The stage is set for a long overdue first playoff meeting between the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals. The two teams should be bitter rivals, but because of mismatches when each team was good and the lack of playoff meetings to fuel the rivalry the rivalry really is not what it could and should be. In that regard, the first round tussle is a match made in heaven.
Part 1 of my series preview will take a first look at the Washington Capitals.
1) Depth in terms of scoring production
Showing zero signs of slowing in his mid-30s, Alexander Ovechkin again led the NHL in goal scoring with 51 goals. But the Capitals were actually balanced rather than top heavy in terms of scoring. The Caps had seven players score 20 or more goals on the way to finishing fifth in the NHL in scoring. The Hurricanes by contrast had only four players reach the 20 goal mark. Add in a power play that finished 12th in the NHL and arguably underperformed relative to its talent level, and the Capitals are clearly a team that can put the puck in the net. In my opinion, what separates the Caps from the Canes is having two high-end playmakers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov who can generate scoring chances out of thin air.
Upshot for the Hurricanes: The Hurricanes obviously need to generate offense and score to win but does not want to get into a series where they just trade high-end chances with the Capitals. That type of series very likely ends badly.
2) A blue line that can be attacked
Even with Vezina winner Braden Holtby in net, the Capitals finished 20th in the NHL in terms of scoring allowed. The Caps have a great anchor in John Carlson and a couple other capable veterans, but the group is more capable than elite in total. If the Hurricanes can attack with speed off the rush and/or pressure the puck deep in the offensive zone, I think potential is there to exploit the Capitals blue line.
Upshot for the Hurricanes: If the Hurricanes can get through the neutral zone with speed, I think the Capitals blue line can be vulnerable.
3) Rising goaltending
In net, the Capitals have a Vezina Trophy winner in Braden Holtby. Somewhat like the team in total, Holtby had an up and down 2018-19 campaign. But also tracking the broader team, Holtby rounded into form and played some of best hockey late in the season with a save percentage of .921 since the beginning of March. Holtby can be very good when he gets going.
Upshot for the Hurricanes: The key in terms of scoring for the Hurricanes is scratching and clawing for position around the net for screens and deflections, rebounds and any other kind of scoring chance and ugly goal.
4) The advantage system-wise heading into the series
The Capitals won both halves of the home and home series last week and will enter the series with the advantage. What Washington did successfully in those two game was keep the Hurricanes from moving the puck up the ice with any pace. The Capitals did forecheck occasionally at times, but they also had stretches where their focus seemed to be on defending the receipt of the first pass. The result for the Hurricanes was disjointed play through the middle of the rink with too many turnovers, ineffective dump ins and difficulty getting the timing right for an aggressive forechecking brand of Canes hockey.
Upshot for the Hurricanes: I think Brind’Amour and his staff have work to do on this one. The Canes to make tactical adjustments to better break the puck out of their own end and get moving north-south with speed.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What is your assessment of the Washington Capitals in total?
2) Which of the four points that I highlighted do you see as being most critical in deciding the series?