The regular season has finally ended. With the playoff match-ups set, the real season is about to begin. It will be Panthers vs Capitals in round one. Each playoff team in the Eastern Conference finished with more than 100 points on the season for the first time in history. Because of that, this may end up being the most competitive first round in recent memory. Despite this being the 1-8 match-up, both teams will need to earn this win. This is how the two teams stack up.
Panthers vs Capitals: Forwards
For Panthers vs Capitals, the forward battle really is strength vs strength.
Any conversation about the Capitals’ forward corps begins with Alexander Ovechkin. The 36-year-old winger shows no signs of slowing down, as he notched his ninth 50 goal season in 2022.
For the Panthers, he should be their primary defensive focus. Easier said than done of course, but containing the Great 8 is the key to a series win. Ovechkin has shown this year he can still win a series for a team.
Although he is coming into the playoffs banged up, it should not hold him out of the series. The Panthers need to play him physically and knock him off of his preferred spots, specifically that left circle.
The Panthers must also account for forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson. Both finished the season with 24 goals, but present completely different challenges.
Kuznetsov centers the first line with Ovechkin, the 28-year-old is a skilled play-maker and excels at getting Ovi the puck in his favored spots. The game plan against him should be similar to the game plan many teams deploy against Huberdeau: cut off the passing lanes and dare him to shoot. Not that Kuznetsov is a bad shooter, but his preference would be to pass.
As for Tom Wilson, he plays opposite Ovechkin and his role is to intimidate. The bruiser has a reputation for dirty hits and foul play. He loves to get to the dirty areas of the ice and use his 6’4″ frame to bully his way into goals. The Panthers will need to be physical with Wilson, and keep him on the outside of the ice where he can be neutralized.
The old guards for Washington, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, have both had cursed seasons. Both played a huge role in their 2018 Stanley Cup win, but have been plagued with injuries this season. Despite their age, the talent remains for both these players and both bring the type of playoff experience that cannot be quantified.
Undeniably, this team has offensive depth. More so, the depth has cup experience. Their one weakness as a group is that most of their forwards do not have a great two way game. That is one area the Panthers can exploit with their plethora of two way guards.
Panthers vs Capitals: Defense
While not the strength for either team, neither defense should be taken lightly.
The Capitals most highly-regarded defenseman is John Carlson. He quarterbacks their power play and has a knack for setting up the offense with 54 assists on the year. However, for a number one defenseman, his play in his own zone leaves much to be desired. The 32-year-old does not have the foot speed or strength he once did to keep opposing players away from the net. He should be attacked at every opportunity in an attempt to wear him out.
Their defensive depth, on the other hand, may be one of the more underrated groups in the league. Trevor van Riemsdyk has been one of the best shutdown bottom pair defensemen for quite some time now. Dmitry Orlov has an extremely strong two-way game. Justin Schultz is not having his best year, but has been very effective in the past.
That defensive depth may be an area of concern for the Panthers. It will be tougher to score against this bottom four than most. Generating offense has never been a problem for the Panthers this season, but this group will not give up good looks often.
Panthers vs Capitals: Goaltending
Much like the Panthers, the Capitals biggest question mark is their goaltending. Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have split the games fairly evenly this season, but Vanecek is the likely starter based on his numbers this season. He has a save percentage of .908 and a GAA of 2.67. Those numbers are far better than Samsonov’s, but still not great for a playoff goaltender. His negative goals saved above expected (-5.4) also suggests he does not provide enough of a presence during the playoffs.
Goaltending may end up proving to be the Achilles heel for both these teams. Even with Bobrovsky’s inconsistency, he has greatly outperformed Vanecek this season. With the way the Panthers generate offense, it will take elite goaltending to slow them down, and Vanecek is far from elite.
Washington is no cakewalk. Their potent offense and playoff experience confirm they will not be broken easily. Still, I do not think they do enough to counteract the Panthers’ strengths. It’ll be the Florida Panthers in six games.
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