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2019 NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes

The defending champion Capitals soundly won the season series against the Hurricanes, but Carolina has momentum behind it as it prepares for its first post-season in a decade. Washington's experience advantage could come to roost, however.
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Perfection. That is what the Capitals achieved against the Hurricanes through the four-game season series against the Hurricanes., and that includes two potential message-sending contests to close out March in which Washington downed Carolina twice in three days. That said, the Hurricanes are no pushovers. Since the beginning of January, only the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning have accumulated more points than Carolina, who Storm Surged their way into the post-season and enter their first playoff this decade with momentum behind them. One wonders how the battle of experience versus inexperience impacts the matchup, however, as the defending Stanley Cup champions square off against a team that has its share of playoff newbies.

Somehow, the defending champs look even more impressive this year. Maybe it’s because there is no longer a question of if the Capitals can win it all, or if they can beat Pittsburgh in a seven-game series – because both happened in the 2018 playoffs. So what is left is a well-balanced team with money players at every position, led by future Hall of Famer Alex Ovechkin.

Though he partied hard in the summer, Ovechkin won an eighth Rocket Richard Trophy, while a number of other forwards managed 20-goal campaigns. The power play ranked top-10 in the NHL.

On the back end, John Carlson played some of his best hockey ever and the defense did a good job at limiting shots. Adding Nick Jensen from Detroit at the deadline gave the unit some much-needed depth, and his steady hand will serve the team well as they run for back-to-back titles.

Though all the jokes about a “literal Stanley Cup hangover” didn’t end up coming true (the Caps started the season 5-3-2, including a 7-0 opening-night waxing of the Bruins), there is still a concern about just how physically taxing it can be to go through the NHL playoffs twice in a row. Does Washington have the horses to do it, especially with physical teams such as Columbus and the Islanders lurking in the division?

In net, Braden Holtby battled through his second straight subpar regular season, though he turned it on in the playoffs last year and guided his team to glory. Does that switch get flicked once again? If it doesn’t, can backup Pheonix Copley save the day?

Elsewhere, Washington has a pedestrian penalty-killing unit and does not do well on faceoffs. In fact, the Caps are the worst team in the league when it comes to draws, and every loss is magnified in the playoffs. Jay Beagle’s departure stings in that department.

X-Factor: No doubt Tom Wilson will play a big part of Washington’s post-season again, but which side of the line will he fall on? If the intimidating power forward spends his nights bashing opponents in the corners and scoring goals in front of the net, then the Caps will be tough to beat. If he’s suspended for yet another violent transgression, as he was in last year’s playoffs, then Washington is down a crucial player at the most inopportune of times. Given his reputation, Wilson will not get the benefit of the doubt in any sketchy interactions, so the right winger will have be on his (relatively) best behavior.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more modern team than the Hurricanes right now. Carolina is the best possession squad in the league; a burgeoning youngster, Sebastian Aho, paces the attack; and the defense is great at moving the puck and keeping it away from its own net.

Had it not been for questions in net and concussion woes for center Jordan Staal, the Hurricanes would’ve been even higher in the standings. As it is, the Canes trended in the right direction in the second half, and the combination of leadership from coach Rod Brind’Amour and captain Justin Williams – the latter of whom spearheaded the fan-favorite ‘Storm Surge’ post-game celebration craze – has this franchise in the best place since the Stanley Cup championship team from 2006.

Keeping in-demand power forward Micheal Ferland at the trade deadline sent a very positive message to the team, too, while Nino Niederreiter has been a revelation since coming over from Minnesota.

The Hurricanes have played four different netminders, and none has really seized the reins. The main options are Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, neither of whom has been able to establish himself as the No. 1. McElhinney has the best save percentage, but the 35-year-old backup is streaky, while Mrazek has made a career out of coming close but never quite putting it all together. A .934 save percentage after the all-star break suggested he was figuring things out. That was big news, as anything less than average goaltending in the playoffs spells doom for non-elite teams.

Offensively, the Hurricanes are just OK, and the power play is not intimidating. The squad also ranks in the bottom third of the NHL in faceoff percentage, which tends to mean more in the high-stakes post-season than it does in the first 82 games. Is this a good team, or does it just play in a mixed-up division?

X-Factor: With a breakout offensive campaign, converted winger Sebastian Aho has shown he can hang with some of the top offensive centers in the league. As a member of Finland’s gold-medal WJC team in 2016, he has proven himself to be great in pressure situations. But how will the understated pivot react to the NHL’s biggest stage? The last time he was in the playoffs was with Karpat Oulu of the Finnish Liiga. Will the smallish center thrive when the checking gets tighter? So far, Aho has made a living off proving the doubters wrong, and the NHL playoffs simply represent his next challenge to overcome.

Dec. 14, 2018 – WSH 6, CAR 5 (SO)
Dec. 27, 2018 – WSH 3, CAR 1
March 26, 2019 – WSH 4, CAR 1
March 28, 2019 – WSH 3, CAR 2

Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.:
 Hurricanes at Capitals
Saturday, April 13, 3 p.m.: Hurricanes at Capitals
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Capitals at Hurricanes
Thursday, April 18, 7 p.m.: Capitals at Hurricanes
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Hurricanes at Capitals
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Capitals at Hurricanes
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Hurricanes at Capitals
(All games listed in Eastern Time)


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