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playoffs

Capitals vs. Blue Jackets playoff preview

Washington needs scoring depth; Columbus counting on Bobrovsky

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Capitals: 49-26-7, 105 points, first in Metropolitan

Blue Jackets: 45-30-7, 97 points, fourth in Metropolitan, first wild card

Season series:  WSH 3-1-0; CBJ 1-3-0

 

[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Blue Jackets series coverage]

 

The skinny

This will be the first time the Washington Capitals and the Columbus Blue Jackets will meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the teams know each other well from playing regularly in the Metropolitan Division.

The Capitals exceeded expectations by finishing in first place in the division for the third consecutive season despite losing key veterans in the offseason, including forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, and defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt (to name a few). After going 11-10-1 in their first 22 games, they went 16-3-2 in their next 21 to vault to the top of the division.

They also finished strong, going 12-3-0 in their final 15 games. The question remains whether they can carry that regular-season success into the playoffs. They have not advanced past the second round since making their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998.

"I hope [our] best hockey is going to be in the playoffs," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "We're going be in a better mode. The season starts over again. The team has to win four games and nobody is going to give you an easy one."

Video: The guys preview the Capitals-Blue Jackets series

The Capitals won their first three regular-season games against the Blue Jackets before losing 5-1 on Feb. 26. The Blue Jackets believe they are a better team now than the one that lost those first three games.

They strengthened their depth by adding defenseman Ian Cole and forwards Thomas Vanek and Mark Letestu before the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 26 and had to push down the stretch to qualify for the playoffs for the second consecutive season and fourth time in their 17-season history, going 13-2-2 in their final 17 games.

The next step for the Blue Jackets would be winning a playoff series for the first time. They were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in their first appearance in 2009 and lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in 2014 and in five games last season.

"Regular season, yeah, it's a grind and there's a lot of important games, but there's nothing like the high-stakes playoff game," Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. "That's how you become a player. That's how you find out exactly who you are and, in some instances probably, who you aren't."

 

Game breaker

Blue Jackets: Forward Artemi Panarin has provided the high-end offensive skill they were seeking when they acquired the 26-year-old from the Chicago Blackhawks on June 23, 2017. He scored 27 goals and set Blue Jackets records with 55 assists and 82 points, including 32 points in his past 19 games (10 goals, 22 assists).

Video: DET@CBJ: Panarin ties game, sets franchise record

Capitals: Forward Alex Ovechkin scored 49 goals to lead the League for the seventh time in his career (tying Bobby Hull for the most in NHL history). His 32 goals at even-strength were double his even-strength total from last season, and second most in the NHL behind Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (35).

 

X-factor

Blue Jackets: Rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois, who Columbus selected No. 3 in the 2016 NHL Draft, played a bigger role as the season went on, centering the top line and often playing against top lines. The 19-year-old handled everything thrown his way, finishing third on the team with 48 points (20 goals, 28 assists). Facing the pressures of playoff hockey for the first time is the next challenge.

Capitals: Forward Andre Burakovsky was projected to be at least a 20-goal scorer this season, but the 23-year-old struggled with injuries and inconsistency and finished with 12 in 56 games. Notoriously streaky, he scored three goals in the final six games and might be heating up at the right time.

Video: NJD@WSH: Burakovsky finds twine on Kempny's nice pass

 

Goaltending

Blue Jackets: Sergei Bobrovsky probably won't repeat as the Vezina Trophy winner, but the 29-year-old remained a difference maker, going 37-22-6 with a 2.42 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and five shutouts. Now he needs to figure out a way to do it in the playoffs, where he is 3-10 with a 3.63 GAA, .887 save percentage and no shutouts in 18 appearances.

