The matchup between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets will see a pair of teams that have failed to make long playoff runs in recent history. The Jackets have never made it out of the first round, while the Caps haven’t made it further than the second round in the “Ovechkin era”.
For the first time in three seasons, the Capitals didn’t come away with the Presidents’ Trophy. That might not be a bad thing considering they got knocked off in the second round each of the last two years they took home the regular-season award. Even though they didn’t finish with the best record in the league in 2017-18, the spotlight will still be bright if they fail to make a run again this year.
They already lost a number of key free agents over the last couple of years and potentially losing John Carlson would be another devastating blow to their Cup window. Saying it’s a do-or-die year for the Capitals is probably a little excessive, but they aren’t getting any younger, that much is clear.
Washington finished the year with a Metropolitan-best 49-26-7 record. That was good enough to give them 105 points in the standings, which was sixth-best in the entire NHL.
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As for the Blue Jackets, they had an up-and-down year. They won some games early in the year, despite not playing good hockey, per their head coach John Tortorella. They hit a major bump in the road in the middle of the year before finally getting back on track at the end of the season. Of course, having Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes certainly helps smooth over some of the rough patches that occur during a season.
Have they peaked too early? That remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that they saved their best hockey for the end of the regular season. Although they didn’t finish in the top three in the Metro, they’re probably happy to avoid the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions, who have knocked them out of the playoffs each of the last two times they were in them.
Despite having three more wins than the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus finished in the first Wild Card spot in the East while the Flyers were third in the Metro (Philadelphia lost 14 games in OT/shootouts). The Blue Jackets had a 45-30-7 record, but three of those losses came against the Capitals. They only managed to take down Washington once in their four meetings with their division rival.
Washington: The Capitals have one of the most dynamic forward groups in the league. Led by Rocket Richard winner Alex Ovechkin (49 goals, 87 points), they have the ability to put the puck in the net as regularly as any other team in the playoffs. Outside of Ovechkin, the Caps also have solid depth down the middle with Nicklas Backstrom (21 goals, 71 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (27 goals, 83 points), Lars Eller (18 goals, 38 points) and Jay Beagle. That doesn’t even include the likes of T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson (14 goals, 35 points) and Andre Burakovsky (12 goals 25 points). The Caps are set up front. Oshie missed the final game of the season, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs.
Columbus: Cam Atkinson (24 goals, 46 points) got off to a rough start this season, but he emerged as one of the key figures in the Blue Jackets’ turnaround late in the season. They may not have a superstar like Ovechkin, Backstrom or Kuznetsov, but they have more than enough depth to help them get by. Atkinson, Artemi Panarin (27 goals, 82 points), Nick Foligno (15 goals, 33 points), Boone Jenner (13 goals, 32 points), Pierre-Luc Dubois (20 goals, 48 points), Oliver Bjorkstrand (11 goals, 40 points) Alexander Wennberg (eight goals, 35 points) and Thomas Vanek (15 points in 19 games with Columbus) can all help facilitate offense.
Advantage: Capitals. They’re superior down the middle and the overall quality and depth is simply better than what Columbus has at their disposal. Oh, and that Ovechkin guy makes a big difference, too.
Washington: The Capitals have a quality number one defenseman in Carlson (15 goals, 68 points), but there’s a steep drop off after that. Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov have the experience of being in the playoffs before, while Michal Kempny, Christian Djoos, Jakub Jerabek and Madison Bowey will attempt to serve as more than just depth pieces at this crucial time of year.
Columbus: Zach Werenski (16 goals, 37 points) and Seth Jones (16 goals, 57 points) arguably make up the best pairing in the NHL. Matchups will be key in this series, and Tortorella being able to lean on those two could be the difference between winning the round and going home early. Those two are elite, there’s no denying that. Don’t be surprised if you see them log close to 30 minutes per game in the postseason. Columbus also has Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray, David Savard and Stanley Cup champion Ian Cole on the back end.
Advantage: Columbus. It’s clear that the Capitals don’t have a pairing that comes close to what Jones and Werenski can do. The duo have the ability to be game-changers in this series. But don’t sleep on Nutivaara, either. He’s another useful asset for this team.
Washington: Under normal circumstances, the Capitals would have an advantage between the pipes because they have Braden Holtby, but the veteran has struggled throughout the year (2.99 goals-against-average, .907 save percentage). He managed to play better down the stretch, which is encouraging if you’re a Caps fan. But Philipp Grubauer has been named the starter in Game 1. It’ll be interesting to see if they utilize both in the series.
Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky (2.42 goals-against-average, .921 save percentage) has probably been the most consistent Blue Jacket all year. When their stars weren’t performing early on, it was Bobrovsky that bailed them out. There’s no denying it, as good as some of the forwards and defensemen are on this team, he’s the backbone of the operation. The Russian netminder has the ability to steal a game, a series and potentially a Cup. Solving him won’t be easy.
Advantage: Columbus. The Capitals may have two capable goaltenders, but the Blue Jackets have “the” goaltender. That’s not to say that Grubauer or Holtby can’t get hot, but if you look at the body of work that each of these three players put in this season, you can’t deny that Bobrovsky is the best of the bunch. He has the ability to push the Blue Jackets over the top.
Washington: As you’d imagine, the Capitals finished the regular season with the seventh best power play in the NHL at 22.5 percent. Ovechkin led the way with 17 goals on the man-advantage. The Caps rely heavily on their top five players when it comes to power-play production. Carlson (32), Ovechkin (31) Kuznetsov (30), Backstrom (26), Oshie (18) led the Caps in points on the power play. The sixth best forward in that category was Lars Eller, and he only had six.
The Caps were in the middle of the pack when it came to the penalty kill during the regular season. At 80.3 percent, they were the 15th-best PK unit in the league.
Columbus: The Blue Jackets power play was near the basement of the NHL for most of the early part of the season, but a slight improvement allowed them to jump up to 25th in the league at 17.2 percent. Typically, power play goals are harder to come by in the playoffs, so the Jackets have to make sure that they get some kind of production from that unit.
Believe it or not, they were even further down the list when it came to the penalty kill, as they ranked 27th in the league at 76.2 percent. Only Tampa, Philadelphia, Montreal and the New York Islanders were worse. Ironically enough, two of those four teams are in the playoffs.
Advantage: Washington. The numbers couldn’t be any clearer.
Washington: Yes, Grubauer is starting Game 1, but the Caps’ X-factor still has to be Holtby. If he can regain his Vezina Trophy-winning form, he’ll make the Capitals that much more of a force this postseason. If he goes back to being the mediocre goalie he was throughout the 2017-18 regular season, it’ll be tougher for them to get through to the next round. That’s not to say that Grubauer can’t get the job done, but the Caps are a better team when Holtby is on his game.
Columbus: Atkinson managed to find his game, thankfully, but he’s going to have to keep it going right through the postseason. He finished the year by collecting 25 points in his final 20 games, which was huge for Columbus because it gave them another red-hot option behind Panarin.
Capitals in seven games. Both teams will be eager to put their lackluster playoff track records behind them, but the Capitals’ star-power will push them over the edge. Even though Washington is a better team overall, it still won’t be easy for them to dispose of the Blue Jackets.
Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.