The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs is full of incredible storylines. The Vegas Golden Knights are Cup contenders as an expansion team, the Colorado Avalanche have gone from the worst team in the league to a respectable team capable of busting the Stanley Cup Bracket, etc. But there is one storyline that seems omnipresent no matter the year: Can the Washington Capitals make it to the Conference Finals?
The team’s path to the promised land is no easier than usual. The Caps will presumably face the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that haunts Washington’s dreams, in the second round. But first, the Capitals will have to get through the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Jackets are no easy out. The franchise as a whole is starting to gain some traction, as its making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in its history. Columbus was dealt with handily last year by the Penguins, but this time around the Jackets have the lethal scorer they’ve been looking for in Artemi Panarin.
The Jackets have always been about scoring depth. The last two times this team’s made the playoffs (‘14,17) it had 20 and 18 double-digit point scorers, respectively. For reference, the Tampa Bay Lightning (the highest scoring team in the league this year) have 19 players with double-digit points. This season, the Jackets have 18 guys in double digits but, on top of that, they have something they haven’t had in 17 seasons of existence — an 80-point scorer.
While Panarin poses a huge threat to this Capitals team, one skater can’t steal a series. One goaltender, however, can. Coming into this series with a .921 save percentage and a 2.42 goals against average, former Vezina Trophy winning Sergei Bobrovsky is one of the few goaltenders poised to carry his team through the postseason.
On the other side of the ice, the Caps have announced that they keep Braden Holtby, a former Vezina winner in his own right, on the bench in favor of Philipp Grubauer. In a career-high 28 starts, Grubauer has posted a phenomenal .923 save percentage and an equally impressive 2.35 GAA. While the goalie matchup isn’t the superstar battle many fans would have anticipated, these two goaltenders are currently among the NHL elite when it comes to their performance this season.
The most concerning matchup for the Jackets comes on the special teams. Columbus is 27th in the league in penalty kill percentage at 76.2%, while the Caps are seventh in the league in power play percentage. Even more troubling for the Jackets, is the Caps took a while to hit their stride on the PP and are still getting better in that regard. Washington is third in the league in power play percentage post All-Star break at 27%, and the Jackets are still 27th in kill percentage post All-Star break.
While Columbus will prove to be a thorn in Washington’s side, the Caps will prevail. Every edge Columbus has, the Capitals can match up with. Panarin is out-matched offensively by the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Grubauer has shown this season that he’s up to the task of facing a goaltender with the pedigree of Bobrovsky. All things considered, the Caps win this series in six games.
The question is, can they take that extra step?