One team won the Stanley Cup last year, the other just ended the league’s longest playoff drought.
The Washington Capitals are gunning for back-to-back titles after Alex Ovechkin and the boys finally broke through 12 months ago. The Caps claimed the Metropolitan Division thanks to a strong finish that would have you believe they’re teeing up another run.
Carolina, meanwhile, tapped into the great over-arching theme of our time — polarization — with their post-game ‘Storm Surge’ celebrations. It’s hard to know why anybody would hold any extra antics against the Canes given this is the team’s first trip to the post-season since 2009.
And don’t forget Carolina’s boom-or-bust history: The Hurricanes have made the playoffs just three times in the past 16 seasons, but when there, here’s how they’ve fared: Lost the Cup final in 2002; won the Cup in 2006; made the East final in 2009.
5-on-5, via Natural Stat Trick (with league rank)
Carolina: 54.80 CF% (2nd), 51.95 GF% (12th), 92.07 SV% (14th), 7.17 SH% (28th), .992 PDO (25th)
Washington: 49.04 CF% (18th), 55.03 GF% (5th), 92.08 SV% (13th), SH% 10.09 (1st), 1.002 PDO (1st)
Carolina: 17.8 PP% (20th), 81.6 PK% (8th), 243 GF (16th), 221 GA (8th)
Washington: 20.8 PP% (12th), 78.9 PK% (24th), 274 GF (5th), 248 GA (17th)
The Skinny: Since you’re probably more familiar with Washington’s try-and-try-again tale, let’s bring you up to speed on Carolina’s backstory. The Canes, for a couple seasons now, have been an analytics darling, built largely on the back of a strong defence corps. Until this year, the numbers failed to translate into a playoff berth. It looked as though a similar disapointing fate would befall this edition of the squad, too, after the Canes started the year 15-17-5 through 37 games.
To understand how different the second half of the season was for Carolina compared to the first, consider this: Both players it got in a mammoth off-season deal with the Calgary Flames — Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland — were rumoured to be available again thanks to the team’s poor performance.
A month before the trade deadline, it seemed certain Ferland — as a pending-UFA — would be dealt. But Carolina — with its usual solid underlying numbers — just kept moving up the standings. The only teams with more points than Carolina’s 62 in the 2019 portion of the calendar were St. Louis (65) and Tampa Bay (64).
Not that the Caps were left in anybody’s dust down the home stretch. Washington — which added speedy winger Carl Hagelin and third-pair defenceman Nick Jensen at the trade deadline — went 14-5-1 from late February on, giving itself home-ice advantage in any Eastern Conference matchup in which it’s not pitted against the Lightning.
Both these squads, it should be noted, are guided by freshman coaches. Todd Reirden was promoted when Barry Trotz left after Washington won the title in 2018, while Rod Brind’Amour pushed all the right buttons after he, too, was bumped up from an assistant’s role with the Hurricanes.
Carolina Hurricanes X-Factor: Part of what drove the Hurricanes to a playoff spot was the improved pay of goalie Petr Mrazek, who posted a .901 save percentage in the 2018 portion of the season and a .921 mark in 2019. Mrazek was stellar in the 10 playoff games he started for Detroit in 2015 and ’16, but he’s been all over the place since then. Backup Curtis McElhinney had the opposite experience of his battery mate this year, struggling in the back half after a strong start.
A pair of stud Finns lead this team offensively, but there’s a sharp drop in production after Sebastian Aho (83 points) and Teuvo Teravainen (76). Nino Niederreiter scored at a 30-goal pace after being picked up from the Minnesota Wild in January and the Canes desperately need that secondary offence. Another candidate to provide it is Russian rookie and 2018 second overall pick Andrei Svechnikov, who quietly posted a 20-goal season.
Could there be a “Win one more for ‘Willie’” rallying cry in Carolina? Captain Justin Williams has three rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy to his credit and was actually brought into Washington in 2015 in the hopes his Cup pedigree would rub off. Perhaps it did, but he was already back in Carolina last year when Washington won it all. Williams was 24 when he won the 2006 Cup with Carolina and still chipped in an impressive 23 goals at age 37 this season.
Washington Capitals X-Factor: Get ready to snark statheads, because this has nothing to do with numbers. For years, the Capitals entered the playoffs steeped in a sense of dread. All that is gone, now, and their mental state on the eve of the 2019 derby has to be better than it’s ever been.
If you desire something more tangible, there’s the fact Ovechkin finished as the league’s top goal-scorer for the eighth time in his career, meaning Washington still has a guy who could go nuts at any moment.
Unlike last year, when he watched Philipp Grubauer lose the first two games before taking over, Braden Holtby will be the Game 1 starter. Like his team, the veteran stopper closed strong, going 12-4-1 with a .921 save percentage in his final 17 showings.
Michal Kempny, lower-body (indefinitely)
Calvin de Haan, arm/wrist (indefinitely)