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Stanley Cup Playoffs 2019: Six reasons the Hurricanes are a good first-round matchup for the Capitals

Stanley Cup Playoffs 2019: Six reasons the Hurricanes are a good first-round matchup for the Capitals

Though anything can happen in a playoff series and the NHL postseason can remind all teams to be careful what you wish for, here’s why a first-round series with the Hurricanes looks like a good one for the Caps.

After the long regular season, the Capitals’ defense of the Stanley Cup will begin in earnest on Thursday when Washington hosts the Carolina Hurricanes in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the NHL, any team can beat any other team on any given night and, as history has shown us, in any given series. The Caps will certainly have their hands full against a surprising Carolina team that managed to climb into the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Having said that, going into the final game of the season, the Caps could have played the Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins or Columbus Blue Jackets in the First Round. Carolina certainly appeared to be the most favorable matchup for Washington.

Though anything can happen in a playoff series and the NHL postseason can remind all teams to be careful what you wish for, here’s why a first-round series with the Hurricanes looks like a good one for the Caps.

Washington swept the regular season series

What happens in the regular season does not necessarily translate in the playoffs. The Caps know that better than most, but it is still encouraging for them to know that they beat Carolina in all four games they faced one another this season.

Two of those wins came just over a week ago when Washington faced the Hurricanes in a home-and-home. The Caps needed points to maintain their lead over the division while Carolina was still very much in the playoff hunt. Those were important games. Washington won both.

Carolina’s offense

For the season, the Hurricanes scored 2.96 goals per game. That’s the second lowest among playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. They certainly have some dangerous weapons with Sebastian Aho, Teuovo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. Justin Williams’ playoff resume speaks for itself and Nino Niederreiter has found his offensive touch since getting traded from Minnesota.

Carolina, however, does not have the sort of offensive depth that can stretch a defense thin which is good news for a Capitals team that is still tinkering with its defensive pairings after the loss of Michal Kempny to injury. Facing one of the less potent offenses in the playoffs will be a good way for Todd Reirden to solidify the defense.

Even if the Hurricanes do manage to light up Washington’s blue line, the Caps are still a much deeper offensive team and should have no trouble keeping up.

A battle of first-year head coaches

Coaching in the playoffs is a completely different experience than in the regular season. Rather than having one or two nights to scout and game plan for an opponent, you have several days to focus on one and only one team. How you approach matchups, lines, defensive pairing, strategy all changes in the playoffs.

This will be Reirden’s first postseason as an NHL head coach. While he has successfully navigated the Caps to a division title, you would have to give the coaching edge in a series to a more experienced head coach. Instead, Reirden will be battling wits with Rod Brind’Amour.

Brind’Amour should be commended for the job he has done in Carolina this year, guiding the team back to the playoffs for the first time in a decade, but he will bring just as much NHL head coaching experience as Reirden will.

The goalies

Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney deserve a lot of credit for what they were able to accomplish this season. Mrazek most likely enters the playoffs as the team’s starter after an incredible stretch to close out the season. Since March 1, Mrazek started in 10 games and won eight with a .942 save percentage and 1.79 GAA. Those are some incredible numbers. In his limited playoff experience (11 games) he has also managed an impressive .927 save percentage and 1.98 GAA.

But with all due respect to Mrazek and McElhinney, anyone who believes going into this series that Carolina has the edge in net is fooling themselves. Perhaps Mrazek can stay hot and maintain that pace in the playoffs, but you would be hard-pressed to find a coach in the league who would take him over Braden Holtby, if given the choice. In fact, if you offered every playoff team that chance to switch goalie tandems with Carolina there are probably only two that would consider it (Calgary and San Jose). Holtby, meanwhile, is one of the top netminders in the entire NHL and has the third-best save percentage in playoff history (.929).

Strong goaltending is one of the reasons Carolina got into the playoffs, but the Capitals will still come into the series with an edge between the pipes.

