It must be tempting for the Washington Capitals (48-26-8) to rest on their laurels. After a decade of feeling so close yet so far away, they finally got over the hump last season to win the first championship in franchise history. In the process, Alex Ovechkin’s legacy received a monumental buff and a weight was lifted off the team’s collective shoulders.
When the final buzzer sounded in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, there was a sigh of relief tucked within the sheer ecstasy of victory.
That lightness was then augmented by a head coaching change, as former bench boss Barry Trotz made his way to Long Island and was replaced by Todd Reirden. The 2018-19 Capitals are less structured but perhaps even more dynamic under his guidance.
While they’ve conquered the pressure to win a title, the goalposts have now shifted to the possibility of a repeat — the possibility of going down as an all-time great team. Whether the players feel that pressure is unclear. It’s a different narrative that doesn’t seem as cruel and endless as the one that preceded it. However, the Caps must tread carefully. They displayed a few bad habits during the regular season that could prove lethal in the spring.
Thankfully, it appears as though they were pacing themselves for the upcoming war, as they’ve looked better and better as the season has worn on. Following the trade deadline in late February, they’ve produced the second-best points percentage in the NHL while improving on key metrics across the board. Their shot, chance and goal shares have risen from 47.8% (25th), 47.9% (24th) and 52.5% (9th) to 53.1% (8th), 51.2% (11th) and 62.3% (1st), respectively. Starting goaltender Braden Holtby has rounded into form (2.20 GAA, 92.1 SV%) over that span too, which bodes well for another long playoff run.
With all that said, there is also cause for concern: Washington doesn’t dictate enough of the play from high-danger areas. Since the deadline, the team ranks 27th in HDCF% (44.3). For the sake of reference, last year’s squad closed out the regular season 17th (49.7 HDCF%) in that category and delivered a similar performance in the playoffs (49.1 HDCF%).
Veteran blueliners Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov suffered through a particularly rough year in that regard. Both seemed out of sorts from the start, showing a startling level of carelessness both in coverage and with the puck on their stick. Orlov has always been somewhat of a riverboat gambler, but his decisions were downright puzzling for most of the season. During their 5-on-5 shifts, the Caps have owned just 38.8% of the high-danger opportunities and 43.8% of the goals scored.
The pairing plays over 21 minutes per night and is heavily depended upon by Reirden, so this is no trivial issue. Moreover, unsung hero Michal Kempny is out for the year with a torn hamstring, which increases full-time partner John Carlson’s burden and will force another blueliner to see more ice time as well as stiffer competition.
In a nutshell, Washington’s slide in the trenches could prove costly if Holtby isn’t on top of his game — especially when you consider the Caps’ first-round opponents.
The Carolina Hurricanes (46-29-7) are an exciting wild card looking to make a statement in the postseason, and if the Caps leave the door even slightly cracked open for them, they may well come screaming out of the gates to steal a game or two early on. In terms of fundamentals, few teams offered better hockey than Rod Brind’Amour’s club in 2018-19. What it lacks in pure talent, it makes up for in dominant puck possession and unyielding belief.
Despite consistently outshooting and outchancing its opponents, puck luck was not on its side for the first half of the season. In mid-January, Carolina was sitting on a 55.1 CF% (2nd), 55.0 SCF% (2nd) and 56.0 HDCF% (2nd), but its goal share was a dismal 48.2% (18th). This amounted to a mediocre 22-19-5 record.
However, the Hurricanes never wavered.
They added sturdy winger Nino Niederreiter (30 points in 36 games with his new club) to complement young star Sebastian Aho (83 points in 82 games) while sticking to Brind’Amour’s demanding program and reaped the rewards for their resilience down the stretch. Following the trade, their underlying numbers remained stellar (54.4 CF%, 53.1 SCF%, 53.1 HDCF%), their GF% rose to 56.3% (5th) and they posted the fourth-highest points percentage in the league to extend their campaign into the playoffs.
This is no ordinary wild card. They hound the puck for 60 minutes and display great attention to detail in all three zones. Moreover, they just don’t quit. Instead, they stayed the course until their results caught up to their performance.
Nothing has come easy for them, but they’ve reached the postseason by making sure that nothing comes easy against them either.
Maintaining that level of razor-sharp focus will be essential in the conference quarterfinals. Washington’s top guns (Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom) are absolutely deadly and supported by tremendous role players. Now that recent acquisition Carl Hagelin (11 points in 20 games with Washington) has bolstered the third line, the Caps can truly come at you in waves.
Carolina would therefore be wise to play its game rather than engaging in tit-for-tat action. It does boast a stout blue line headlined by bona fide studs Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Both are lockdown defenders who use their stick and mobility exceptionally well to keep a tight gap and snuff out shooting opportunities.
However, Calvin de Haan’s status (upper-body injury) for the series is up in the air. The 27-year-old’s smarts and steadiness would be huge assets against the reigning champions, but his outlook doesn’t sound promising. His absence is especially significant because he, Pesce and Slavin are the most reliable defensemen on hand. Dougie Hamilton (39 points in 82 games) and Justin Faulk (35 points in 82 games) are effective with the puck but a tad vulnerable without it. 2014 seventh overall pick Haydn Fleury remains raw…and the playoff crucible is seldom kind to unproven commodities.
Without De Haan, the weaker links are more noticeable.
Despite surprising years from Petr Mrazek (2.39 GAA, 91.4 SV%) and Curtis McElhinney (2.58 GAA, 91.2 SV%) in net, neither should be expected to stand on their head either — not against a team with Washington’s firepower.
As such, the Hurricanes cannot let up on the Caps for even a minute. Their identity hinges on pace, pressure and a united front. If they relent for whatever reason, they’ll find themselves in a world of trouble. They need to smother Washington on both ends of the ice and activate their blue line as they have all year, as they led the NHL in goals by defensemen. Hamilton, Slavin, Pesce and Faulk joining the attack could fluster a Caps squad that is a little too generous in high-percentage areas.
Carolina must also balance its aggressiveness with discipline. That’s no walk in the park, but that’s what it’ll take to topple this opponent. While Washington’s power play ranked 12th in the regular season, it played a huge part in the team’s Stanley Cup run in 2017-18 (29.3%). Ovechkin’s patented one-timer from the left circle obviously can’t be overlooked, but he also sneaks to the back door quite often to change the point of attack. Carlson has an accurate point shot of his own and finished second in power-play scoring last spring. Backstrom and Kuznetsov are world-class playmakers. TJ Oshie, meanwhile, acts as the bumper and provides a more direct shooting option in the high slot.
There are weapons everywhere you look, and even though Carolina posted the eighth-best penalty kill this year, it should want nothing to do with the Caps’ power play.
Ultimately, this is not David vs. Goliath. It’s a fascinating stylistic matchup between two squads that achieved similar results in the regular season in very different ways. One thrives on becoming greater than the sum of its parts, whereas the other rides its high-end horses to victory. One requires 100% commitment to succeed. The other can sleepwalk for half the game and then wake up in time to blow you out of the water.
One believes it can hang with the best. The other proved it was the best just a year ago. Starting on Thursday, we’ll see just how hungry the Caps are to secure their place on hockey’s throne.