There’s something different about the Washington Capitals this time around.
Coming off consecutive Presidents’ Trophy seasons, the Caps came into 2017-18 with tempered expectations. In all likelihood, last year was their best shot to win the Stanley Cup, but they ultimately came up short against the now two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
As talk of a closing window in D.C. picked up this summer, we were left to wonder whether Alex Ovechkin and his band of brothers would fall into the “best to never win” bucket. Yet, here we are again after the Caps put together an unassuming 105-point season to capture another division crown. That said, there’s little-to-no hype surrounding Washington in advance of its very tricky first-round tilt with the Blue Jackets, who just happens to be the hottest team in the NHL.
Washington (-125) vs. Columbus (+105)
Game 1: April 12 Columbus @ Washington, 7:30 p.m., USA
Game 2: April 15 Columbus @ Washington, 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Game 3: April 17 Washington @ Columbus, 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Game 4: April 19 Washington @ Columbus, 7:30 p.m., USA
Game 5: April 21 Columbus @ Washington, TBD
Game 6: April 23 Washington @ Columbus, TBD
Game 7: April 25 Columbus @ Washington, TBD
Betting Market: The Blue Jackets opened at +110 and have been bet down slightly to +105.
Setting the Stage: Washington took three of four from Columbus in the regular season, but the Jackets did win their most recent meeting in late February (their third meeting of the month).
Alex Ovechkin has 1,122 points in 1,033 career games in the regular season. That’s an average of 1.22 points per game. While his production has decreased in the postseason — as you might expect against stiffer competition — he still has an impressive 90 points in 97 career postseason games. Neither Ovechkin nor the goaltending has held Washington back in the playoffs. Everyone else simply needs to step up or DC will go another year without a championship.
If the Jackets want to pull off this upset, they’ll need to stay out of the box and/or hope games aren’t called tight. The Caps have a decided edge on the power play against a struggling Blue Jackets’ penalty kill. — Stuckey
The Numbers Do the Talkin’: Over its last 25 games, Columbus has posted a 16-6-3 record, which includes a 13-2-2 stretch over its last 17 games. The Jackets’ peripheral numbers tell an even more encouraging story. During that span, Columbus ranks second in limiting shot attempts at 5v5 and eighth in Corsi For %(a barometer for possession that measures the amount of shot attempts for vs. shot attempts allowed, also known as CF%).
The Jackets have played their best hockey down the stretch — a very good sign for Columbus fans — but they’ve excelled at 5v5 all season. In fact, the Blue Jackets led the NHL in expected goals (xG), creating 2.58 xGF per 60 minutes.
The Blue Jackets wonderful even strength play has a lot to do with two particular group of players:
- Their top line of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc DuBois and Cam Atkinson, who all can create offense at will.
- Their best defensive pair in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, both of whom control play at an elite level.
The middle of the roster doesn’t feature all that many headliners, but there aren’t really any sore spots either.
One area of concern is that the Blue Jackets do give up their fair share of scoring chances against. Luckily, they have the luxury of Sergei Bobrovsky in net to compensate for that deficiency.
Meanwhile, Washington’s 5v5 play metrics tell a completely different story, as the Caps are a bit of a mess under the hood. Over the course of the season, Washington owned a -19.86 expected goals differential at 5v5. Compare that to the the Caps’ +16 goal differential and you start to get the point. In addition to woeful xG numbers, the Capitals also don’t control the shot share at even strength. Their 48.3 CF% is the worst mark of any Eastern Conference playoff team. One good sign is that Washington has played to a 49.4 CF% mark over its last 25 games.
To call the Caps all smoke and mirrors isn’t fair because they have the talent to outrun their underlying numbers, but a cold shooting stretch can absolutely derail this train before it leaves the station. — Michael Leboff
Goaltending: Even with their edge at 5v5, the Blue Jackets’ hold an even bigger one in the blue paint. Sergei Bobrovsky is among the league’s best goaltenders and even if his playoff performances haven’t matched that level, he’s a hard man to bet against here.
