Capitals: Panthers Would Be Tough But Beatable First-Round Opponent

Although there’s plenty left to play for down the stretch, it feels as though the Washington Capitals will finish the regular season where they currently stand: fourth in the Metropolitan Division and in the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot.

While the Caps have shaken off their post-Christmas malaise, Peter Laviolette’s team still has plenty of work to do if they’re to leapfrog the Pittsburgh Penguins or New York Rangers in the standings. Washington’s 39-22-10 record doesn’t exactly jump off the page, even after their impressive 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday. They’re clearly a playoff team – albeit a relatively small fish in a menacingly-stacked pond.

Dmitry Kulikov New Jersey Devils Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s therefore fair to assume that the Capitals will face off against the Florida Panthers in round one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Andrew Brunette’s team is eight points clear at the conference’s summit, 9-1-0 since March 20 as the postseason races into view.

The Athletic’s model predicts with 75 percent certainty that Washington will meet Florida in the first round. Alternatively, a best-of-seven series versus the New York Rangers or Carolina Hurricanes could be in the cards.

With that in mind, let’s dig into what to expect from a Caps-Cats series in round one. Washington, even as heavy underdogs, will approach the playoffs knowing they have an opportunity to snap their three-year postseason skid. Here’s how they might do it.

The Panthers Are Excellent But Not Perfect

It’s worth taking a minute to underscore the extent of the Panthers’ quality. They stand miles clear at the top of the Atlantic Division, buoyed by the individual excellence of their forward group.

Jonathan Huberdeau’s 77 assists in 72 games is a record-breaking tally: he stands alone as the NHL’s leading single-season assister amongst left-wingers. His status as an outsider in the Hart Trophy debate illustrates the depth of quality on Florida’s roster and across the NHL.

Since stocking up at the trade deadline, the Panthers’ top six features Carter Verhaeghe, Aleksander Barkov, Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett, Claude Giroux, and Huberdeau. Brunette’s third line is also spicy. Mason Marchment, Anton Lundell, and Sam Reinhart make up quite the trio.

You don’t need me to tell you that the Panthers are elite offensively. They’ve already blown past their single-season goal record and put on a masterclass in gung-ho hockey earlier this week by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-6 in overtime. They’re averaging 4.19 goals per game this season; it’ll be a wild series considering Washington’s spotty netminding.

However, Florida isn’t perfect. The Panthers are vulnerable defensively – hence their 13-goal affair with the Leafs – and unsettled between the pipes.

Despite adding Ben Chiarot and Robert Hagg to their blueline at the deadline, the Panthers are a much weaker team without star defenceman Aaron Ekblad in the lineup. The 26-year-old has been in the press box since suffering a lower-body injury on March 17 and is listed as week-to-week. He’s expected to return for the playoffs but is unlikely to be up to full speed in round one.

“He’s in good spirits,” Brunette said shortly after Ekblad’s knock. “There’s nothing that [is] overly concerning long-term, [we’ve] just [got to] make sure we get him healthy here down the stretch.”

While the Panthers have upheld their positive record without him at their disposal, Ekblad’s absence is a significant blow and could drag on into the playoffs.

Injuries aside, Florida’s biggest problem area is in the crease. Sergei Bobrovsky hasn’t played up to his $10 million/year contract and Spencer Knight, though a star of the future, is still wet behind the ears. What’s more, Bobrovsky has a .899 playoff save percentage over the course of his career. The Russian is beatable and has crumbled under postseason pressure in the past.

In other words, the Panthers are excellent but far from perfect.

The Capitals Must Play Big Versus Florida

It’s often said that Washington’s general manager Brian MacLellan prefers experience over youth and size over skill. I tend to agree. The Caps have long coveted size and have trended heavier and heavier over recent years.

Against the Panthers, that size advantage will come in clutch but only if Laviolette’s team uses it effectively and in the right moments. The playoffs represent a unique challenge for skilled teams in the NHL, with concerns about the style of postseason officiating – and how it impacts play – well-documented.

Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals
Peter Laviolette of the Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, referees’ lax approach to calling infractions when the Cup is at stake could play into Washington’s hands. While Tom Wilson’s reputation as a physical presence is sometimes exaggerated, his rough-and-tumble brand lends itself well to playoff-style hockey against a team of Florida’s ilk.

With that in mind, Laviolette should take confidence from his team’s impressive record on the road in 2021-22. The Caps are 22-7-5 away from home this term, thanks in part to the fact they set up more defensively on the road.

Could Washington Upset Florida in Round One?

It’s undeniable that the Capitals will enter the first round as underdogs, regardless of how the bracket is set. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a Caps-Cats series is a foregone conclusion.

The NHL’s postseason is incredibly random. Upsets happen all the time, and it’s easy to forget Laviolette’s side would be third in their division if they were based on the opposite coast. Washington is the second wild card team in an incredibly competitive conference. Clearly, they’re no slouches.

Related: 4 Capitals Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch in 2021-22

Moreover, the Caps have weapons of their own. Alex Ovechkin’s chase for the ninth 50-goal season of his career is ongoing, he’s six strikes short of the mark with 11 games to play. There’s every chance the Russian will deliver in the playoffs if faced with mediocre netminding.

John Carlson is enjoying a purple patch from the blueline while Connor McMichael is also starting to kick on as the Caps’ third-line centre. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov will also be in the mood to wreak havoc in the offensive zone by the time the playoffs roll around in May.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuzntesov of the Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Although the Capitals enter the playoffs unfancied, there are reasons to believe they could pull through a difficult matchup versus Florida. That said, an upset will require the Panthers to play below their usual standards and for Washington to operate above theirs.

A second-round appearance would therefore be improbable but not impossible for the Capitals if the bracket sets them up against Florida. It’s a plotline to watch as the playoffs approach.

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