The Short Strokes – Having won three straight games in this series including two here in Columbus last week, the Capitals return to Ohio’s capital city with their first series lead and their first opportunity to end the series on Monday night in Game 6 at Nationwide Arena.
After the Jackets won the first two games of the series in the District, taking both in overtime, the Caps returned the favor by taking two wins in Columbus. Washington then won the pivotal Game 5 in D.C. on Saturday afternoon to nudge ahead of the Jackets in the series.
Trailing Game 5 by a goal headed into the final period, Columbus put on a tremendous push in the third, outshooting the Caps 16-1 and out-attempting them 35-11. The Jackets were able to get the game tied up, but they weren’t able to manufacture the go-ahead goal despite numerous excellent chances. They had to settle for overtime, and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom ended the game with the fourth overtime game-winner of his NHL playoff career.
Columbus played probably its best period of the series in the final frame of regulation on Saturday, and the Jackets will be looking to replicate that performance in Monday’s Game 6.
“We need to come out a little harder and play way better for 60 minutes,” said Backstrom after Saturday’s victory. “It feels like we score, and then we let [the Jackets] back in right away. We can play a little tighter and keep them on the outside. I felt like they had a lot of chances tonight and [Caps goalie Braden Holtby] played great. [We need] 60 minutes – a complete game – on Monday, but you know it’s going to be rocking there in Columbus.”
Typically, the fourth victory in a series is the toughest one to come by, and no one has to remind the Caps of that fact. In its previous three playoff seasons, Washington is 3-7 in games in which it can eliminate its opponent with a win. The only time the Caps succeeded on their first try in that regard was in last spring’s first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto owned a 2-1 lead in the series before Washington won three straight to close it out.
“It’s going to be the toughest win yet, it always is,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “So all hands on deck, ready to go. It’s going to take a really strong effort and a good performance by us to beat these guys.”
Best Men – Perhaps the main reason for Washington’s success through the first five games of this series has been the performance of its top players. The Caps’ top six forwards, their No. 1 defenseman and their No. 1 netminder have all produced and excelled throughout most of the first five games.
Washington’s top six forwards and top defenseman John Carlson have combined for 15 goals and 38 points in the first five games of the series, while its Columbus counterparts have managed nine goals and 26 points in the first five games.
Columbus’ top players produced a fair amount of offense in the first three games, but that group of Jackets has been relatively quiet over the last two contests. If the Caps are able to extend that top-player imbalance for one more night, it might be enough to win them the series.
“When you get to the playoffs, there are so many good teams,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “There are 16 really good teams in the playoffs, and you need your best players to be your best players or you have very little chance to win. And our best players have been very good through this series.
“I think we’ve got unsung heroes on our team – a guy like Jay Beagle coming in. Braden Holtby has become a little bit of a hero because of the fact that he has had to come in and play. There are different aspects and different swings in a series that you’ve got to take; you’re going to take their best shot at times and then you’ve got to give your best shot back. And then if they can’t take it, then there is an advantage there.”
Backstrom (eight points), Carlson (eight), Evgeny Kuznetsov (seven) and Alex Ovechkin (six) have all produced at a rate of a point-per-game or better in the first five games of the series, and T.J. Oshie (three goals) and Tom Wilson (two) have each supplied multiple lamplighters. Washington lost second-line winger Andre Burakovsky for the series early in Game 2, but Chandler Stephenson became the second Washington rookie ever and the first in 32 years (to the day) to record two assists in a playoff game in Game 5.
“From our standpoint, we’ve sort of relied on our top guys,” says Trotz. “Obviously we lost a guy like Burakovsky in this series, so there have been guys who have stepped up – Stephenson and Beagle comes back into the fold and stuff like that. If you’re going to have any success against the other team’s top players, you need your top guys to be really good and you need a five-man mentality. You need that on the ice if you’re going to have any success because they’ve got some really good players as well and they’re dangerous.
