The return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a welcome reunion for the Carolina Hurricanes and their fans, as the organization has waited a full decade to rejoin the party. In the first round, the Canes reunite with a decidedly unfriendly foe, as they take on the defending Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals, against whom they went winless in regular season action (0-3-1). Nevertheless, in playoff hockey we all can remember that anything can happen, and that four games scattered throughout a long season are not a true indication of the kind of team that either side possesses. Below we will take a look at some of the units that will run headlong into each other over the next week or two and try to get an idea of just how they stack up.
Caps Attack vs. Canes Defense
In what will be perhaps the most fascinating unit vs. unit matchup in all of the first round series, the fifth rated goal-scoring squad from Washington takes on the sixth rated defense of the Hurricanes. Obviously, the Rocket Richard-winning Alex Ovechkin is the unquestioned leader of the Caps goal-scoring talent. His 51 goals were more than double his next closest teammate (T.J. Oshie, 25 goals), and his 89 points have made him perhaps the most heavily focused on offensive player in the NHL. Even more alarming for Canes fans, Ovechkin’s four goals and six total points against the Canes on the season are both tied for his highest totals of any team the Caps have faced on the season.
Despite that history, Ovechkin truly scores goals in basically two ways: 1) On the rush, 2) On the one-timer. The Hurricanes should be better situated than most teams to help suppress his offense as much as any team can suppress one of the greatest goal-scorers of all-time. Matching Ovechkin’s speed while entering the zone is imperative on the rush, and with defenders such as Jaccob Slavin showing such an adept ability to do this against elite speed/skill players as Ovechkin and Connor McDavid, the Canes should have a fighting chance with Slavin on the ice. In terms of shutting down the one-timer, this would be mostly about staying out of the penalty box, which Carolina has done well as they finished in the middle of the pack in terms of power play opportunities against.
Ovechkin’s running mate on offense, Nicklas Backstrom, has also put together another solid season as he tallied another 20+ goal season (22) as well as 52 assists. Ever the distributor, Backstrom remains dangerous enough as a scoring threat to continue to open the passing lanes that provide high-end scoring chances for Ovi and his other teammates. The other elite distributor in the fold for the Caps is Evgeny Kuznetsov. In the four contests against the Canes, Kuznetsov was held without a goal, but he did contribute five assists to aid the relentless Capitals attack.
The bottom line for the Canes is this: Tight gaps as the Capitals enter the offensive zone are an absolute must to disrupt the free-flowing offensive structure that the Caps hope to create. Weaving within the zone, heavy net front drives with shots being fired from behind, and an attack predicated on creating space with speed into the zone are the hallmarks of the Capitals even strength offense. If Carolina can force the puck to be dumped, they will have won the first battle in stopping the Caps. From there, winning the critical board battles will determine how many difficult chances Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney face each night. The Canes will certainly miss the experience of Calvin de Haan, as Haydn Fleury will continue to draw into the lineup in his spot, making the third defensive pairing a bit of a concern as the stress continues to build within a game and the series.
Canes Attack vs. Caps Defense
Offensively for the Canes, Sebastian Aho has been the clear leader in terms of creating and converting chances. His 30 goals and 83 points both lead the team, but down the stretch he has run into one of the longer scoring droughts of his career. Fourteen games have gone by since he last tallied on March 9th in Nashville. Despite that, Carolina has gone 9-5 in those 14 games, which is clearly a testament to the overall growth of the Hurricanes as an offensive unit.
Mired for most of the season near the bottom of the league in scoring (both this season and in past seasons), the Canes clawed their way back to a respectable 16th in goals by the end of the season. While Aho had plenty to do with that, so did the true emergence of Teuvo Teravainen as a serious high-end offensive threat. His 76 points (21 goals, 55 assists) put him second on the team and proved that the 24-year-old certainly has more offensive upside available.
Additionally, Justin Williams joined the top line with Aho and mid-season acquisition Nino Niederreiter and produced one of his better seasons at age 37. His 23 goals were good for second on the team. Most importantly however, the Canes were finally able to put together three lines of solid and intense offensive pressure. The fourth line has been respectable, but the top three lines have been able to maintain pressure and remain dangerous, which is something that had lacked in the past around Raleigh.
The Capitals defense has gone through phases of serious struggles throughout the season. John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov have been solid mainstays, as has Matt Niskanen. Further down the lineup, however, Michal Kempny will be sidelined with a hamstring injury for the remainder of the season. The veteran Brooks Orpik will certainly be familiar with the pace and intensity of playoff hockey, but at 38, can he keep pace with a quick Hurricanes team that will be flying around in the atmosphere of the postseason? Add in the relative inexperience of Nick Jensen, and the Capitals have a defensive group that can be taken advantage of in the right situation.
None of their defenders would be categorized as a shut down defender. Outside of Orlov and Carlson, speed isn’t necessarily a major strength for any defender that is guaranteed to log heavy minutes. For the Hurricanes, forcing the Capitals forwards to exert lots of energy on the backcheck as opposed to the forecheck may well be the key to controlling the puck in a series in which both offensive units must feel like opportunity exists.
