Here We Go – A night after the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs got underway with a trio of tilts, the Caps kick off their first-round series with the Columbus Blue Jackets at Capital One Arena. It’s the first ever playoff meeting between the two Metropolitan Division rivals, who have played a number of memorable games against one another over the years.
Washington’s roster is liberally dotted with players who have accrued a great deal of playoff experience over the years, but the Caps’ roster also features seven players who have yet to taste Stanley Cup playoff hockey and another who has played but a single postseason game at this level. Regardless of whether it’s your first time or your 100
thtime suiting up for the postseason, it’s a special time of year.
“I think I’m just as excited,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, who is set to skate in his 95
thcareer playoff game at the NHL level. “My first playoff game, there was a lot of uncertainty of what it was going to be like. It was an eye-opener, just how competitive it was, and the intensity is pretty incredible. Guys are excited. This is the best time of year. This is what you play for.”
Coming In Hot – Everything is reset to zero coming into the postseason, but the Caps and the Jackets were among the top teams in the league down the homestretch. From the day after the trade deadline (Feb. 27) through to the end of the season, the Capitals were a 14-5-0 team while the Blue Jackets went 13-4-2. Both teams played well defensively down the stretch, and the Jackets were the league's hottest offensive outfit over the season's final quarter.
Washington permitted an average of 2.63 goals per game in that 19-game stretch, the best figure of any Eastern Conference playoff qualifier over that span. The Jackets’ 2.89 figure was fourth best of the eight Eastern playoff entrants. On the season, Columbus (along with Boston) is one of just two Eastern Conference teams in the league’s top 10 in goals against. The Jackets finished tied for ninth (2.76 per game) while the Caps finished 16
th(2.90) after concluding the 2016-17 season in the top spot in the league in goals against per game (2.16).
In the first round of the postseason, the Caps will face a Columbus team that rolled up 74 goals in those final 19 games, a whopping 3.89 goals per game, the highest rate in the league over that span. Only a dozen of those 74 goals came on the power play. Eight different Jackets scored at least five goals over those final 19 contests, led by Cam Atkinson’s 12 and Artemi Panarin’s nine. Panarin had 30 points to lead Columbus in those 19 games.
“I think it is still a work in progress,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson of the team’s late-season defensive improvements, “but I think we’ve finally found a comfort zone on what is expected and what we expect from each other, really. I think we are playing together a lot better and working in cohesion better than we have all year and that shows. It’s not about the system, it’s about how you execute it. I think it took us too long to figure it out, but we have a pretty firm grasp on it now and know what it takes to defend really hard.”
Last summer, the Caps lost three defensemen – Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk – to free agency or the expansion draft. Washington did not replace that trio at the NHL level; the Caps instead had a group of first-year pro blueliners starting their respective careers with Hershey of the AHL: Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen and Jonas Siegenthaler. The Caps promoted third-year pros Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey to the NHL, and both of those blueliners suited up in more than 50 contests for Washington as NHL rookies in 2017-18.
Both Djoos and Bowey showed promise in their first seasons, and it was the first time since 1980-81 that the Caps had two rookie defensemen play 50 or more games in the same season. Both Djoos and Bowey also had some growing pains along the way, and the Caps ultimately opted to bring in a pair of low-cost defensemen ahead of the trade deadline.
Washington obtained second-year NHLer Michal Kempny from Chicago on Feb. 19 and it landed first-year blueliner Jakub Jerabek from Montreal two days later. Although both Kempny and Jerabek had fewer than 100 games worth of NHL experience upon arrival in the District, both also have several years worth of pro experience in Europe. Kempny is 27, and Jerabek will be 27 in a month.
Several factors were involved in Washington’s late season defensive improvement, but the additions of Kempny and Jerabek were critical in that regard. The Caps went 15-7-0 with Kempny in the lineup and were 8-3-0 in the 11 games in which Jerabek suited up.
Kempny has been paired with John Carlson and Jerabek is playing his offside on a pairing with Brooks Orpik.
“I like his speed and skill and abilities,” says Carlson of Kempny. “Put him on any team and he is going to do fine. But I think he fits in here in terms of moving the puck up the ice and getting it into our skilled forwards’ hands – because they can do special things with it – and join.
