Whatever preparation the Capitals underwent prior to Game 1 against the Florida Panthers paid off in spades. In Tuesday night’s 4-2 victory over the NHL's best team during the regular season, Washington was for the vast majority of the contest, the more energetic, more cohesive, more fundamentally sound and better-coached squad over their foes.
Now, having taken home-ice advantage away from the top seed in the East, the Capitals are in the driver’s seat with a 1-0 series lead. How can they maintain that lead and pull an upset in the first round? Though there’s a ton of hockey left to play, their Game 1 victory was a perfect template on how to do just that. Essentially every aspect of the Caps’ game plan was executed well.
“I think we kinda worked our way into the game as the game went on,” Lars Eller said after Game 1. “We just believed in our game plan and stuck and with it, even though they came out with a lot of speed through the first two [periods], but we battled back and everybody chipped in. A really, really gutsy win.”
It’s easy to see how the Capitals won the contest, both looking at the numbers and based on a general eye test.
Washington stifled Florida’s monstrous attack through sound defense, pushing the Panthers to play on the outside of the offensive zone. They largely matched the Panthers’ physicality, were spry to gather loose pucks, crashed the net, and won the intangible battles necessary to emerge victorious from a playoff contest.
The Capitals, who forced an average of just 6.62 takeaways per 60 minutes during the regular season, doubled that and took possession from the Panthers 13 times in the win. They held onto the puck themselves too, allowing just six turnovers in the contest.
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Washington’s ability to draw penalties certainly helped, as their power play went 1-3 in the game thanks to an early Tom Wilson strike. They also killed off both of Florida’s man-advantages. The Capitals out-shot the Panthers, blocked more shots than their foes, conceded fewer penalty minutes, and out-muscled Florida in the neutral zone.
“I think the neutral zone is a really important zone,” Laviolette said. “There’s times when we don’t play it so well and you let up too many chances—it’s like the gateway to your end… I thought our guys did a pretty good job there. We were able to get to some pucks and get some clears, I think that’s always important.”
With a game in hand, the Capitals can't afford to get complacent. Despite an uneven display in Game 1, Florida is still a tenacious team on both ends of the ice. Game 2 is on the horizon for Thursday and Washington has supplied themselves with a guide on how to keep the pressure on the home side.
“We didn’t sit back, but we played smart,” Eller said. “We got the pucks deep, eliminated turnovers and just did what we have to do. They’re gonna get looks and chances. They’re a very good team, but I think we did a good job of keeping it to a minimum.”
All first-round games of Capitals vs. Panthers will be available regionally on NBC Sports Washington and streamed live on the MyTeams app.