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Panthers vs. Capitals: 3 things to know about First Round series

With the Stanley Cup Playoffs upon us, Pro Hockey Talk's Sean Leahy previews the Eastern Conference bracket, from the Lightning's quest for a three-peat to the Maple Leafs looking to exorcise half a century of demons.

The 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs began on Monday, May 2. Today, we preview the series between the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals.

Panthers vs. Capitals schedule

Game 1: May 3, 7:30 p.m. ET – Capitals at Panthers (ESPN2, SN360, TVA Sports)
Game 2: May 5 7:30 p.m. ET – Capitals at Panthers (TBS, SN360, TVA Sports )
Game 3: May 7, 1 p.m. ET – Panthers at Capitals (ESPN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports)
Game 4: May 9, 7 p.m. ET – Panthers at Capitals (TBS, SN1, TVA Sports)
*Game 5: May 11, TBD – Capitals at Panthers (TBD)
*Game 6: May 13, TBD – Panthers at Capitals (TBD)
*Game 7: May 15, TBD – Capitals at Panthers (TBD)

1. Will the Panthers offense maintain that same pace from the regular season?

The Panthers were not only the best offensive team in the league during the regular season, but they were the highest scoring team the league has seen in nearly 30 years. They were the first team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins to average more than four goals per game over a full 82-game season, while there was a 0.31 goals per game gap between them (4.11) and the next closest offensive team (Toronto Maple Leafs at 3.80 goals per game).

They have two superstars at the top of their lineup in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and then assembled a sensational complementary cast around them with some shrewd trades and signings (Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Claude Giroux, Joe Thornton, Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, Patric Hornqvist, and Mason Marchment) and some strong player development (Anton Lundell, MacKenzie Weegar, Aaron Ekblad).

The question is whether or not that pace continues in the playoffs.

We all know by now that regular season goal scoring and playoff goal scoring do not always perfectly translate. Defense and goalies get better. The play gets tougher. The rules get enforced differently. Even though the Panthers are expected to get Aaron Ekblad back their defense is not their strength, and goaltending is a major question mark (more in that in a second). If the goal scoring drops off a bit in the change from regular season to playoffs this series could be a lot closer and tougher than many expect it to be.

2. Sergei Bobrovsky has to solve his playoff struggles

This, more than anything, is going to be the make-or-break storyline for the Panthers and nothing else is going to come close.

Bobrovsky has had a magnificent career. He is on the very short list of goalies to win multiple Vezina Trophies (a list that includes him and a bunch of Hall of Famers) and has been one of the most productive goalies of his era.

But he has been miserable in the playoffs with three different teams (Philadelphia, Columbus, and Florida). In his eight postseasons he has finished with a save percentage higher than .908 just one time. He has finished under .900 four times, and his overall career mark of .899 is the absolute lowest of any goalie with at least 25 appearances (32 of them) during his career.

He is coming off of a 2021 postseason performance where he allowed 10 goals on 63 shots before ultimately losing his starting job, and is entering the playoffs with a .900 save percentage since the start of February, one of the worst marks in the league during that stretch of games.

Nothing can impact a playoff series more than goaltending, and this is not the area you want to have a question mark in entering the postseason. If Bobrovsky is good, the Panthers can win it all. If he plays like he has in his previous postseasons, this could be a much shorter postseason experience in Florida than anybody is anticipating it being.

3. The Capitals have their own goalie issues

The Panthers’ starter has to get over the playoff hurdle, but his overall track record in the NHL is excellent. He is a legitimate starter. The Capitals, on the other hand, have no such goalie on their roster. Everything here is based around potential and hope.

The Capitals have spent the past two seasons relying on the duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek to solve their goalie problem, and to this point neither one of them has done anything to secure the starting job or give them any confidence that they can do it.

Vanecek is the Game 1 starter and has been the marginally better goalie the past two seasons, but his ceiling is probably “average goalie that might not lose us a game, but certainly is not going to steal one.”

The problem here, among many, is that given the offense the Capitals are facing they might need a goalie to steal a couple of games for them to have a chance of winning.

This is still a very good hockey team when healthy, which is not something they have been for much of the season. Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Anthony Mantha all missed half of the season due to injury, while Alex Ovechkin and Carl Hagelin enter the playoffs banged up. But they are starting to reach the end of an era with this core and have not won a playoff series since their Stanley Cup win in 2018. Unless one of these goalies goes on an unexpected run here they are looking at the possibility of a fourth consecutive First Round exit.

Prediction: Panthers win in seven games