2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) reaches to celebrate with right wing T.J. Oshie (77). (Alex Brandon/AP)

In just their fourth-ever appearance in the post-season, the Columbus Blue Jackets get a new challenge in the Washington Capitals after losing to Pittsburgh in both of their past two playoff tries—the result of a wild Saturday night that saw the Jackets sit all of their top weapons in their final game, leading many to wonder if they were dodging a first-round meeting with the back-to-back champs.

The road through Washington won’t be much easier—the Blue Jackets might have gone winless against Pittsburgh but they managed an only slightly better 1-3-0 record against the Caps. That said, Columbus’ improved play in the season’s second half should provide the Blue Jackets faithful some hope. First off, the most lopsided victory occurring between the two teams this year was Columbus’ lone win—a 5-1 shellacking in late February. The Caps, meanwhile, won twice on one-goal leads and once by two while getting outshot 37-17.

Though the Capitals outshine Columbus when it comes to offensive star power, the Jackets are coming in hot, having ranked as the league’s highest-scoring club over the past month. If they can exploit the Caps’ goaltending issues, they’ll have a chance to knock off the Metropolitan Division champs. On Washington’s end, the key could come on special teams, where their seventh-ranked power play has the potential to overwhelm the Blue Jackets’ 26th-ranked penalty kill.

ADVANCED STATS
5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Washington: 47.99 CF% (24th), 52.48 GF% (12th), .925 SP% (14th), 9.14 SH% (2nd), 101.61 PDO (4th)

Columbus: 51.55 CF% (8th), 53.33 GF% (7th), .929 SP% (7th), 7.44 SH% (21st), 100.28 PDO (15th)

POWER NUMBER
Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.

TEAM OFFENCE (rank) DEFENCE (rank) POWER NUMBER (rank)
Washington 5.62 (13th) 3.56 (23rd) 4.59 (19th)
Columbus 5.63 (12th) 5.86 (7th) 5.75 (11th)

TEAM STATS
Washington: 22.5 PP% (7th), 80.3 PK% (15th), 256 GF (9th), 238 GA (16th)

Columbus: 17.2 PP% (25th), 76.2 PK% (26th), 236 GF (17th), 226 GA (9th)

HEAD-TO-HEAD RECORD
Washington: 3-1-0

Columbus: 1-3-0

Washington Capitals Outlook: Justin Williams. Marcus Johansson. Kevin Shattenkirk. Nate Schmidt. Karl Alzner. Most teams that lose this kind of depth in talent over one off-season might suffer a big step back the following regular season. But the Capitals managed to deal with these losses and came away from the 2017-18 regular season with their third straight divisional title and eighth in 11 years.

But this team was never going to be measured by what it did in the first 82 games.

The general thinking around this year’s edition of the Capitals is that by coming into the year with reduced expectations, they might be able to fly under the radar enough to not head into the post-season with the same kind of pressures they’ve felt in the past. But with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J Oshie and a few others, the core of this team is still made up of a group of players that have experienced playoff disappointment in Washington. So you have to believe that pressure from the past still exists on some level, even if the team isn’t perceived the same way from the outside.

An added wrinkle this time is a developing situation in goal. Braden Holtby had emerged as one of the best goaltenders in the world over the past few seasons, but with a .908 save percentage that has plummeted since February, backup Philipp Grubauer is the more steady option right now. The 26-year-old German has a .923 save percentage and was notably given the start in net last Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins when the division title still hung in the balance. Local coverage even points out that the backup gives this Caps team the best chance at playoff success.

Columbus Blue Jackets Outlook: When the Capitals scaled back in the off-season it was generally thought Columbus was the team that would be able to take advantage and possibly a run at the division title. But after a great start from Sergei Bobrovsky got the Jackets to 16-8-1, the ice-cold and underachieving offence finally caught up to them. Columbus went 16-19-3 in December, January and February and were fifth in the Metro at the trade deadline.

GM Jarmo Kekalainen didn’t do anything crazy, but added depth pieces Ian Cole, Thomas Vanek and Mark Letestu. Vanek especially has found great success and chemisty with Boone Jenner and Alexander Wennberg. At the same time, the scorers who started cold began to heat up, led by Artemi Panarin who went on a late-season tear to set a new franchise single-season scoring record.

Outside of one bad month, Bobrovsky has been the team MVP, but the fact the offence has woken up from its slumber is the most important development for the Jackets. Since the deadline, Columbus is the highest-scoring team in the NHL and has posted a 14-3-2 record—they’re a much different team now than they were in the first half.

Capitals X-Factor: This Capitals team doesn’t win the same way many of them have in the Alex Ovechkin era. This year’s squad finishes with its lowest league ranking in goals-for since 2013-14, but while they were still a top-10 team in this department, goaltending is perhaps more of a key to success than it has been in the recent past. The Capitals allow an average of 32 shots on goal per game, which ranks them in the middle of the pack. By averaging just 29 shots of their own per game, Washington is outshot by the highest average of any Eastern Conference playoff team—since Jan. 1 only the Arizona Coyotes have taken fewer shots than this Capitals offence.

Muddying the waters is the “controversy” brewing in net, with Grubauer the clearly better option even though Holtby has been, and is paid like, the No. 1. Whoever starts the playoffs as the No. 1 probably has a short leash and head coach Barry Trotz won’t be afraid to swap one out for the other at the first sign of struggle. If they get behind the eight ball too early, the Caps may not have the horses to bounce back.

Blue Jackets X-Factor: It might be unfair to label a 19-year-old rookie as an X-Factor in a playoff series, but as the top centre for the Blue Jackets, Pierre-Luc Dubois will run right up against Backstrom and Kuznetsov.

The third-overall pick in the 2016 draft has slowly worked his way up this lineup all season, starting slow with five points in his first 23 games, but finishing with 24 points in 29 games mostly beside Panarin and Cam Atkinson.

Columbus has to keep the goals coming and exploit the Capitals’ tense goaltending situation, and in the middle of it all will be Dubois.

TEAM LEADERS (G-A-PTS)

Washington: Alex Ovechkin (49-38-87), Evgeny Kuznetsov (27-56-83), Nicklas Backstrom (21-50-71)

Columbus: Artemi Panarin (27-55-82), Seth Jones (16-41-57), Pierre-Luc Dubois (20-28-48)

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