Washington Capitals begin playoff run

Mia Halper

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Photo courtesy Creative Commons

Capitals forwards T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson participate in a drill during practice. All three forwards are expected to play in the Capitals’ first game of the playoffs.

In the first round of the NHL playoffs the Capitals are slated to play the Florida Panthers, who finished first in the league this year, winning the President’s Trophy. Against such a strong team, the Capitals have many things to address all across their lineup.

Entering the playoffs, a large question for the Capitals is their goaltender situation. Between Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, there is still no clear starter. Both goaltenders have shown to be streaky, leading to neither of the two being fully trusted by coaching staff to take the starting job. Both goaltenders have suffered injuries throughout the year. Samsonov has played 43 games, with a save percentage of 89.6. Vanecek has played 42 games with a save percentage of 90.8. The major benefit of Samsonov is the common belief that he has a higher ceiling than Vanecek. On the other hand, Vanecek has had better results over the past two seasons. If neither of the two goaltenders manage to be consistently good in net during the playoffs, it will be a major weakness for the Capitals. Head coach Peter Laviolette has said that he will name the starter on May 3, when the first game of the series is scheduled to take place.

A potential issue for the Capitals is the status of Alexander Ovechkin, the team’s star player and captain. He missed the final three games of the regular season due to an injury, and it is unclear as of now if he will participate in the first game of the playoffs. He has been practicing with the team, though, and it appears somewhat likely that he will be in the lineup. It will be detrimental to the Capitals if he cannot play or if he is not fully healed.

A major concern for the Capitals is their lineup. It has been largely inconsistent as of late- the coaching staff seems especially unsure of who to put along with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov on the Capitals’ top line. Tom Wilson has been the typically final link of that line, but recently he has been placed further down the lineup, likely to balance the skill and strength across the lines. The right-winger who currently seems poised to take the slot is Conor Sheary, who has had his second-best season to date and his best with the Capitals despite missing games due to injury. Also, promising rookie Connor McMichael is currently missing from the starting lineup, and has been quite frequently ever since the trade deadline.

The Capitals’ defense will have a tough challenge; the Panthers are especially skilled on offense. The Capitals’ defensive pairings have been quite consistent this season, and luckily, none of the teams’ six starting defensemen are currently injured. If Nick Jensen and Dmitry Orlov, the Capitals’ shutdown pair, perform as they have, and John Carlson continues to produce offensively, the Capitals will become a harder team to beat.

Since their cup victory in 2018, the Capitals have made the playoffs every year, but failed to make it past the first round. It’s hard to see this season as the one in which they will break their streak, due to a combination of the strength of the team they are up against and the fact that of those three seasons, this one has been their worst. The Capitals placed fourth in the Metropolitan Division and ended the season in the Eastern Confrence’s second wild card spot; a far cry from their finish first in their division in both 2019 and 2020.

The Panthers are an incredibly deep team. On the forward front, they have Jonathan Huberdau, considered a strong candidate for league MVP, who has had 115 points in 80 games. At the end of the season, he was tied for second place in points in the entire league. Forwards Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart have also had incredible production and play throughout the season. Claude Giroux, former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers and a deadline acquisition for the Panthers, has had 23 points in 18 games and is fitting right in. Defenseman Ben Chiarot, another deadline acquisition, has also integrated relatively seamlessly into the Panthers’ lineup.

Aaron Ekblad, star defenseman for the Panthers, hasn’t played since March 18. He had been performing incredibly well prior to this; although he only played 61 games out of 82, he ranked ninth amongst all of the league’s defenseman in points. It’s unclear if he is set to return for the series; he has reportedly been practicing with the team, and the coaching staff is hopeful that he will be able to play. If he did return, it would majorly benefit the Panthers and incredibly harm the Capitals’ chances of winning the series.

On the goaltending front, the Panthers are also incredibly strong. Sergei Bobrovsky, who is already reported to be starting for the Panthers in game one, has had his best season with the team, with a save percentage of 91.3. The team’s backup is young goaltender Spencer Knight, who has had a save percentage of 90.8 percent in his rookie season. He played two playoff games for the Panthers last season, and performed fantastically, a save percentage of 93.3.