The Caps are just as hot as Carolina

Sometimes success in the playoffs can come down to which team gets hot at the right time. One reason to be wary of this series is the fact that the Hurricanes are one of the hottest teams in the NHL…or at least it would be if the Caps were not just as hot.

Since the All-Star break, Carolina has gone 22-9-1, just one point better than Washington’s 21-9-2. Since the trade deadline, the Caps and Hurricanes both earned 27 points, but Washington did it in one fewer game (Caps were 13-5-1, Hurricanes were 13-6-1).

It beats the alternative

On the last day of the season it came down to Carolina, Pittsburgh or Columbus in the First Round for Washington. While the Caps are a better team from top to bottom than the Penguins this season and should have the offensive depth to be able to beat a blue line with both Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson on it, it is still Pittsburgh and they still have Sidney Crosby. The unexpected always seems to happen in a rivalry and Crosby is a wild card in any playoff series he is in. The Penguins are always a tough out.

The Caps were one goal away from going down 3-0 in their first-round series against Columbus last season. Even after a year to think about it, they still seem pretty mad. Since then, the Blue Jackets added Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. They have the offensive depth to match Washington, one of the top defensive pairs in hockey in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones and one of the top goalies in the NHL. If Sergei Bobrovsky can ever figure out how to play in the postseason, they are going to be a formidable playoff team.

Considering this, Carolina looked like the best matchup overall for the Caps of those three teams.

But this is the NHL and this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Be careful what you wish for.

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Despite re-aggravating injury at Worlds, Lars Eller healthy heading to training camp

Despite re-aggravating injury at Worlds, Lars Eller healthy heading to training camp

ARLINGTON, Va. — A lower-body injury limited Lars Eller in the playoffs and cut his World Championship short after just three games, but it is not going to limit him heading into training camp.

“I’m over that,” Eller told NBC Sports Washington. “Taken good care of that and it’s not an issue right now.”

Eller was at MedStar Captials Iceplex on Thursday taking part in an informal skate with several teammates who have begun to trickle back to Washington as the start of training camp approaches. Eller took part in all drills, the scrimmage and the conditioning skate seemingly without issue.

The lower-body injury was not enough to keep him out of the playoffs last season, but he did take several maintenance days.

“I've been battling something,” Eller said in April at the team’s breakdown day. “Something that's been bugging me. A little bit of rest these next couple of weeks. Just have to take care of it. It doesn't require surgery, it's nothing serious, just with some rest over time, it will be fine, I believe.”

Despite the need for rest, Eller elected to play for Denmark in the IIHF World Championship soon after.

“Giving it some time, I felt I was healthy enough to go and play,” Eller siad. “I still kind of wanted to play and help my country and after some time, I felt good enough to say, OK, I'm going to do this.”

Initially, Eller did not appear limited at all with four points in his first game. By the third game, however, he was forced to withdraw from the tournament.

Despite a report from Denmark claiming Eller had an agreement in place to play in only three games, he said the decision was made to leave the tournament after he re-aggravated the injury.

“Reaggravated it and we just shut it down after those three games and really took time to properly rehab and build my program around that for the first many weeks and get treatment, try to make sure it doesn't come back to bite me,” Eller said.

Leaving Worlds has given Eller plenty of time to heal which is good because he will face a new challenge this year.

Gone are Brett Connolly who was a mainstay on Eller’s line which means Eller will have to get used to some different linemates in the upcoming season.

“It's going to be different,” Eller said. “Both [Connolly and Andre Burakovsky are] two guys I probably spent the most time here with the last three years. We had some really good success all three of us at times. That's going to be a new challenge. I have a good feeling about the guys I'm likely going to play with. It's just a new challenge, but I feel good about it.”

The first step to adjusting to a new line? Getting healthy. A lengthy summer seems to have helped with that.

Though unfortunate, the early playoff exit gave Washington a long offseason in which players like Eller could focus on rest and rehab. That is time Eller tried to take advantage of before the grind of another season and what he hopes will be another long postseason run.

