The Washington Capitals are on their way to defend their Stanley Cup title and the first stop is against the Carolina Hurricanes. The defending champs enter first in the Metropolitan Division, while the Hurricanes are locked in the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. This marks the first playoff berth for Carolina since 2009.
On December 29, the Canes were 10 points out of a playoff spot with a 15-17-5 record. But then things turned around and they went 31-12-2 for the rest of the season to snag that wild card spot. They achieved 99 points when the dust settled, giving them the second most points in franchise history.
The young team – the average age of the Hurricanes is 26 – will tangle with one of the toughest draws in the first round. The Capitals topped their division for the fourth straight season and defeated the Hurricanes in all four regular season meetings, so it might be easy to conclude that Washington has Carolina’s number.
And indeed, the Capitals are the offensive powerhouse. They’ve got seven players with at least 20 goals and will bring the shot power. Alex Ovechkin finished with 51 goals, winning the Rocket Richard Trophy for the eighth time in his career and becoming just the third NHLer with eight or more 50-goal seasons. He’ll be ready to party again.
For the Hurricanes, scoring is…okay. Carolina finished with 243 goals, good for the middle of the league. They’re got improvements to make on the power play, as it’s 20th overall at 17.8 percent. But analytics junkies know that the Hurricanes have been making it happen in other ways, driving possession numbers with solid positional play and organizational skills.
That’s allowed players like Sebastian Aho to take over. The 21-year-old leads the team with 30 goals, but just three are on the power play. He actually has more goals in short-handed situations, if you can believe it, and that’s a testament to his outside track.
Veteran Justin Williams follows up with 23 goals. The captain has three Cup rings already and brings the experience factor to this young team. He skated with Washington in 2015 in efforts to bring some of his playoff knowhow aboard, but he was a member of the Hurricanes by the time the Capitals won the Cup. He won the prize with Carolina in 2006, however, at the ripe age of 24.
The Capitals finished the regular season fifth in NHL scoring. It all starts with Ovechkin, whose post-season last year was insane. He was a man on a mission and his celebrations became the stuff of legend. He’s hoping for more of the same this season and that’s what drives him. Ovechkin’s had a taste and that’s dangerous for the opposition. He’s lethal everywhere, but his 18 power play goals are worth special attention.
T.J. Oshie had 25 goals during the regular season, including six on the power play. He’s a versatile forward and he gives the Capitals options up front because he takes on any assignment. He can play a physical game or he can find the net. He’s also among the most energetic players on a very energetic team.
We’ve talked a fair bit about the unsung heroics of Nicklas Backstrom and it’s time to do that again. The centre is absolutely instrumental to the Capitals’ success. He had 22 goals and 52 assists for 74 points, second on the team to Ovechkin. Backstrom plays nearly 20 minutes a game and can play a sturdy defensive game, which makes him the ultimate threat.
The Hurricanes play a brand of team defence that’s…interesting. They allowed just 221 goals against this season, putting them eighth overall. Ditto their penalty kill, eighth overall at 81.6 percent. Those numbers have a lot to do with the play of Carolina’s goaltenders, but team effort is also a factor. This means owning shot opportunities and taking shot opportunities away from the opposition.
The Hurricanes still unfortunately allow a comparatively high number of high danger chances and slot chances in the defensive zone, but they’re not bad at overall shot suppression. They tend to control the play in five-on-five situations and that has a lot to do with momentum, but will that work against the Capitals?
Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton are generally at the top of the depth chart, but Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk are also worth more than a mention. Hamilton had 18 goals this season, with just two on the power play. Those are pretty dazzling numbers for a defenceman and it speaks to how wide-open the Hurricanes can get. Faulk had 11 goals.
The Capitals are not particularly playing a strong brand of defensive hockey this season, so it’s about momentum and carrying the play. They allowed 248 goals against this season, good for 17th overall. The PK is 24th overall at 78.9 percent, which means they’ll have to prevent costly penalties.
Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen and John Carlson are the top three guys for Washington. They’ll have to make do without defenceman Michal Kempny, who had surgery Tuesday for a torn hamstring. Carlson had 13 goals in the regular season and plays an average of 25:04 a game. He’ll draw all the tough assignments against Carolina and can drive action from his own end.
Orlov eats up 21:38 a game and plays an itinerant but hostile style. The 27-year-old Russian is a physical skater and his up-front tendencies will play a big role in shutting down the opposition. He may have to keep himself contained to avoid staying out of the box. Niskanen plays 21:56 a game and had eight goals in the regular season. He’s got skating ability and a big point shot.
The improvement of Petr Mrazek is an enormous piece of the puzzle for Carolina. He improved to .914 this season after bouncing around a little last year. The Hurricanes seem to be the right fit for the 27-year-old as a starter and he’s the type of goalie who improves with an increased workload (see Detroit 2015-2016).
Mrazek is the clear starter now, but he shared the net with Curtis McElhinney for a lot of the season in Carolina. The 35-year-old will be the perfect backup for the post-season, which positions the Hurricanes well. McElhinney had 20 wins in 33 games, good for a save percentage of .912 and a goals against average of 2.58 – a fair shade above his career average.
Braden Holtby sat out the first two games of the playoffs last year, having lost the starting gig to Philipp Grubauer. That’s not the case this year, with the Capitals goalie improving to finish the season 12-4-1 with a .921 save percentage in his last 17 games. Holtby is .911 overall, with a 2.82 goals against average on the season.
Pheonix Copley is the backup. At 6’4, 200 pounds, Copley takes up a lot of the net and can hold the fort if need be. The Capitals aren’t rocking as quality a tandem as Carolina and Copley lacks overall experience in the position, but he did snag 16 wins this season and posted a .905 save percentage.
For the Capitals, it’s all about offence. This isn’t a stout defensive club and goaltending may be an issue if Holtby blunders. Carolina could generate enough momentum and speed, but they’re up against one of the most experienced playoff clubs in the game. That experience could be the X-factor that tips Washington back to defending its title.
Or the Bunch of Jerks could pull off a surprise and win this series in six. Yeah, we’ll go with that.
(Photo credit: NHL)