Capitals

Capitals

The Capitals defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs last season. Now, after a recent surge by Columbus, we could end up seeing a rematch.

If the playoffs were to start today the Caps, as leaders of the Metropolitan Division, would play the Blue Jackets who sit in the first wild card spot. It has taken a rally from Columbus just to get there.

The Blue Jackets have been one of the stories of the season due to the expiring contracts of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Faced with their two best players possibly walking for nothing at the end of the season, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen had a choice to make. Should he trade them away and begin rebuilding the team or keep them to try to make a postseason run?

Kekalainen chose the latter and the Blue Jackets will be looking not just to win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history, but also to win the Stanley Cup because the window may already be closed for them after this season.

Here’s a brief preview of what you can expect in a Washington-Columbus first round series.

Why this would be an intriguing series: The Caps and Blue Jackets met last season in a contentious playoff series that almost ended Washington’s Stanley Cup run before it began. Columbus jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, but the Caps rallied to win four straight. Those two wins arguably have shaped the Blue Jackets’ entire season. Knowing they had the Stanley Cup champions on the ropes almost certainly has a lot to do with the Blue Jackets’ bold roster moves and going “all-in” on this season.

 

There is also a bit of a budding rivalry between these two teams.

Rivalries are born in the playoffs and, though these two teams have only met in the postseason once, you could see the animosity between them when on Jan. 12 Columbus beat Washington in overtime and several Blue Jackets players began taunting the Caps with Kuznetsov’s bird celebration.

The Caps will be going for their second Stanley Cup while the Blue Jackets will be looking for their first series win in franchise history.

Plus, John Tortorella is still behind the bench for Columbus and he is always good for some colorful moments in the playoffs (such as this and this).

Why Columbus would be a favorable matchup for the Caps: As good a goalie as Bobrovsky is, he is completely different when he gets to the playoffs. Just compare his career regular season numbers (.919 save percentage, 2.46 GAA) to his postseason numbers (.891 save percentage, 3.49 GAA). That is quite the drop. The Caps scored 3.18 goals against Bobrovsky in six games in last season’s series. It was over when Devante Smith-Pelly beat him to the top-corner glove-side in Game 6.

That 2-0 series lead Columbus had? Braden Holtby did not start in either of those games. Once Holtby retook the starting job from Philipp Grubauer, the Caps did not lose again. That series may not have looked quite as close had Holtby been in net at the start. This year, there is no debate over the Caps’ No. 1 starter. As hot as Bobrovsky has been of late, Holtby has been impressive as well and has proven himself to be a top playoff performer. He currently boasts the third best playoff save percentage in league history at .929.

While Columbus added plenty of offensive talent, it did little to address the defense which struggled against Washington in the playoffs giving up 4.00 goals per game. 

Experience will also play a factor. The Caps finally got over the hump last year and know how to win in the playoffs. Columbus does not. There is not a whole heck of a lot of postseason experience to draw on for the Blue Jackets at all considering the franchise has never won a playoff series and Tortorella will have his hands full trying to coach his team to a win against the defending champs.

Why Columbus would be a tough matchup for the Caps: A team that held a 2-0 series lead over the Caps added Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, among others at the trade deadline. Chemistry was clearly an issue initially, but they seem to be hitting their stride now. The Blue Jackets have won five straight and have outscored opponents 24-4 during that stretch. Those moves bolstered the scoring depth to a point that could mitigate what looked like an obvious advantage for Washington.

 

You may not think of offense when you think of Columbus, but they do boast a deeper offense than you may think. Artemi Panarin is obviously the leader with 83 points, Cam Atkinson has 41 goals this season and Pierre-Luc Debois continues developing into a star talent with 59 points. On the blue line, the Jackets also have one of the top pairings in the game in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones.

One of Columbus’ biggest weaknesses in the playoffs is Bobrovsky, but goalies are bad in the playoffs until they aren’t and Bobrovsky has been tremendous of late. In the month of March, he has played in 13 games with a save percentage of .940 (!!!), a GAA of 1.74 and four shutouts. His past performance means you should be skeptical that he can carry that momentum over into the postseason, but he is playing at such a high level right now you have to think there will be at least some carry over.

The Caps torched the Blue Jackets’ penalty killers last year and Columbus finished the series with a 66.7-percent kill. Th power play will not play nearly as large a role for Washington this season as it has struggled of late and that is likely to continue against the Blue Jackets who currently boast the second best penalty kill in the NHL at 84.9-percent.

Also, do not underestimate the desperation factor. Columbus is not blind to what is about to happen this offseason. Those players know that if they are ever going to make a deep run, it is going to have to come this year before Panarin and Bobrovsky walk.

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