This time last year, the Washington Capitals were still wearing the burden of history like an anvil on their back. They were starting their backup goaltender to begin the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin wasn’t getting any younger. Tom Wilson was still a regular customer at the Department of Player Safety’s bank deposit window. They’d won the Metro, but few were picking them to go all the way.
Three hundred sixty-five days later, the narrative surrounding the Caps could not possibly be more different.
As we prepare for tonight’s opening game of the first-round series between the Caps and Carolina Hurricanes, we invited our pals over at Japers’ Rink to give us some insight on what makes the defending champs go and why things may not be so much different entering the playoffs this year despite the bling on their fingers. Thanks to Alex Ervin from Japers’ for offering her thoughts on the series!
Q1: The Caps have been a bit of an analytics outlier this year, with good real-life numbers but not so hot underlying numbers. Is there a danger in them regressing a bit in this series, or are they at the point where their game is what it is and they’re confident regardless of what the stats might say about them?
At this point, the Caps are comfortable with being the numerical/statistical underdogs in a lot of their matchups. If there was any danger of them regressing a bit, I think it would have happened earlier this season. It looks like they’re pretty confident with where they stand and how they’re playing the game, and with their ability to defy the numbers that say otherwise.
Q2: Last season the Caps got contributions all over the lineup, not just from the big names. Who is the most likely player to be this year’s version of Devante Smith-Pelly or Brett Connolly? (Or could those guys replicate their performance from a year ago?)
I think Brett Connolly is going to continue his strong season into the playoffs. He hit career highs in all three scoring categories (22G, 24A, 46PTS), and most notably hit the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career. He’s supplied a lot of secondary scoring for the Capitals, and they’re going to need him to stay hot.
I also think that Andre Burakovsky has the potential to have a big postseason. He was last year’s Eastern Conference Final hero, scoring two goals in Game 7 to propel the Caps to the SCF. He looked much more confident in the second half of this season (once his name was no longer circulating in trade deadline rumors), and if he keeps it up, he can be a huge difference maker.
Q3: Braden Holtby is certainly in a better place to start this playoff season than he was this time last year, when he was on the bench behind Philipp Grubauer. Pheonix Copley has been quite good in limited action this season, so how much leeway does Holtby get? Would Todd Reirden consider making a move if the situation required it, or are the Caps riding with Holtby from start to finish?
The Caps are riding with Holtby from start to finish. Being benched at the beginning of last year’s playoff run was what needed to happen, and I actually think it was a big moment of growth for Holtby. He seems more able to shake off mistakes and bad goals this season than he has in the past. Caps fans were spoiled with a stellar goaltending duo last season, and the team was lucky to have a reliable backup in Grubauer.
Copley, while posting some good numbers this season, has less overall experience and it often shows. Todd Reirden is going to need to rely on Holtby to get the job done, and he has proven this season (especially after the All-Star break) that he is more than up for the challenge.
Q4: Here’s the requisite Tom Wilson question, although it might be a little different than the standard. Since he returned from his 14-game suspension, he hasn’t been in the headlines even once for a questionable hit. Yet he posted a career high 40 points in only 63 games. Has he finally learned how to play on the line without crossing it, and if so, how much of a danger (from a scoring perspective) is he in this series?
Tom Wilson has finally turned into the player the Caps (and fans) hoped he would be. He seems to have figured out how to throw his weight around and lay big hits without crossing that line, and has become a huge scoring threat in the process. He cooled off somewhat towards the end of the season, but I like to think that he’ll turn things back up for this series. Once he gets going, the combo of high-powered offense and physical play is pretty hard to stop.
Q5: Overall, how do you think the Caps enter this postseason in terms of their play as opposed to last postseason? Is there a different vibe now that they finally reached the top of the mountain and they’re looking for more, instead of trying to get there for the first time?
The way the Capitals are entering this year’s postseason is actually pretty similar to the way they did so last year. Last year was free of the usual pressure they had faced in postseasons past, and they (clearly) thrived as “underdogs”.
Without as much to prove, they played much more relaxed. I think the same can be said for this year. They won the Cup last season, so that “win it all or your careers aren’t as meaningful” pressure is gone. That relaxed feeling they had to their play last postseason should hopefully make a reappearance. And yes, there is obviously still some pressure as the defending champs, but they shouldn’t feel like they have to prove anything to anyone. It’s a different vibe now for sure, but not as different as you may think.