ll get a job elsewhere), he wants to start on the right foot in his first playoffs as a head coach.
During the season, the Capitals finished surprisingly in 23rd on the powerplay. The Caps powerplay is usually lethal, but it seems that the old trick of Ovi’s office has been closed off by many teams. Ovi’s office is the one spot to watch when the Caps are on the PP, a spot where the right-handed Ovechkin stands in the left faceoff circle to fire lethal shots. Ovechkin had a third of all powerplay goals by the Capitals this season, one of the more lopsided ratios I’ve seen since Mike Hoffman was in Florida. According to Daily Faceoff, while Ovi plays shooting guard on that Caps first PP, Carlson quarterbacks it, with Oshie, Backstrom and Kuznetsov supporting up front. The Caps run two D on their second PP w/ Schultz and Orlov behind Wilson, Sheary and Mantha. The Caps ranked 6th in powerplay opportunities.
Meanwhile, the Panthers powerplay was very hot and cold throughout the year, but managed to rank 5th in the league at 24.4%. The addition of Claude Giroux and the return of Aaron Ekblad add to the firepower of a brilliant PP1 unit led by Huberdeau, Barkov and Reinhart. Reinhart led the team with 16 power play goals. Anthony Duclair has moved to the 2nd unit to play with Montour, Hornqvist, Marchment and Bennett. The Panthers had the 2nd most powerplay opportunities in the league, a direct result of the pressure that their high octane offense puts on teams.
On the PK the Caps rank 12th at 80.4%. They have 8 shorthanded goals. The Caps were ranked 20th in most times shorthanded. The Panthers rank 16th at 79.5%. The Cats have 12 shorties and ranked 6th in most ties shorthanded, which is something that needs to be cleaned up.
I’m not gonna predict what happens, but this series looks fun and entertaining.