Every team in the Eastern Conference seemed to make herculean efforts to avoid playing the Florida Panthers in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
It’s easy to see why: Florida won the Presidents' Trophy after putting up an astounding +95 goal differential during the regular season. They were far and away the best offense in hockey for the entire regular season and posed a formidable opponent for the Wild Card Capitals.
They did not look like it on Tuesday.
Washington played arguably its best defense of the entire season in Game 1. Squeezing the Panthers to the outside of the offensive zone, blocking shots, and forcing turnovers gave the Caps much-needed breathing room in a critical opening playoff contest.
“We played the game defensively, for the most part, how we wanted to play the game,” said T.J. Oshie after the 4-2 victory. “You know the old saying about defense winning championships —well I think it’s very important in playoff hockey, and I thought we did a good job tonight. They still got their chances, and when they did, more times than not, Vitek [Vanecek] was there to shut the door.”
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Washington’s netminder indeed played as well as he needed to in order to halt the red-hot Panthers. He was unable to shake concerns about allowing big rebounds, which accounted for Florida’s second and final goal, but it was overall a stellar effort in just his second career playoff start.
But it was what happened in front of Vanecek that kept Florida at bay for the majority of Tuesday’s contest. Washington blocked 12 of Florida’s 32 shots on net, and though they were out-hit 56-43, the Capitals maintained a strong physical presence between the blue lines which choked the Panthers’ zone entries.
“The guys was buzzing today,” Vanecek said postgame. “The defense was tight and very good, offense was really good, so I hope it’ll go the same way for the next game…They have good offense, they have skills, but like I said, the defense was really good today. It was tight in the back, so they had a couple chances but not too many. That was really huge from us.”
Perhaps most importantly, Washington forced 13 turnovers. For a team that averaged just 6.62 takeaways per 60 minutes during the regular season, that is a remarkable uptick in production against a high-velocity offense.
Washington clamped the Panthers in Game 1, completing the massive task of taking away home-ice advantage from the East’s top seed. Going up 1-0 in the series is huge, but there’s three more wins needed and much work left to be done.
“It’s one game,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “Our guys played hard tonight. We've got to regroup tomorrow and get back to work, and take a look at some things we can do better and some things that work for us, and get ready for Game 2.”
All first-round games of Capitals vs. Panthers will be available regionally on NBC Sports Washington and streamed live on the MyTeams app.