“The more we sit back, the worse we play, I think. And the more we push it, sometimes there will be a glaring error here or there, and some people are going to say, ‘It’s this guy’s fault or that guy’s fault and it looks stupid.’ But it’s more about the mentality of pushing the pace and moving the puck and making the other team feel uncomfortable versus once every hundred times something bad happens.”
Whatever the Caps were doing defensively over the final quarter of the regular season was working quite well for them, and they’ll now try to replicate that in the postseason.
“I think so, yeah, we’re going to try,” says Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov. “But it’s the playoffs; it’s a different season. Your mentality is going to be game-by-game, focus on one game and see what happens. Everybody is trying to get the win – working hard, working smart and working for each other. I hope we can do it.”
Two Years After – Two years ago at this time, the Caps had a slew of first-year pro players making their first professional playoff voyages for the AHL Hershey Bears, a successful spring run that went all the way to the Calder Cup final before the Bears were eliminated at the hands of the Lake Erie Monsters, the Jackets’ AHL affiliate.
Washington has five of those players on its roster this spring, and each is now set to make his Stanley Cup playoff debut. Two of them – forwards Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana – are set to do so tonight. Three more – Bowey, Djoos and center Travis Boyd – are waiting in the wings and they’ll be ready should their on-ice services be required at any point this spring.
“Both ways there is lots of responsibility,” says Vrana. “You work hard with a group of guys all year for this. You work every day, you play games to win to get the best spot and you work hard all year for this. We are all excited, we always have been since Hershey, we’ve always been really excited for the playoffs.
“For all of us, it is our first ever NHL playoffs, so we don’t really know what to expect now. But I can tell you that we are prepared for really hard and fast hockey, and we are really excited.”
On the Columbus side, the Blue Jackets have nine players on their postseason roster who were members of the 2016 Calder Cup champion Lake Erie squad: forwards Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alex Broadhurst, Markus Hannikainen, Sonny Milano and Lukas Sedlak; defensemen Dean Kukan and Zach Werenski and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.
In The Nets – Philipp Grubauer gets the crease for the Caps in Game 1, marking the first time Braden Holtby has not started the opening game of a Washington playoff series since 2011, when it was Michael Neuvirth who shouldered the postseason netminding chores for Washington. Holtby had started 37 consecutive playoff games for Washington before tonight’s series opener against the Jackets.
“It’s a privilege to start for sure,” says Grubauer. “But it’s just like any other game. You treat it like Game 1 or Game 82. It’s not going to change any of my approach.”
From mid-November to the end of the season, Grubauer’s 1.93 GAA and his .937 save pct. were both the best figures in the league among all goaltenders who appeared in at least 20 games over that span. He posted a 15-5-2 record with three shutouts in 27 games played (22 starts) over that span.
Thursday’s Game 1 start for Grubauer is his second playoff start and it will be his third playoff appearance. Grubauer won his only previous playoff start, defeating the New York Islanders in Game 2 of the Caps’ first-round series in 2015 after Holtby was felled with an illness just before game time.
Defending Vezina Trophy Sergei Bobrovsky – a two-time winner of that award – gets the net for the Jackets in Game 1. Columbus’ all-time leader in goaltending wins (176), Bobrovsky is still seeking his first Stanley Cup playoff series win; he owns a 3-10 career playoff record with a 3.63 GAA and an .887 save pct. in 18 games (14 starts).
Bobrovsky finished the season strong, going 10-2-1 with a shutout, a .923 save pct. and a 2.47 GAA in his final 13 appearances, since the beginning of March. In 11 career starts against the Capitals in Washington, Bobrovsky is 2-6-3 with a 3.12 GAA and a .903 save pct.
All Lined Up – Here is how we expect the Caps and the Blue Jackets to look when they take to the ice on Thursday night for the opener of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series game at Capital One Arena.
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
65-Burakovsky, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
13-Vrana, 20-Eller, 25-Smith-Pelly
10-Connolly, 18-Stephenson, 39-Chiasson
83-Beagle (upper body)
13-Atkinson, 18-Dubois, 9-Panarin
38-Jenner, 10-Wennberg, 26-Vanek
28-Bjorkstrand, 71-Foligno, 77-Anderson
11-Calvert, 55-Letestu, 17-Dubinsky