Panthers vs. Capitals: 3 things to know about First Round series

The 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs began on Monday, May 2. Today, we preview the series between the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals.

Panthers vs. Capitals schedule

Game 1: May 3, 7:30 p.m. ET – Capitals at Panthers (ESPN2, SN360, TVA Sports)
Game 2: May 5 7:30 p.m. ET – Capitals at Panthers (TBS, SN360, TVA Sports )
Game 3:  May 7, 1 p.m. ET – Panthers at Capitals (ESPN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports)
Game 4: May 9, 7 p.m. ET –  Panthers at Capitals (TBS, SN1, TVA Sports)
*Game 5: May 11, TBD – Capitals at Panthers (TBD)
*Game 6: May 13, TBD – Panthers at Capitals (TBD)
*Game 7: May 15, TBD – Capitals at Panthers (TBD)

1. Will the Panthers offense maintain that same pace from the regular season?

The Panthers were not only the best offensive team in the league during the regular season, but they were the highest scoring team the league has seen in nearly 30 years. They were the first team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins to average more than four goals per game over a full 82-game season, while there was a 0.31 goals per game gap between them (4.11) and the next closest offensive team (Toronto Maple Leafs at 3.80 goals per game).

They have two superstars at the top of their lineup in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and then assembled a sensational complementary cast around them with some shrewd trades and signings (Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Claude Giroux, Joe Thornton, Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, Patric Hornqvist, and Mason Marchment) and some strong player development (Anton Lundell, MacKenzie Weegar, Aaron Ekblad).

The question is whether or not that pace continues in the playoffs.

We all know by now that regular season goal scoring and playoff goal scoring do not always perfectly translate. Defense and goalies get better. The play gets tougher. The rules get enforced differently. Even though the Panthers are expected to get Aaron Ekblad back their defense is not their strength, and goaltending is a major question mark (more in that in a second). If the goal scoring drops off a bit in the change from regular season to playoffs this series could be a lot closer and tougher than many expect it to be.

2. Sergei Bobrovsky has to solve his playoff struggles

This, more than anything, is going to be the make-or-break storyline for the Panthers and nothing else is going to come close.

Bobrovsky has had a magnificent career. He is on the very short list of goalies to win multiple Vezina Trophies (a list that includes him and a bunch of Hall of Famers) and has been one of the most productive goalies of his era.

But he has been miserable in the playoffs with three different teams (Philadelphia, Columbus, and Florida). In his eight postseasons he has finished with a save percentage higher than .908 just one time. He has finished under .900 four times, and his overall career mark of .899 is the absolute lowest of any goalie with at least 25 appearances (32 of them) during his career.

He is coming off of a 2021 postseason performance where he allowed 10 goals on 63 shots before ultimately losing his starting job, and is entering the playoffs with a .900 save percentage since the start of February, one of the worst marks in the league during that stretch of games.

Nothing can impact a playoff series more than goaltending, and this is not the area you want to have a question mark in entering the postseason. If Bobrovsky is good, the Panthers can win it all. If he plays like he has in his previous postseasons, this could be a much shorter postseason experience in Florida than anybody is anticipating it being.

3. The Capitals have their own goalie issues

The Panthers’ starter has to get over the playoff hurdle, but his overall track record in the NHL is excellent. He is a legitimate starter. The Capitals, on the other hand, have no such goalie on their roster. Everything here is based around potential and hope.

The Capitals have spent the past two seasons relying on the duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek to solve their goalie problem, and to this point neither one of them has done anything to secure the starting job or give them any confidence that they can do it.

Vanecek is the Game 1 starter and has been the marginally better goalie the past two seasons, but his ceiling is probably “average goalie that might not lose us a game, but certainly is not going to steal one.”

The problem here, among many, is that given the offense the Capitals are facing they might need a goalie to steal a couple of games for them to have a chance of winning.

This is still a very good hockey team when healthy, which is not something they have been for much of the season. Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Anthony Mantha all missed half of the season due to injury, while Alex Ovechkin and Carl Hagelin enter the playoffs banged up. But they are starting to reach the end of an era with this core and have not won a playoff series since their Stanley Cup win in 2018. Unless one of these goalies goes on an unexpected run here they are looking at the possibility of a fourth consecutive First Round exit.

Prediction: Panthers win in seven games

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.