The man they call “Bob” led the NHL with a +33.93 Goals Saved Above Average (the number of goals saved at 5v5 compared to a hypothetical league average goaltender, also known as GSAA. That’s a remarkable number, especially considering the next closest goaltender, coincidentally Washington’s Philipp Grubauer, posted a +16.32 GSAA. In addition to his sparkling GSAA, Bobrovsky recorded a 93.64 even strength save percentage, an eye-popping number on its own, but even more when a deeper dive reveals his expected save percentage of just 91.53, tied for the lowest in the NHL among goalies with 1,000 minutes played. Simply put, the Blue Jackets don’t make life easy on Bob, but Bob makes life easy on the Blue Jackets.
The Caps will wisely roll with Grubauer over Braden Holtby in Game 1. That may come as a shock to casual fans, but there’s no denying that Grubauer was the better gatekeeper this season. The 26-year-old German finished with a 93.78 even strength save percentage, third-best among goalies with 1,000 minutes played. He also outran his expected save percentage by 2.21 basis points, which is the best mark in the league.
If we get both goaltenders on their game, this is going to be a fantastic matchup to watch. — Michael Leboff
Weird Trend: The Blue Jackets are currently 17th in the NHL in scoring, averaging less than three goals per game. Since the 2011 playoffs, the Capitals are 5-17 on the road in the playoffs against opponents who are averaging three goals or less per game that season. — Evan Abrams
Player to Watch: Of the remaining teams, only Philadelphia and Tampa Bay have a worse penalty kill than Columbus. Think long and hard about which Washington player will most likely take advantage — I’ll wait. Alex Ovechkin may not have scored 50, but he did capture his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy this year with a league-leading 49 goals. The power-play will continue to run through Ovi, who grades out in the 99th percentile in power-play shot attempts. The Caps are actually in an unfamiliar position with underwhelming playoff expectations. Perhaps this is the year Ovechkin finally gets his. Either way, there’s no one else in this series I’d rather watch. — Joe Holka
Why Washington Should Win: Washington’s biggest advantage comes on special teams. The Caps power play should have it’s way with an abysmal Blue Jackets’ penalty kill. Columbus will have to game plan to stop Alex Ovechkin, which will free up space for Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson to do their thing. At 5v5, the Capitals will need to run hot at both ends of the ice to beat a superior Blue Jackets team. Luckily, the Caps have incredible talent up front. Shooting the lights out for a stretch is not out of the question at all.
On the opposite end of the ice, the Caps will need Grubauer (or Holtby) to keep pace with Bobrovsky. Asking either to outplay ‘Bob’ is probably too steep an ask, but they can provide a big boost by keeping the Caps in games when they get tight.
Defensively, the Caps are in pretty good shape. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov are a solid shutdown duo. They will both need to be on point in order to shut down Columbus’ high-flying first line of Cam Atkinson, Artemi Panarin and Pierre-Luc DuBois. Additionally, John Carlson led NHL defenseman in points this year. Carlson and Michal Kempny are a very good second pair. The only real red flag in the back is Brooks Orpik, who the Caps will need to shelter with easy matchups. — Michael Leboff
Why Columbus Can Win: The Jackets will need to play a disciplined game to keep this thing on level terms. Luckily, the Jackets were one of the more disciplined teams in the league (Torts, baby) with a plus-20 penalty differential. If the Blue Jackets stay out of the box, they should control play with relative ease at 5v5. Alex Ovechkin is probably the best skater in this series, but Artemi Panarin is not far behind.
If Columbus stays out of the box and Bobrovsky does his thing, the Caps won’t be around long. — Michael Leboff
Betting Value: I’ve got the Blue Jackets as a slight favorite in this series, so anything at plus-money has some value in my eyes. — Michael Leboff
Leboff – Blue Jackets in 6
Holka – Capitals in 6
Stuckey – Capitals in 7
All stats provided by Corsica.Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.