3 Takeaways From Capitals’ 4-2 Game 1 Win Over the Panthers

In the final period of an enthralling contest, an Alex Ovechkin poke check sparked life into the Washington Capitals and propelled Peter Laviolette’s squad to a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday.

Washington’s road victory came as the result of a complete team effort, with the Caps providing their best defensive performance of the campaign to dampen the spirits of the Eastern Conference’s top regular-season team. After netting the game-winning goal, T.J. Oshie commended Washington’s defensive effort against the usually-lethal offensive unit of the Panthers.

“We played the game defensively, for the most part, how we wanted to play the game,” he said after the Capitals’ 4-2 win. “You know the old saying about defence winning championships — well I think it’s very important in playoff hockey, and I thought we did a good job tonight. They still got their chances, and when they did, more times than not, Vitek [Vanecek] was there to shut the door.”

Washington’s victory means they will head into Game 2 with a spring in their step, having already proven they can keep pace with the red-hot Panthers. Here are three takeaways from the opening match of the series:

Vitek Vanecek Impresses in Playoff Return

Despite entering the postseason under a dark cloud of disbelief, Vanecek won the battle against Sergei Bobrovsky in Game 1. He stopped 30 of the 32 shots he faced versus the Panthers, including a handful of timely saves to keep the Capitals within striking distance through periods one and two.

“He was really good,” Laviolette said of the 26-year-old’s performance. “They caught one off the post and then another one, there’s things that we could’ve done better in front of him with regard to that. But I thought he played a solid game.”

Vitek Vanecek Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Although Vanecek was unable to expunge concerns about his iffy rebound control, which led to Florida’s second marker of the night, his display at FLA Live Arena was certainly sufficient to win him outright control of the crease – for the time being at least.

Related: Capitals Need Vanecek and Samsonov to Contribute in the Playoffs

“The guys were buzzing today,” he said postgame. “The defence was tight and very good, offense was really good, so I hope it’ll go the same way for the next game…They have good offense, they have skills, but like I said, the defence was really good today. It was tight in the back, so they had a couple chances but not too many. That was really huge from us.”

Despite starting Game 1 of the Capitals’ first-round series versus the Boston Bruins in 2020-21, Vanecek’s playoff experience is limited. His last run was cut short after just 13:10 when an upper-body injury curtailed his participation in the postseason.

This time out, the Capitals are hoping their Czech netminder can go the distance. They’ll be encouraged by his contributions in the series opener.

Washington’s Defensive Efforts Blunt Panthers’ Threat

As previously suggested, the Capitals’ likeliest path to upsetting Florida in Round One involves playing big and focusing on defence. Andrew Brunette’s squad finished the regular-season with an astonishing plus-95 goal-differential, meaning it was never in the cards for Washington to outscore their problems in this series.

“They’ve got a lot of weapons and they come at you in a lot of different ways,” Laviolette said postgame. “I thought we were smart. We were smart with puck decisions, smart in the offensive zone. I thought we competed really hard in the defensive zone. So, there were some good things that we did defensively.”

Martin Fehervary Washington Capitals
Martin Fehervary, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Washington’s win was particularly impressive because they only allowed 25 shots at five-on-five and generated 13 turnovers – up from an average of 6.62 per 60 during the regular-season. They also blocked 12 shots and were physically imposing; despite being outhit 56-43 by Florida.

According to MoneyPuck, the Capitals deservedly won the opening game of the series. Laviolette’s team generated 4.11 expected goals to the Panthers’ 2.21, a key indicator of their effectiveness of keeping their opponents away from the slot. If that continues in Game 2, the Panthers could be in trouble.

Concern: Tom Wilson’s Health

This isn’t so much a takeaway as it is a major source of concern for the Capitals. After logging 1:31 of ice time, Tom Wilson exited Game 1 with a lower-body injury midway through the opening period.

“He’s getting evaluated right now,” Laviolette said of the Canadian’s condition. “We’ll see how he is tomorrow and go from there.”

Despite leaving the game so early, Wilson’s impact was clear. He opened the scoring off the rebound on 3:47 and registered an early hit as well.

The 28-year-old was an integral player for the Capitals during the regular-season, making 78 appearances – the most of any forward on the roster – as they battled through a flurry of significant injuries.

“You can’t replace Tom,” Oshie said after the game. “Especially in playoffs, he’s one of our most important players because of his ability to play physical, his ability to score big goals like he did tonight, his ability to penalty kill [and] power play. He’s just a guy that you can’t replace. Knowing that, his presence in the room is very influential on our team so we’re hoping for the best.”

Although the Capitals pulled through in Game 1 without Wilson, they’ll certainly miss him if he isn’t ready to return to the lineup next time out.

Capitals Must Avoid Complacency in Game 2

While it’s easy to be swept up in the excitement of a surprising result, the Capitals can’t afford to take their foot off the gas in their second meeting with the Panthers.

“It’s one game,” Laviolette said. “Our guys played hard tonight. We’ve got to regroup tomorrow and get back to work and look at some things we can do better and some things that work for us and get ready for Game 2.”

With the Panthers certain to push back on Thursday [May 5], the pressure is on the Capitals to hold firm. It’s all to play for in the second game of the series.


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