“A little longer than last year,” he said of the summer. “All the time I needed to get away and also get the body right for the season.”

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Caps Goal of the Year Bracket: Dowd's Alley-Oop to Hagelin vs Connolly Curl-and-Drag

Caps Goal of the Year Bracket: Dowd's Alley-Oop to Hagelin vs Connolly Curl-and-Drag

With less than a month before training camp opens in mid-September, we are taking one last look back at the 2018-19 season as we dive into the best goals of last year. We compiled our bracket based on the cumulative rankings of our Capitals team, from reporters to producers and everyone in between, and now is your turn to help us determine the best Capitals goal of 2018-19. Below is a Slack conversation between the members of our Capitals content team.

jmurph: Day 4 of our bracket brings us two goals from the third line. Our 4 seed is Nic Dowd's long-distance backhand flip to spring Carl Hagelin for a breakaway up against our 13-seeded Brett Connolly curl-and-drag past the Senators. Where do we start today?

JJ Regan: This is a tough one. I love a good curl and drag, but the pass is a beauty. A good pass to launch a breakaway is tough, but to do it with an alley-oop backhand? That's pretty sweet.

jmurph: Spoiler alert, this is not the only Dowd backhand sauce flip in our bracket but this one was the more impressive one I think

It may be that I have a soft spot for Brett Connolly, but I love the curl and drag. A confident Connolly was one of my favorite things to watch about the Caps

Ryan Billie: No brainer for me (which is good). I've been in love with that Dowd pass since that game... was a thing of beauty.

Rob Carlin: This is like a 5-12 or 7-10 matchup. I’d say Hags is the favorite. But it’s hard to say who will win. That Conno curl & drag was a beauty

bmcnally: If this was just Dowd casually flipping a puck up ice and letting one of the fastest players in the league skate onto it I'd be a little less impressed. Instead I'm sitting here laughing at the skill level of this whole play. You can see him look up and ID what's happening and basically puts it tape-to-tape on a backhand.

jmurph: A backhand that he lifted over 4 players mind you

Ryan Billie: Nope... nope... nope... that pass from Dowd. This is a 5-12 matchup that turns out to be a dog game because the Dowd pass WAS SICK.

bmcnally: And it's a great finish by Hagelin, too, at full speed.

JJ Regan: It's a Hail Mary that hits the receiver in stride.

Rob Carlin: I agree. The pass was insane. And they got Hags for plays just like this one. But close your eyes and imagine that curl & drag was —— Ovi. We’d be showing that on a loop in our brains.

mvioli: Connolly’s curl and drag was pretty, great patience. But how often do you see a successful alley-oop in hockey? Dowd to Hags has to win.

jmurph: We're gonna see it again in a few days!

JJ Regan: I think that's what does it for me. Curl and drags are awesome, but we see those. These passes? You just don't see them all that often.

Rob Carlin: I agree the Dowd play was sick. Might win the whole thing (if the other Dowd sauce doesn’t win). I’m just saying the Conno goal got a tough draw. It would win most matchups

Ryan Billie: I really like the curl and drag. But the Hags goal also was a game winner... does that carry any extra weight?

jmurph: Context? C'mon Billie

bmcnally: Yeah definitely don't want to undersell Connolly here. That's an amazing use of the curl and drag and a snipe to finish. I just can't get over that Nic Dowd is apparently just GOOD at these kind of passes and not lucky.

mvioli: Exactly. I agree with Rob that Conno got a tough draw here, but that Dowd pass was just too good.

Rob Carlin: As someone who is clearly carrying extra weight myself, I agree the game winning aspect plays into this! Big play in a big moment.

So we all agree.....

Ryan Billie: ^^^

Rob Carlin: Dowd

jmurph: It's summer weight, it doesn't count

Ryan Billie: DOWWWWWD

mvioli: Definitely Dowd

JJ Regan: Dowd.

bmcnally: Dowd

jmurph: Sorry Conno, but it's Dowd

Rob Carlin: But good luck in Florida!

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