Potential First Round playoff matchups for the Capitals: Florida Panthers


We have reached the home stretch of the NHL season. It's time to look ahead to see who the Capitals could play in the first round. With a few days in between games, now's a good time for Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan to look at how Washington stacks up against potential matchups in a seven-game series.

Today's team: The Florida Panthers

Why the Panthers would be a good matchup for the Caps

Andrew: I actually think it might be the worst matchup for the Capitals in Round One. So this portion will be a stretch.

Starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has a .914 save percentage this season, and has historically struggled in the playoffs. In the last five years, he's posted a .841, .901, .925, .900 and .882 percentage in the playoffs. Now, the blip on that radar is from the Blue Jackets squad that was probably the most talented in his time in Columbus, but for the most part, he's never shown the ability to carry a team on his back in the playoffs. 

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad is out of the lineup after undergoing surgery on his leg and a timeline for return is unclear. Even if he is able to return before the postseason, will it be with enough time to get back into the swing of things? I'm not sold on their defensive pairings, especially without Ekblad — I am not sold on Ben Chiarot being the difference-maker some think he is.

This issue, as I'll hit on in a moment, is that it's really hard to get a proper look at their defense because they just run the score up on everyone. In that regard, a physical team like Washington could take Florida off its game. 


And for however much you value playoff experience, they don't have a lot of it. The Panthers haven't won a playoff series since 1996, and while they have a few veterans that have been around the block, they still haven't had much success as a group — especially compared to the Capitals. Is that worth anything? Who's to say. 

JJ: The biggest weakness of Florida is its defense, especially with the injury to Ekblad. Even if he is ready to play by the playoffs, how close will he be to 100%? Chiarot is a decent player, but, as Andrew noted, not a game-changer.

Andrew Brunette is the interim head coach in Florida. He has done a masterful job stepping in during the season after Joel Quenneville's ignominious departure, but the playoffs are a different animal. This is Brunette's first professional head coaching gig at any level. Having Peter Laviolette behind the bench would be a definite advantage for Washington because of his experience.

That experience also favors the Caps in terms of the players. The Caps' leaders have all gone all the way and hoisted the Cup. They know what it takes to win a playoff series. Florida is a franchise that has not won a playoff series since 1996. How will they be able to handle a series against the Caps and the pressure of coming into the playoffs as a true contender?

Why the Panthers would be a bad matchup for the Caps

Andrew: The Panthers are, to put it in proper technical terms, A Death Machine.

They are on pace to average more than four goals per game, which would make them the first team of the salary cap era (and since the 95-96 season) to accomplish that. They are 27-6-0 at home, a fact that negates whatever advantage the Capitals have to being an outstanding road team. They currently have six players with at least 20 goals and should end with more. Their power play is tied for eighth in the NHL at 23.8%. Their penalty kill is 15th at 79.8%. 

Meaning, you look at their team and have to grimace as there's not much of an area to attack and say, "That's where the Capitals can, and will, win."

Individually, Jonathan Huberdeau has been one of the best players in the NHL this season. Ekblad, when healthy, is one of the best defensemen in the league. Their lines are stacked from top to bottom, and while fans of the Capitals especially are certainly well aware regular season success doesn't constitute playoff success, that doesn't mean it wouldn't be an upset.


JJ: Florida is an offensive buzzsaw averaging over four goals per game. Generally, trying to out-score your problems in the playoffs is not a recipe for postseason success, but the Panthers may be able to get away with it in the early rounds. 

That brings us to goaltending. Bobrovsky's postseason history is what it is, but you cannot say this gives Washington an advantage in net because Vitek Vanecek is unproven in the playoffs. At best, this is a push. At worst, it's still an advantage for Florida.

Don't view the goalie matchup as Bobrovsky vs. Vanecek. Think of it as Bobrovsky against Alex Ovechkin and Co. Then Vanecek against Florida's terrifying offense.

The Panthers get the nod.

And, if that wasn't bad enough, playing Florida would also mean crossing over to the Atlantic Division. If the Panthers finish first in the conference and the Caps finish in the second wild card spot, then Washington would move over to the Atlantic side of the bracket which is a much harder path to the Cup.

I know this is supposed to be focusing on just first-round matchups, but moving to the Atlantic is a prospect too important not to mention and one that Washington should hope to avoid. There's no "easy" path to the Cup, but playing Florida in the first round and the winner of Tampa Bay-Toronto in the second round is pretty daunting.