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Caps Start Pursuit of Cup with Clash vs. Columbus

April 12, 2018
In the immediate aftermath of a painful exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, one of the most commonly expressed sentiments is, “I wish we could start next season’s playoffs right now.” Alas, there is the matter of summer, training camp, the preseason and another grinding 82-game regular season to be endured before a team gets another crack at a do over, if it even gets another crack at a do over. 

Three decades ago, 16 of the league’s 21 teams made the playoffs. Membership in the NHL is up to 31 teams now with this season’s addition of the Vegas Golden Knights, but there are still only 16 playoff berths available, and those 16 postseason tickets get harder and harder to come by with each passing season.

“As soon as the season ends and you’re in, you’re excited,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “There is nothing more fun than the playoffs. There is nothing that pulls you in emotionally more than the playoffs. There is probably nothing harder in the game than the playoffs. It’s the hardness of that whole scenario that makes it actually quite fun in a different way.

“You play all year to get the opportunity to play in the playoffs, and when you get to the playoffs you want to play well. You enjoy the battle. It’s amazing how many guys after a game look exhausted. They’ve got blood on their face and I’ll go by and say, ‘Are you okay?’ And they go, ‘I feel great.’ They may not look great, but they feel great. That tells you the spirit and the competitive person that most of these elite athletes are. They love this. This is the time they work for all year. There are only 16 teams that have an opportunity to get the ultimate prize right now, and we’re one of them. It’s a privilege to get to the playoffs.” 

For the 10 thtime in 11 seasons, the Capitals have managed to gain entry into the postseason, and for the third straight season, they’re Metropolitan Division champs. Now comes the hard part. Washington hasn’t reached the league’s final four in two decades, since it made its lone voyage to the Stanley Cup final in 1998. 

“I think guys are excited,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “Every playoffs, if things don’t go the way you hoped, you’re thinking about the next one already. You’ve got to go through that whole year of process again – summer training, training camp, getting through the regular season again – and you’ve got to perform well enough during the regular season to give yourself another opportunity. Here we are. Guys should be excited about the challenge and the opportunity.”

First up for the Caps are the Columbus Blue Jackets, who finished fourth in the tightly contested Metro. Only eight points separated the Capitals (105) and the Blue Jackets (97) in the standings at season’s end, and both teams were hot down the stretch.

Although the two teams have been division rivals for only five seasons and this will be the first-ever postseason meeting between Washington and Columbus, the two sides have developed a healthy distaste and respect for one another.

“The games get nasty,” says Caps right wing T. J. Oshie of the Caps’ meetings with Columbus. “I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like a lot of time over the last couple of years we’ve played each other in a short time frame, and that builds a rivalry. Emotions stick around. And they’re a hard team to play against. They play hard. They play – for the most part – the way their system has been structured and what is asked of them, and that demands a hard game out of us. 

“It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a fun series and it’s going to be a hard series. But we’re definitely looking forward to getting to the postseason again and getting that do-or-die mentality back.” 

As the playoffs begin for the Caps, there will be a noteworthy change from springs past. Trotz was faced with a difficult choice in the nets where he has two viable options in Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer.

Holtby has averaged 41 wins over the last four seasons, but he scuffled in the second half of 2017-18. His 2.00 career GAA in the playoffs ranks second among all active netminders with 25 or more postseason starts, and that figure ranks third among all goalies in the expansion (post-1967 era). Holtby’s .932 career playoff save pct. is tops among all active goalies and second all-time. 

In Grubauer, the Caps have the NHL’s leader in GAA (1.93) and save pct. (.937) since mid-November of this season. Grubauer is 15-5-2 over that span, despite some spotty offensive support over that span. 

Trotz has opted to go with the hot hand. Grubauer gets the start in Game 1 against the Jackets, ending a streak of 37 straight postseason starts for Holtby. This spring marks the first time since 2011 that Holtby is not starting Game 1 of Washington’s first-round series.

“We have two good goalies,” declares Trotz. “When you have two good goalies, no matter which way I go with our goaltending, it’s a good choice because they both have played very well this year.”

What really matters for Washington in this series is its ability to solve Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, the defending Vezina Trophy winner who has claimed that award twice in his eight-year career in the league. Bobrovsky has not excelled in the playoffs in his NHL career, and he is still seeking his first series win. 

“He’s a good goaltender,” says Trotz of Bobrovsky. “All of the good goaltenders, they’re a challenge for you every night. He is one of the top goaltenders in the league. They’re a dynamic team. They’ve got some dynamic people on the back end. They’ve got [Artemi] Panarin – who is a dynamic person – up front. And they’ve got a real good hockey team. They’re a deep hockey team and they play hard.”

