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The Washington Capitals find themselves embracing the unfamiliar role of the underdog as they prepare for the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After dominating the NHL’s Metropolitan Division over the last decade, the Capitals battled through inconsistency, adversity, and injuries during the 2021-22 regular season to finish with a 44-26-12 record, good for the second wild card spot and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference. As a result, they’re in for a heavyweight opening round series against the top-seeded Florida Panthers. Game 1 will take place Tuesday night at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida.
Florida’s arsenal features plenty of star power, including Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Sergei Bobrovsky, and deadline acquisition Claude Giroux. The Panthers’ depth and ability at both ends of the ice rocketed them to the top of the league, and the 2022 Presidents’ Trophy winners are clear favorites this postseason.
“We’ve played teams like that in the past,” Capitals winger Tom Wilson says of the matchup. “When we were going at it with Pittsburgh all the time, they were a team that was fairly similar. In their prime, they were run and gun … This is obviously a new Panther team, they’re playing really well, they’re the best in the league right now.”
Washington will be relying on its own star power and hoping that Alex Ovechkin, who was injured in the Capitals’ final regular-season home game, will be fully healthy and ready to go for Game 1. Ovechkin, 36, is set to make his 14th career postseason appearance and finished the season with a team-leading 50 goals and 90 points in what was one of the best seasons of his 17-year career.
“It’s going to be totally different games than the regular season,” Ovechkin says. “Obviously, they have a very solid group of guys, best team in the regular season. But in the playoffs, it’s going to be different. It’s going to be a different mindset, it’s going to be different speed, it’s going to be a different battle level.”
Beyond Ovechkin, the team will need secondary scoring from its middle six and contributions from the blue line, and special teams will have to step up to shut down Florida. The Capitals’ power play has struggled this season, finishing with the league’s 10th-worst success rate (18.8). Meanwhile, the Panthers’ power play is the fifth-best at 24.4 percent.
Head coach Peter Laviolette believes there isn’t a specific formula or guideline to follow when it comes to success.
“I don’t think it’s about going out and just being physical,” Laviolette says. “In a playoff series, you’ll find physicality, you’ll find defense. We’re going to need to create good offense, special teams is important. There’s a lot of things that factor into it more than just saying, ‘OK, this is the key. If we can do this.’ We’re going to have to do a lot of things against a team that had a really successful year.”
To have a chance against the Panthers, the Caps will need their defense and goaltenders to step up. Ilya Samsonov and Vítek Vaněček are the team’s tandem going into the postseason, but as of now, neither has set themselves apart as the team’s definitive No. 1 starter. With that being the case, Laviolette isn’t revealing too much about his plans between the pipes, but still hopes to see someone take the opportunity and run with it.
“We used both goaltenders, were able to win a lot of hockey games, have a successful season—somewhat successful—with a 100 points utilizing both goalies,” Laviolette says.
The Panthers led the league in goals per game (4.11) this season and are able to do a lot of damage, while also luring teams into a “run-and-gun” style of play. As a result, the Capitals want to remain tight on defense and avoid playing too loose.
“You can get into the track meet a little bit at times, but we’re going to want to stay structured. We’re going to want to stay focused,” Wilson explains. “Playoff hockey is a little different, it’s usually tight-knit, work for your offense, play hard defense.”
Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov says that speed and pace will be integral to the team’s success in this series and that experience will pay off big time. In the end, the team isn’t focused on seeding or favorites. Instead, the Capitals are hoping to prove that anything can happen, and they are ready to make the most of their opportunity against a top contender.
“Nobody believe us, you know, that we are going to beat them, whole team have enough experience and we know how to win,” Orlov says. “It’s important and we’re going to be focused on our game.”