How the Capitals can win, and lose, against the Panthers


With the Stanley Cup Playoffs just a day away for the Capitals, here are a few keys to look for in their first-round series Stanley Cup playoff against the Florida Panthers: 


This should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the Capitals (and, for that matter, the Panthers) all season long. While cliche to say that the series will likely come down to goaltending, it most certainly will in Washington's case. 

Capitals coach Peter Laviolette has not named a starter for Game 1, and will likely not do so until as close as he can before puck drop Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Sunrise, Fla. But either way, Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek are going to face the steepest of uphill battles. 

In April, Samsonov played eight games and posted a save percentage of .884 with a goals against average of 3.35. Vanecek played seven games and posted a save percentage of .885 with a GAA of 3.21. No matter who earns the net, Laviolette said he’d like for one guy to step up and take the No. 1 job. 

On the other end of the ice the Capitals will face Sergei Bobrovsky, who they’ve beaten in a playoff series before. Washington beat Bobrovsky and the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs en route to a championship, so they're no stranger to what the Russian netminder brings to the table.


Bobrovsky has since signed a seven-year, $70 million contract with Florida and while he was better this season (.913 save percentage), he hasn't lived up to that deal yet. Should Bobrovsky’s playoff inconsistencies come back once again, the Panthers could pivot to 21-year-old Spencer Knight, a 2019 first-round draft pick, in net. In 32 games this season, Knight posted a .908 save percentage. 

But no matter what the Capitals force the Panthers to do in net, the series is going to come down to what Samsonov or Vanecek -- or both -- do in the series. 

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Pace of play

Saying the Panthers score a lot of goals would be putting it comically mild. 

They scored a whopping 338 goals this season, by far the best in the NHL. They were the first team in the salary-cap era and the first team since 1995-96 to average more than four goals per game for a full season. They boast four 30-goal scorers and a staggering 14 double-digit goal-scorers.

So naturally, Florida wants to play a fast game and put as much pressure on the Capitals’ defense and goaltender as possible. They want their offense to shine and be the spotlight of the series.

Washington's job is to have the game played as structured and physically as possible.

“It’s probably simple, work hard and be heavy on our forecheck, most important,” defenseman Dmitry Orlov said Sunday. “If we are able to do that, put puck in the right place in the offensive zone, we still can find a way to win and make plays and it is important. I think it is going to be important who has more puck in this series, especially like I said, they are good offensively. If they have the less puck it is going to be tough for them.”

The Capitals were 10th in the NHL in goals (3.33 per game), but they’re at their best when they can lean on teams and play a physical brand of hockey. Should the series become run-and-gun, that will almost certainly favor the Panthers.

Florida led the lead in five-on-five shot attempts (56.36%) and was fifth in high-danger chances (55.25%). If the Capitals want to slow down a torrid Panthers attack, they’ll have to do what few teams have done all season long. 

“We've played teams like that in the past,” Tom Wilson said. “When we were going at it with Pittsburgh all the time, they were a team that was fairly similar. In their prime, they were run-and-gun. You can get into that track meet a little bit at times, but we're going to want to stay structured, we're going to want to stay focused.”


Depth scoring

With the Panthers boasting so much talent offensively, there will naturally be a big focus on Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie and the like. But the Capitals are going to need goals to come from all over the lineup if they’re going to win the series. 

Florida can score in bunches, and with so much speed and talent on all four lines, Washington is going to need to match that with its secondary and tertiary scorers. Meaning, that will fall on the shoulders of players like Conor Sheary, Lars Eller, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway to help keep pace with the Panthers’ offense. 

If the Capitals are able to do that, they will at the very least hang around in the series. If they get a few saves and play the game as they want it played to go along with that depth scoring, they’ll have a chance to pull a big upset.