“They’re going to get their opportunities, but if you play the right way then you limit their damage. And it goes the other way; if they try to limit the damage that some of our guys try to impose upon them, then they have a better chance of winning. It’s all about the commitment of the five-man group on the ice, shift after shift.”
Getting Dirty – The Caps managed just two five-on-five goals in the first two games of the series, and they’ve scored seven in the three games since. While nine five-on-five goals in five games is not great production (tied for ninth among the 16 playoff teams), the Caps have supplemented that scoring with a steady diet of power-play goals. Washington leads all playoff teams with eight extra-man tallies, and the Caps are tied for fourth among playoff teams with 18 total goals.
Where Washington has excelled of late has been on tips and deflections. Two of Washington’s four goals in Game 5 – including Backstrom’s game-winner – came via deflections in front, and the Caps had a deflection goal and a rebound goal in Game 4. Lars Eller’s double-overtime winner in Game 3 came on a rebound, and the Caps’ lone five-on-five goal in Game 2 came on a deflection.
Like most goalies, Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been more beatable with the extra man, but the Caps have had to get creative in finding ways to score on him at five-on-five.
“Goalies are so good nowadays, you’ve definitely got to make their lives a little more difficult when you can,” says Caps right wing Tom Wilson, author of a deflection goal in Game 4. “If they see it or if there is a direct line to them, they’re usually going to stop it. It’s definitely something that we’ve talked about, like any goalie or any team.
“That being said, we’re going to continue to work here. We’ve made a few small tweaks, but nothing crazy. We’re ready to go and we’re confident in our system. We know what has given us success to this point, so as long as we come out tonight and execute that, we should be good.”
In The Nets – Braden Holtby gets the net again for the Caps in Game 6, making his fourth straight start and seeking his fourth straight win. Holtby has allowed six goals – five of them at even strength – in his three starts, and his 1.66 GAA ranks fourth and his .936 save pct. is sixth among all goalies with at least two starts in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Holtby’s win in overtime on Saturday was achieved largely because he stopped 15 of 16 shots in the third period, a period in which Columbus mustered nine of their 13 high-danger scoring chances in the game, according to naturalstattrick.com. The victory lifted him above .500 (32-31) for his playoff career, and he improved to 4-18 when allowing three or more goals in a postseason contest.
In nine Game 6 appearances during his playoff career, Holtby is 4-5 with a shutout (vs. the Flyers in 2016), a 2.07 GAA and a .932 save pct.
Sergei Bobrovsky starts for the Jackets, as he has for every playoff game they’ve played since his arrival here in Columbus for the 2012-13 season.
Bobrovsky has appeared in only one previous Game 6, and that was on April 28, 2014 when the Pittsburgh Penguins closed out Columbus in the first round with a 4-3 victory. Bobrovsky permitted four goals on 28 shots in that game nearly four years ago.
This spring, Bobrovsky is putting up the best numbers of his playoff career, with a .912 save pct. and a 2.85 GAA. He leads all NHL netminders in shots faced (194), saves (177), goals against (17) and minutes (358).
Lifetime in the playoffs, Bobrovsky is now 5-13 with a 3.41 GAA and an .894 save pct. He has permitted three or more goals against in 11 straight postseason starts and in 16 of his last 17. During the regular season, Bobrovsky has a .595 career “quality start” rate, defined by Rob Vollman as a start in which a goalie’s save pct. is better than the league average for that year, or, on nights when the goalie faces fewer than 20 shots, better than .885. In the playoffs, Bobrovsky owns a career quality start rate of just .263.
For comparison’s sake, Holtby’s career quality start rate in the regular season is .598, and in the playoffs it is a lusty .710.
All Lined Up – Here is how we expect the Caps and Blue Jackets to look when they take to the ice on Monday night for Game 6 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
18-Stephenson, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 25-Smith-Pelly
13-Vrana, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
65-Burakovsky (upper body)
13-Atkinson, 18-Dubois, 9-Panarin
38-Jenner, 10-Wennberg, 26-Vanek
11-Calvert, 71-Foligno, 77-Anderson
28-Bjorkstrand, 55-Letestu, 17-Dubinsky