Panthers have no answers for Capitals in Game 3

An impressive 6-1 Capitals win in Game 3 doesn’t automatically confirm that the Panthers can’t convert their high-octane regular season style to the playoffs. But it adds an unusual level of certainty after the Panthers absolutely tore through the regular season for their first-ever Presidents’ Trophy win.

If there’s an underrated part of the Florida Panthers’ stellar regular season, it’s how seamlessly Andrew Brunette took over after Joel Quenneville resigned in disgrace. Uncomfortably, this series represents the first real hiccup for the rookie head coach.

Brunette and the Panthers need to find answers, and fast. Fast is also not how you’d describe these Cats for significant chunks of this series.

Capitals contain, frustrate Panthers to win Game 3 handily

Scrolling through social media, you’d think that the Capitals just eliminated the Panthers from the playoffs. To be fair, it’s difficult not to feel some awe with how decisively the Capitals beat the Panthers to take a 2-1 series lead.

After Jonathan Huberdeau sprung loose for an early 1-0 lead, the Panthers rarely solved the Capitals mix of forechecking and trapping. During the rare moments when Florida did break through, Ilya Samsonov was sharp.

There were a few pivots where the Capitals really pulled away from the Panthers in Game 3:

  • Following a listless Panthers power play, the Capitals converted on a PP opportunity of their own with just 26 seconds left in the first period. The Panthers were then unable to score despite two power-play opportunities to start the second.
  • While Alex Ovechkin (1G, 1A) continues to play beyond his years, the Caps also enjoyed some contributions from less-usual suspects. Marcus Johansson scored a big goal and collected an assist, while Anthony Mantha generated two assists. Conor Sheary seemed like he could’ve produced more than one assist.
  • Midway through the second period, the Panthers finally looked like the overwhelming team they often were during the regular season. Samsonov made some big saves, while Johansson and other supporting members combined for two Washington goals.
  • Things frankly didn’t look that promising for Florida down 3-1 in the third. Still, Jonathan Huberdeau took a frustration penalty, and Ovechkin cashed in with a prototypical power-play goal from “his office.” It was basically elementary from there, with the Capitals adding an empty-net goal and a late 6-1 tally.

How worried should the Panthers be?

While the Panthers broke through in a Game 2 win, the Capitals did a good-to-great job locking things down in both Game 1 and 3. First, consider some 5-on-5 facts from Natural Stat Trick.

  • The Panthers generated more sheer volume to start the series, but lost the expected goals battle in Game 1. At 5-on-5, Washington generated a 9-7 advantage in high-danger chances.
  • Again, Game 2 looked more like many anticipated. The Panthers easily had more expected goals, and nearly doubled the high-danger chances (13-7).
  • Interestingly, the Panthers generated the same Fenwick For advantage in both Game 2 and Game 3 (41-27). The difference was that the Capitals limited the quality of the Panthers’ chances, as Washington generated nine high-danger chances to eight for Florida.

One can take a limited level of solace from the level of play being more even than Twitter hot takes might indicate.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 First Round schedule, TV info]

Then again, if things keep trending in this direction, the Panthers might need to truly dominate the Capitals at 5-on-5 to overcome a special teams disparity.

In Game 3, the Capitals went 2-for-6 on the power play, while the Panthers were 0-for-3. Through the series, the Panthers haven’t scored a power-play goal yet, while the Capitals have four.

During the season, Florida converted on 24.4% of their chances, while the Capitals’ power play was unusually tepid (18.8). Considering the weapon Ovechkin can be in that area, it’s not outrageous to expect that matchup to be closer than those regular season numbers suggest.

But for the Capitals to dominate it so far? That’s not as jarring as seeing the Panthers’ transition game slipping, yet it’s still a surprise.

If NHL playoff history teaches us anything, it’s that a 1-3-1 trap and similar tactics can simply be tough to crack when a team is operating at a high level. Just look at how much the Maple Leafs, Golden Knights, and Jets struggled to score against the Canadiens when they totally committed to protecting their zone at all costs.

In the event that Washington neutralizes Florida’s rush chances, the Panthers will need to at least draw even in that special teams battle.

Can the Panthers’ style of play really work in the playoffs? It’s way too hasty to say it cannot. That would probably be unfair even if Washington pulls off this upset. But the bottom line is that Florida has a lot to prove, and improve.

FLORIDA PANTHERS v. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (WSH leads 2-1)

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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