Update: It's official. The two teams will meet in the first round.
The Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes meet on Thursday in a preview of a potential first round matchup. If the season ended Thursday morning with the standings locked as they are, Washington would in fact be playing Carolina in the first round as the Caps lead the division and the Hurricanes sit in the first wild card spot.
Here's a brief preview of what you can expect in a Washington-Carolina first round series.
Why this would be an intriguing series: This would be the “bunch of jerks” bowl as both teams have caught the ire of “old man yells at cloud” hockey analyst Don Cherry. He is not a fan of Carolina’s Storm Surge postgame celebrations and he also does not like Evgeny Kuznetsov’s bird celebration. These two teams have never met in the playoffs before so this matchup would be something new in a playoff format that is built to force the same stale matchups over and over and over again.
Why Carolina would be a favorable matchup for the Caps: There are many who would argue that Washington was flying under the radar heading into the playoffs in 2018 and that lack of pressure was a good thing for them. As the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Caps are bound to be one of the big stories of the postseason. But if you wanted to avoid the media circus that comes with that, playing the Hurricanes in the first round is a good way to do it.
Carolina is not the biggest hockey market in the country and there would be considerably less eyeballs on this matchup than say a Caps-Penguins rematch or Caps-New York Islanders with head coach Barry Trotz.
The Hurricanes are at best an average offensive team. Sebastian Aho is a legitimate superstar player. Justin Williams also excels in the postseason and Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen are dangerous pieces. Other than that, however, there is not much else there that scares you offensively. That would be a great way for Washington to start considering the team may still be adjusting to the loss of Michal Kempny from the blue line due to injury. Match Aho’s line up against Nicklas Backstrom and the Caps should be in good shape.
Why Carolina would be a tough matchup for the Caps: A big part of playoff success in the NHL is getting hot at the right time and the Hurricanes are doing just that. Since Jan. 1, the Hurricanes rank fourth in the NHL in points with 54 in 38 games, just four behind Tampa Bay’s 58. So for nearly half the season, the Hurricanes have been winning almost as much as the best team in the NHL. There is definitely momentum growing in the Carolina right now.
While offense may not be Carolina’s strong suit, its strength is definitely on defense. Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk make up a very formidable top four.
Petr Mrazek appears to have established himself as the No. 1 in net for the Hurricanes. While I do not see him as much more than an average NHL starter, he has had a good season in Carolina (.910 save percentage, 2.47 GAA) and is always tough against Washington. In 10 appearances against the Caps, Mrazek has a .917 save percentage and 2.52 GAA. He also seems to elevate his game for the playoffs where for his career he has a .927 save percentage and 1.98 GAA though he has only played in 11 postseason games.
Don’t get me wrong, the Caps still have the goaltending advantage with Braden Holtby who boasts the third best save percentage in NHL playoff history at .929, but Mrazek could make Carolina a tough out.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
- Prospect report: Caps ink NCAA defenseman Bobby Nardella
- Blue line at a glance: How the Caps cope on defense for the playoffs
- Ready For It: How Reirden stayed balance in first-year as head coach
- A Bunch of Jerks: Opinions on Storm Surge celebration differ among Caps