Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Capitals: 48-26-8, 104 points, first in Metropolitan
Hurricanes: 46-29-7, 99 points, fourth in Metropolitan, first wild card
Season series: WSH 4-0-0; CAR 0-3-1
[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Hurricanes series coverage]
The Carolina Hurricanes were one of the most pleasant surprises in the NHL, riding their relentless work ethic to their first Stanley Cup Playoff berth since 2009. After the Hurricanes were 15-17-5 and 10 points out of a playoff spot Dec. 29, they went 31-12-2 over the remainder of the season to claim the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
Their 46 wins and 99 points are second-most in Carolina/Hartford Whalers history behind the 2005-06 Hurricanes (52 wins, 112 points).
Video: The Carolina Hurricanes' 2018-2019 season in review
Carolina will face a difficult challenge against the Washington Capitals, who finished first in the Metropolitan Division for the fourth straight season and are seeking to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. The Capitals won all four regular-season games against the Hurricanes (one in a shootout) and enter the Eastern Conference First Round believing they know the secret to success in the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup last season for the first time in their 43-season history.
"For me, it's about our team getting to the level we need to get to," Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. "We know we have a whole other level that our team can get to than we've been at even during the season. That's an exciting part about what we're going into here and we're going to need it because every opponent from now on is extremely difficult and it's going to be a battle."
Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Capitals clinch a playoff spot
With an average age of 26 years, the Hurricanes follow the lead of their 37-year-old captain Justin Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup winner including with Carolina in 2006, and first-year coach Rod Brind'Amour, who captained the 2006 Cup team, and aren't satisfied with simply getting into the playoffs.
"It's been a little while coming for this team to finally just put it all together and make everything fit," said Williams, who played for the Capitals in 2015-16 and 2016-17. "We're a young team, a very young team, but we've played enough games as a young team in the fact that we're young but not young by experience in games played. So I like our maturation this year."
Capitals: Forward Alex Ovechkin scored 51 times to win Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's leader in goals for the eighth time and become the third player in NHL history with eight or more 50-goal seasons behind Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy, who each had nine. The 33-year-old led the NHL with 15 postseason goals last season on his way to winning Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs.
Hurricanes: Forward Sebastian Aho set NHL career highs in goals (30), assists (53) and points (83) before going cold late in the season and not scoring a goal in his final 14 games. The 21-year-old had six points (three goals, three assists) in the four games against the Capitals this season and has 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in 12 career games.
Capitals: Braden Holtby (32-19-5, 2.82 goals-against average, .911 save percentage, three shutouts) enters the playoffs as the Capitals' unquestioned No. 1 this season after losing the starting job to Philipp Grubauer to open the first round last season. It took two games before Holtby replaced Grubauer (now with the Colorado Avalanche) and went 16-7 with a 2.16 GAA, .922 save percentage and two shutouts during the run to the Stanley Cup.
Hurricanes: Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney shared the net for most of the season, but Mrazek emerged as Carolina's No. 1 heading into the playoffs by going 11-2-0 with a 1.68 GAA, .944 save percentage and two shutouts in 13 starts since Feb. 16. In 11 NHL playoff games (10 starts) with the Detroit Red Wings and the Philadelphia Flyers, Mrazek is 4-6 with a 1.98 GAA, .927 save percentage and three shutouts.
Numbers to know
Capitals: The Capitals had seven players with at least 20 goals: Ovechkin (51), T.J. Oshie (25), Jakub Vrana (24), Tom Wilson (22), Nicklas Backstrom (22), Brett Connolly (22) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (21). They were last in the NHL on face-offs, winning 45.7 percent, but the Hurricanes weren't a lot better at 49.0 percent (24th in NHL).
Hurricanes: They led the NHL in averaging 34.4 shots on goal per game while giving up 28.6 shots per game, which were the third fewest. Carolina's penalty kill was eighth at 81.6 percent, including 8-for-10 (80 percent) against the Capitals. Williams has 94 points (36 goals, 58 assists) in 140 playoff games.
Capitals: Defenseman Michal Kempny had surgery Tuesday to repair a torn hamstring in his left leg sustained against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 20. Washington estimated his recovery time at 4-6 months.
Hurricanes: Defenseman Calvin de Haan sustained an upper-body injury against the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 1 and missed Carolina's final three regular-season games. His status for the start of the playoffs is unknown.
They said it
"We're a hungry group in here. We're not satisfied. We want to move forward. That's what I think is a big key. But it's different when you know you have won it before." -- Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom
"We're a team that we're just going to try to outwork you. We have talent as well, but our first and foremost thought is we're going to outwork the team across from us." -- Hurricanes forward Jordan Staal
Will win if ...
Capitals: Kuznetsov is as dominant as he was when he led the NHL with 32 playoff points (12 goals, 20 assists) last season. He's had good stretches this season but was erratic and dropped from an NHL career high 83 points (27 goals, 56 assists) last season to 72 (21 goals, 51 assists). His performance is also a key to the Capitals' inconsistent power play, which finished at 20.8 percent, but went 3-for-25 (12 percent) over the final 10 games.
Hurricanes: Aho regains his goal scoring touch and they get enough depth scoring. Four forwards scored 20 goals: Aho (30), Williams (23), Teuvo Teravainen (21) and rookie Andrei Svechnikov (20). Carolina also will need Mrazek to maintain his late-season level of play against Washington's deep offensive attack.
How they look
Capitals projected lineup
Alex Ovechkin -- Evgeny Kuznetsov -- Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana -- Nicklas Backstrom -- T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin -- Lars Eller -- Brett Connolly
Andre Burakovsky -- Nic Dowd -- Chandler Stephenson
John Carlson -- Nick Jensen
Dmitry Orlov -- Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik -- Christian Djoos
Scratched: Jonas Siegenthaler, Travis Boyd, Dmitrij Jaskin
Hurricanes projected lineup
Nino Niederreiter -- Sebastian Aho -- Justin Williams
Micheal Ferland -- Jordan Staal --Teuvo Teravainen
Andrei Svechnikov -- Lucas Wallmark -- Jordan Martinook
Warren Foegele -- Greg McKegg -- Brock McGinn
Jaccob Slavin -- Dougie Hamilton
Brett Pesce -- Justin Faulk
Haydn Fleury -- Trevor van Riemsdyk
Scratched: Saku Maenalanen
Listen: NHL Fantasy on Ice playoff previews: Eastern Conference | Western Conference