As the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs approach, the Washington Capitals are entering one of the most confusing and uncertain postseasons in their 46-year history. Every player on every team is the coldest they have ever been stepping on the ice for the playoffs, pun absolutely intended. Nobody has played a full-speed NHL game since March, so that means nobody is sure what to expect from these returning players. Not to mention, they must live their lives inside a bubble, not going through their usual routines, eating their usual meals or playing in front of the usual thousands of fans in attendance.
Players will need to be ready to get back into game-shape quickly and then some, because we all know the intensity increases during the extended season. In order to win a Stanley Cup, you need just about everybody to step up and play their best hockey of the season. The beauty of the playoffs is that you never know who is going to step up and become the hero for the Cup-winning team.
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In 2018, Devante Smith-Pelly scored seven goals for the Capitals en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, which matched his goal-scoring total from the regular season. That included three goals in three consecutive games in the Cup Final. Lars Eller scored the overtime winner for the Capitals’ first win in the playoffs in Game 3 of the first round, and then went on to score the Cup-winning goal in Game 5 of the Final.
If Washington wants to go on another deep run and have the privilege of hoisting the Cup above their heads this fall, they are going to need players to step up and take over. They need depth scoring and lots of it. They need their top players to play like stars, and their role players to play like top players. Here are a few players that need to step up for Washington if they have any desires of repeating success.
This one is a big one. Evgeny Kuznetsov is arguably the biggest reason the team won the Stanley Cup back in 2018. The Russian centre put up an incredible 32 points in 24 playoff games and was a serious favourite for the Conn Smythe Trophy before it was understandably presented to Alex Ovechkin.
Kuznetsov had a great 2017-18 in general, amassing 83 points (a career-high) in 79 games before lighting up the postseason. Kuznetsov’s 2018-19 was a step backward for sure, as he only had 72 points in 76 games. Don’t get me wrong, these are great numbers, it is just not the same level of production that he was showing the year prior. This season, he only managed 52 points in 63 games, which would have put him on pace for 67 points over an 82-game season, which is just too low for a player of Kuznetsov’s calibre.
In the Capitals’ first-round matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes last year, he had six points in seven games. Again, this is good, but if the Capitals want to go deep, they need that 2018 Kuzy who took no prisoners and was an offensive machine. He is a player who has proven he can elevate his game when it matters and he needs to do that this season in order to elevate his team’s game.
This one may be the most crucial to the Capitals’ success. Goaltender Braden Holtby didn’t have a fantastic 2017-18 season. Because of this, he came into the 2018 playoffs as the backup to Philipp Grubauer. After the Capitals dropped their first two games, Holtby stepped in and was arguably the best goalie of the playoffs. It is safe to say that, since then, “Holtbeast” has regressed and looked more human than beast.
During the 2018 postseason, Holtby had a .922 SV% (save percentage) and a 2.16 GAA (goals against average) in 23 games played. These are unreal numbers. At the conclusion of the 2018-19 season, he had a .911 SV% and a 2.82 GAA in 59 games played. Not bad, but not elite by any means. In the playoffs, he wasn’t too bad posting a .914 SV% and a 2.67 GAA. Now, none of his numbers from last season are that bad. Plus, it is worth noting that, after the Cup run, the Capitals’ defense (which had been phenomenal during their run) had gotten objectively worse in front of him.
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However, this season, Holtby posted a .897 SV% and a 3.11 GAA. These are the worst numbers of his career and, in a contract year, you would expect him to be making more saves even if Washington’s defense was faltering. At times throughout the season, he would lose his job to rookie netminder Ilya Samsonov. Nonetheless, head coach Todd Reirden has made it clear that Holtby has the net for the playoffs. It is his crease to lose. He will be on a short leash, but he is deserving of the start.
In what is most likely his final stretch of hockey in a Capitals jersey, Holtby needs to dig down and become the Holtbeast he was during their 2018 Cup run. Even if the defense is lacking at times, he will need to be there to answer the bell and make the saves he shouldn’t be able to make. It is the only way the Capitals will go deep into the playoffs. He has been an outstanding playoff goalie for his entire career – he just needs to dial it in because he is the key to this team’s success.
I have seen a lot of people praising Garnet Hathaway as of late, and no offense to the player, but I just didn’t understand it. Yes, he is a decent fourth-liner but not someone worth an immense amount of infatuation. But then I began to think about the 2018 Cup run and, more specifically, Devante Smith-Pelly.
Smith-Pelly tallied 16 points during the 2017-18 regular season, which is exactly how many Hathaway put up for Washington this past season. We have the benefit of knowing that Smith-Pelly would go on to be an essential member of that Cup-winning Capitals team. That is exactly what Hathaway needs to do. As previously mentioned, depth scoring will be a necessity if this team wants to make it past Round 1, which I would hope is the goal heading into this thing.
Hathaway provides that sandpaper on the Capitals’ fourth line, alongside Nic Dowd, that is built for playoff-style hockey. He can get to the dirty areas, he can run defensemen off-the-puck and he could potentially bury important goals the same way Smith-Pelly was able to do in 2018. He just needs to increase his intensity when the games begin. Seeing as how he is already an intense and emotional player, this seems like something he is capable of.
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One honourable mention goes to Richard Panik who, although he has never been an elite point-producer in the NHL, is better than he showed this season and could contribute the same way Hathaway could.
Another honourable mention goes to Michal Kempny, who, after being acquired by the Capitals prior to the 2018 trade deadline, was an integral part of their defensive atonement late in the season and in the playoffs. He was unable to play in last year’s postseason due to a lower-body injury, but hopefully he can provide that spark he conjured up a couple of short seasons ago.
The moral of the story is that everybody on the Capitals needs to enhance their play if they are to go deep into the postseason. That’s how playoffs work. These specific players are just a hand-selected few who, I believe, the Capitals need to take it to that next level when it matters most. A couple of them are proven, and a couple are unproven, but that’s what the playoffs are all about.
It is about everyone on the roster giving it their all and finding heroes where you expect to (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov), but also where you don’t expect to (Devante Smith-Pelly, Lars Eller). Whichever team is able to find that next level will be the team doing keg stands out of the Cup this yea…oh, my bad. Those are banned, thanks to these guys.
21-year old Capitals fan from Muskoka, Ontario. 5’9 but could be 6’3, depends on the day. Love good movies, but hate bad movies. Covered the Capitals for Stars and Sticks.