Caps power play vs. Canes penalty kill
Stop the one-timer.
It is perhaps the easiest scouting report in sports. The key to stopping or slowing the Washington Capitals power play is stopping the one-timer from Alex Ovechkin from the top of the right circle.
Unfortunately, as easy as this scouting report is, executing it is far more difficult. While the Caps finished only 12th in power play percentage at 20.7%, Ovechkin finished third in the NHL in power play goals with 18.
Stopping his shot is difficult, but assigning too much focus towards it can open up other opportunities in the middle, as the Caps typically employ Nicklas Backstrom as the bumper to the left of the goalie near the goal line. If you shade too much towards Ovi on the other side, Backstrom can hinge into a scoring position. Or, he can feed to the middle where a potent scorer such as Oshie can be waiting for a grade-A chance in front. The unit can go on tears, so the best thing that the Hurricanes can do is to stay out of the box as much as possible.
Fortunately for Carolina, they do happen to own one of the best penalty kill units in all of hockey (8th, at 81.5%). Forwards such as Jordan Staal, Jordan Martinook and Sebastian Aho have been invaluable in their discipline, stick work, and quickness to plug up holes on the PK. While the prospect of the Canes on the PK against this Capitals unit is certainly terrifying for a Canes fan, for a general fan of hockey this will be one of the more intriguing matchups of the playoffs.
Where the speed and timing of the Canes forwards has been best utilized has been denying clean entry into the offensive zone to get the power play set up. This also has been where the Caps have trouble when their man advantage struggles. Watch that aspect of the power play/penalty kill dynamic, as it will likely tell the story of which team has the most success.
Canes power play vs. Caps penalty kill
At various times during the season, the Canes power play has show signs of true relevance and potency. At most others, however, they have shown serious ineptitude.
Following a long stretch where it seemed the short-handed chances against were better on a nightly basis than the power play chances for, the Canes got their man advantage together for a pair of crucial wins in Toronto (two PP goals) and at home versus the Devils (game-winning PP tally) to clinch a playoff spot. Now, the Canes will take their 20th rated power play (17.8%) up against the second-worst penalty kill in the playoffs for the Caps (78.9%, less than 0.3% better than the Colorado Avalanche).
In order to win this series, the Hurricanes simply must be good enough on their own power play to at least match the deadly Capitals man advantage. To do so, Carolina must find the quick, snappy puck movement that has often been the catalyst of their unit’s success. Heavy shots from Justin Faulk at the point with a true net front from the likes of Justin Williams or Micheal Ferland are a must. Surgical strikes from Aho or Teravainen at the half boards, and shots from a variety of angles with traffic in front, have been the key to success from this unit.
For Washington, finding consistent penalty killing options has been an issue. Mid-season acquisition Carl Hagelin has become one of the primary penalty killers for the Caps, alongside Lars Eller and Chandler Stephenson. But in the playoffs, the most important penalty killer for either team is the netminder. Based on the way this unit has played for the Caps all season, it is reasonable to expect that Braden Holtby must be the best penalty killer for the Caps to not only win this series, but to advance any further as well.
Speaking of the goalies, while these “units” don’t necessarily play against each other directly, they certainly will have an outsized impact on the series. The Capitals will lean heavily on Braden Holtby in net. The 29-year-old was not in net to begin the Caps’ Cup run a season ago, but he did claim the net as the run took hold and never looked back. Holtby had a fine season with a .911 save percentage in 58 starts. His backup, Pheonix Copley, is unlikely to see the net in this series, but Copley acquitted himself decently in his first full year as an NHL backup, going 16-7-3 with a .905 save percentage in 24 starts.
Carolina has some decisions to make in net, as they have worked incredibly nicely with an alternating sequence with Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney in net. That string of alternating starts was broken after the Canes won their crucial game in Toronto last Tuesday when Rod Brind’Amour chose to return to Mrazek for the crucial clincher at home on Thursday.
On the season, Mrazek started 40 times with a .914 save percentage, while McElhinney dealt with a bit of the injury bug just after Christmas that limited him to 33 starts in which he posted a .912 save percentage. While I believe most expect Mrazek to see the net in Game 1, expect that both goalies will get their shot at some point in this series.
While Holtby certainly has the playoff experience that trumps either Canes netminder, the confidence level that the Hurricanes have in both goalies can be an important factor should a change be required due to injury or struggles. The Capitals have no such safety net. Holtby has more pressure on him than any other player in this series. He has responded to that pressure at times in his career, while struggling at others. Can he respond again in this trip to the postseason?
The ability to win on the road in at least one of the first two contests in Washington will be so crucial to this series. Carolina will return home to a raucous crowd and a serious jolt of energy if they can do so. If the Canes can get a game in Washington, the advantage shifts to them. I say they get Game 1 and eventually win the series at home in a tight, tense six-game series.