The Caps have endured many a postseason where what was a vaunted regular season offense comes up dry when it matters most. It’s why Holtby owns an extremely ordinary 29-30 lifetime mark in the postseason despite his excellent qualitative numbers. A dozen of his losses came in games in which he allowed two or fewer goals.

Since they won their first Presidents’ Trophy in 2009-10, the Caps have averaged 1.96 goals per game in Games 5-7 of their playoff series. In 19 of those 28 Game 5-7s over that span, they’ve scored two or fewer goals. That’s hardly conducive to success, and they know they’ll need their big guns and their lesser lights to produce more consistently -- both early and late in the series – if they’re to prevail over Columbus. 

“Ideally I think you wear them out with puck possession, and make them chase you as you can,” says Caps center Lars Eller of the Jackets. “I think that’s a good start, and that’s what we’re good at, at home. A lot of possession time and make them play in their end. But I know in these series, the momentum is going to change back and forth. It’s all about how you respond to the adversity you face during the series. Columbus is a good team, they deserve to be here, and I’m excited.”

The Caps will be counting on Grubauer to be every bit of Bobrovsky’s equal in this series, with help from a defense that permitted the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference after the trade deadline arrivals of Michal Kempny (from Chicago) and Jakub Jerabek (from Montreal). That won’t be an easy task at all; the Jackets averaged nearly four goals per game over the final quarter of ’17-18, most of those goals at even-strength. 

In his first season with the Jackets, Panarin totaled a career-high 82 points (27 goals, 55 points). He put up 30 points (nine goals, 21 assists) in his last 19 games. Teenaged rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois won’t garner much in the way of Calder Trophy support this season; that award has virtually been etched with the New York Islanders’ Matthew Barzal’s name on it.

While Dubois’ 20-goal, 48-point rookie season looks decent enough, it’s well worth knowing that nearly a third of that production (six goals and 11 assists for 17 points) came in the season’s final 19 games.

Columbus also fortified its roster at the deadline, adding two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Ian Cole, sharpshooting winger Thomas Vanek and versatile bottom six forward Mark Letestu. With Panarin and Dubois and the three deadline acquisitions, Columbus goes into the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs as a more formidable opponent than it has been in any of its three previous postseason forays.

This year’s postseason model isn’t as strong as either of the last two springs’ Caps teams, both of which suffered what were seen as early exits from the postseason in the second round. This year’s Caps were able to go into the playoffs on a 12-3-0 run, the third-best record the team has ever managed in its final 15 games of the season.

Ah, but the Jackets are coming in hot, too. Columbus finished 13-4-2. 

“It’s going to be a big battle,” says Eller. “It’s going to be a very hard-fought series, just as the playoffs should be. They’re a team that really kind of plays a playoff-style game, even during the regular season. They play with a ton of energy; I think that’s their game. When they have a lot of jump and energy in their game, that’s when they’re at their best. So we’ve got to come out and match their intensity, and at the same time play to our strengths also.” 

“I think we understand who we are,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “We know exactly what we have to do to get success and how we have to play to be better and get a win. 

“Regular season is over. Right now, it’s the second, harder season. That’s why we play 82 games, that’s why we practice in the summer – just for that moment. I’m pretty sure everybody is right now ready, everybody is healthy and ready to go.”

From this point, winning the Stanley Cup is a two-month process. Four separate foes must be vanquished four times each in order to move on. The importance of every shift, every bounce, every decision and countless other aspects of the game are magnified exponentially. Losing streaks are death. 

Better Caps teams have suffered excruciating exits, and many members of the current Washington roster have been through that pain together.

“It’s all about the growth – whether it’s mentally or physically – of the guys who have been here, the guys who have dealt with our failures,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “I think you can learn a lot from it. Every reflection period you have about a season or past seasons, that’s all you think about is what could have gone right and what went wrong, and try to find a solution to either one of those, really. Also, I think we’ve been playing better down the stretch than we ever have, maybe.”

Can past failures be used as motivation? 

“I think so,” says Oshie. “For me, every year that you fall short you get a little bit hungrier and a little bit hungrier. At the time it feels like you can’t want it any more. And then you fall short again, and somehow you want it more than you did the last time. I know for myself – and I imagine for a lot of my teammates in here – that hunger is built over the years. You only get so many chances to make a good run at it, and I think we have another good chance here. I know we’re not the favorite, but I think come playoff time – as we know from falling off after being the top seed going in – anything can happen.”