On the second day of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the first-round series of the Washington Capitals vs Florida Panthers will begin. In theory, there’s a vast gap between these two teams. The Panthers remain a favoured contender to win it all, while the Capitals are a wild-card underdog. Still, the result of this matchup remains far from certain.
Several prominent factors should influence which of the Capitals and Panthers moves on to the conference semifinals. Injuries, goaltending, and a clash of star forwards will play a role in deciding the winner of the series.
Washington Capitals vs Florida Panthers First Round Preview
For the Florida Panthers, the absence of Aaron Ekblad has greatly destabilized the defensive corps. Ekblad, the team’s top blueliner, has been out since March 18, when he suffered a lower-body injury against the Anaheim Ducks. The biggest question is whether or not he will be ready to return by the time the first round begins. Jameson Olive reported that, according to Panthers coach Andrew Brunette, Ekblad may be able to play. Still, it’s not a guarantee.
Bruno on Ekblad:
“There’s a chance [for] Game 1.” pic.twitter.com/v2HnJogZk7
— Jameson Olive (@JamesonCoop) May 1, 2022
Even if Ekblad does return, there’s also the question of how long it will take him to return to form. It’s only reasonable to assume that he’ll be a bit rusty, having not played in a game situation for over a month. Every playoff game is crucial, so the Panthers will need Ekblad to bounce back quickly.
On the Capitals’ end, the team as a whole is mostly healthy – but Alex Ovechkin‘s status might be one to keep an eye on. Ovechkin suffered an upper-body injury against the Toronto Maple Leafs and missed the Capitals’ last three games of the regular season. Currently, he’s listed as day-to-day, but even a minor injury has the potential to make him miss time if he reaggravates it. It would be a huge blow to Washington’s offence, as Ovechkin led the team in scoring with 50 goals and 90 points through the regular season.
Consistency in Goal
Washington’s biggest Achilles heel is goaltending. Ilya Samsonov put up a .896 save percentage and a 3.02 goals-against average during the regular season. (Easily the worst numbers of his career on both counts.) Vitek Vanecek looked slightly better, posting a .908 save percentage and 2.67 goals-against average. Still, those aren’t the kind of numbers a playoff-bound team wants to see from its goalie. Since neither of the Capitals’ netminders earned the top spot this season, they’ve been rotating in a 1A-1B tandem. However, that’s not exactly a viable strategy for the playoffs, where it’s historically been a better idea to stick with a de facto number one goalie. With neither goaltender performing well on a nightly basis, the Capitals may find themselves having difficulty standing up to Florida’s high-powered offence.
For the Panthers, finding a starting goalie won’t be as much of an issue. Sergei Bobrovsky is, without a doubt, their number one. But behind him is Spencer Knight, a 20-year-old netminder with less than 40 games under his belt. He did start twice in last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the results weren’t conclusive. He had one win with a .973 save percentage, and one loss with a .870 save percentage. Though Knight has surely gained experience and confidence through this season, young goaltenders (especially ones as young as him) tend to be wildcards in the postseason.
Entering the postseason, the Panthers have the best offence in the NHL. They led the league in goals (340), eclipsing the closest team (the Colorado Avalanche) by a margin of nearly 30 goals. They have four players who hit the thirty-goal mark during the regular season: Aleksander Barkov, with 39; Sam Reinhart, with 33; Anthony Duclair, with 31; and Jonathan Huberdeau, with 30. In addition, Huberdeau and Barkov, the team’s star forwards, recorded 115 and 88 points, respectively. (Barkov reached his total in just 67 games.)
Although this isn’t to say that the Panthers’ defence is anything shabby, it will be their offence that will be the difference-maker in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Especially with the addition of former Flyers captain Claude Giroux at the deadline, Florida is jam-packed with strong forwards. If the Panthers’ stars maintain their regular season paces, it will be difficult for even the best opposing defences to stop them.
The Capitals, too, have an offensive weapon in the form of Ovechkin. The captain’s famed shooting prowess carried him to 50 goals during the regular season – the ninth time in his career that he’s done so. Unsurprisingly, Ovechkin leads Washington in goals. He’s also the team’s points leader, with 90 in total. But not to be overlooked is Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is tied with defenceman John Carlson for first in assists and is second only to Ovechkin with 78 points. As the Capitals’ goaltenders flounder, it may end up being up to their best forwards to negate the damage Florida will inevitably do.
Prediction for Washington Capitals vs Florida Panthers
While the curse of the President’s Trophy could be real, the Florida Panthers are shaping up to disprove it. With their best forwards firing on all cylinders and a solid starting netminder, they have a clear advantage in both offence and goaltending. And assuming Ekblad comes back soon, they’ll be a team with few glaring weaknesses. Although the Capitals’ heavily physical style may benefit them in the postseason atmosphere, there won’t be much they can do to stop their powerhouse opponent.
Panthers in five.