Video: DET@CBJ: Bobrovsky makes clutch series of late saves

Capitals: Coach Barry Trotz has yet to reveal whether Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer will get the start in Game 1. Trotz may have tipped his hand by starting Grubauer with a chance to clinch the division title at Pittsburgh on April 1. Grubauer, 26, responded by making 36 saves in a 3-1 win. Since Nov. 1, Grubauer is second in NHL with a .932 save percentage and 2.06 GAA among goalies with at least 20 starts. Holtby, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner and a finalist last season, has played better since a rough stretch from Feb. 11-March 6 when he went 1-5-2 with a 4.82 GAA and .854 save percentage, but his 2.99 GAA and .907 save percentage for the season were the worst of his career.

 

Numbers to know

Blue Jackets: They ranked last in the NHL on the power play after their first 42 games at 11.4 percent (14-for-123), but were ninth in the League over their final 40 games at 24 percent (25-for-104) and sixth in the League at 26.3 percent (15-for-57) in their final 21 games. Columbus' 79 goals in 20 games after the trade deadline were the most in the League. Their penalty kill ranked 27th at 76.2 percent.

Capitals: They ranked last in the NHL in averaging 29.0 shots on goal per game, but were ninth with 256 goals thanks to a 10.76 shooting percentage that was second in the League behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (10.82 percent). The power play ranked seventh at 22.5 percent.

 

They said it

"It's going to be one of those series where we've got to be disciplined. Obviously, they've got a good power play, but it's going to be fun series. I like the way we're playing right now and the direction we're going heading into the playoffs." -- Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky

 

"I think people are going to run through it, and it's up to us to be mentally strong enough to say, 'Hey it is what it is' and it's going to be the same until we break through it." -- Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan on the team's past playoff failures

 

Will win if …

Blue Jackets: Bobrovsky puts his previous playoff struggles behind him and provides the world-class goaltending he does in the regular season. With their season-long struggles on the penalty kill, they'll need to avoid giving the Capitals' formidable power play too many chances.

Capitals: They get depth scoring. The Blue Jackets will focus on Ovechkin, whose 49 goals represented 19.1 percent of the Capitals' total of 256. Washington will need others to produce, particularly the second line of Burakovsky, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Defending the net front will also be a key.

Video: NJD@WSH: Backstrom finds twine on top-shelf wrister

 

How they look

 

Blue Jackets projected lineup

Artemi Panarin -- Pierre-Luc Dubois -- Cam Atkinson

Boone Jenner -- Alexander Wennberg -- Thomas Vanek

Oliver Bjorkstrand - Mark Letestu -- Josh Anderson

Sonny Milano -- Brandon Dubinsky -- Matt Calvert

Zach Werenski -- Seth Jones

Ian Cole -- David Savard

Ryan Murray -- Jack Johnson

Sergei Bobrovsky 

Joonas Korpisalo

Scratched: Scott Harrington, Taylor Chorney, Dean Kukan, Alex Broadhurst, Eric Robinson, Markus Hannikainen

Injured: Nick Foligno (lower body), Lukas Sedlak (upper body), Markus Nutivaara (upper body)

 

Capitals projected lineup

Alex Ovechkin -- Evgeny Kuznetsov -- Tom Wilson

Andre Burakovsky -- Nicklas Backstrom -- T.J. Oshie

Jakub Vrana -- Lars Eller -- Devante Smith-Pelly

Chandler Stephenson -- Jay Beagle -- Brett Connolly

Dmitry Orlov -- Matt Niskanen

Michal Kempny -- John Carlson

Brooks Orpik -- Jakub Jerabek

Philipp Grubauer

Braden Holtby

Scratched: Alex Chiasson, Shane Gersich, Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Brian Pinho, Travis Boyd

Injured: None

 

Status report

The Blue Jackets hope to get Foligno back for Game 1. He hasn't played since March 24 and was projected to miss 2-4 weeks. Sedlak and Nutivaara are listed as day-to-day. It's unclear what Foligno's return would mean for Dubinsky, who was a healthy scratch for two games before playing in the final seven and scoring a goal against the Nashville Predators on Saturday, his first goal and point in 24 games. … Beagle is expected to return after he missed the past three games with an upper-body injury … The Capitals top two lines are set. Trotz might rotate in players on the bottom two lines. Jerabek likely will play over Djoos in the third pair alongside Orpik.

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