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2018 NHL First-Round Playoff Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Washington Capitals

Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Washington Capitals: How They Win & How They Lose, 5 Things To Watch, THN Series Prediction and Playoff Depth Charts.

There were a lot of conspiracy theories floating around on the final weekend of the NHL regular season when the Columbus Blue Jackets iced a glorified AHL Cleveland Monsters lineup for their regular season finale against the Nashville Predators. Their 4-2 loss without the likes of Artemi Panarin, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson and Alex Wennberg allowed them to be leapfrogged by the Philadelphia Flyers and avoid the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. If that was indeed the Blue Jackets’ plan, they might want to be careful of what they wish. Nobody likes being treated like a patsy, even the playoff-fragile Washington Capitals, who enter this year’s post-season without the burden of expectation weighing on their shoulders.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS
How They Win:
The Capitals have an intimidating offense – and an accurate one. Despite being in the NHL’s top 10 in goals, they ranked last overall in shots per game. When you have a sniper like Alex Ovechkin, that can happen. Ovechkin has rebounded from his “worst” season ever – he still had 33 goals last year – and has been pumping in shots from his favorite spot above the circle once again. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom continue to be excellent secondary threats, and John Carlson led all NHL defensemen in scoring while setting career-highs in goals and points (in a contract year, no less). Elsewhere, forwards T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson and Lars Eller bring heavy games to the table – perfect for the playoffs.

How They Lose: Washington has been cursed by the post-season yips during the Ovechkin era, and the team needs to find some clutchness. GM Brian MacLellan admitted in the summer that last year was a kitchen-sink attempt at one last run but, even in failing there, the Caps have remained near the top of the standings. Star goalie Braden Holtby took a step back this season, perhaps because the defense in front of him was gutted in the off-season. As a result, the Caps will turn to Philipp Grubauer to start Game 1. Whatever the case, coach Barry Trotz’s Capitals have been mediocre in both goal prevention and penalty killing, two aspects of the game that tend to get magnified in the playoffs. Also troubling? Washington will be one of the worst possession teams in the East to qualify for the post-season.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
How They Win:
The Blue Jackets are a good defensive team with excellent goaltending and two young linchpin blueliners in Jones and Werenski. A well-conditioned group under coach John Tortorella, they often outscore opponents in the first period, much like they did last year. Jones was getting some Norris Trophy buzz thanks to his red-hot play down the stretch, while partner Werenski has been a possession beast. Adding Ian Cole at the deadline gave an already deep blueline a veteran with Stanley Cup rings, a nice addition to a roster that’s otherwise bereft of playoff success. In Sergei Bobrovsky, the Jackets have a game-changer goalie.

How They Lose: While Columbus gets off to a good start, it fades in games and hasn’t had very successful third periods in general. While players such as Panarin and Oliver Bjorkstrand have upped the skill quotient amongst the forwards, it has also made the team less burly, and the Jackets have been pushed around on occasion. Overall, the offense has been subpar, and the power play is one of the worst in the league. The penalty kill isn’t much better, but at least the Jackets don’t give up a lot of power plays. Columbus doesn’t have a dominating No. 1 center, though rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois may get there one day. And while Bobrovsky has been very solid in net, he appeared in more regular season games (65) than he ever has in the past. It’s only fair to ask whether his workload down the stretch could have a burnout effect in the playoffs.

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Five Things To Watch
1. The Caps’ crease.
Washington coach Trotz tapped Grubauer to start Game 1 over Holtby, who struggled through the second half of the season. Grubauer has played like a No. 1 goalie this season, but he’s basically a playoff novice. How will he respond to the pressure of the post-season?

2. Washington’s altered identity. This Capitals team does seem different, because it is. This group is not the high-risk, high-reward group that has failed in previous playoffs. The Capitals don’t score as much, nor do they shoot as much. They regularly get outshot as well. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for success, but they haven’t been able to get it done with offensive juggernauts in the past.

3. The kid in the middle of it all. The Blue Jackets will go into the playoffs with a 19-year-old rookie as their No. 1 center. Dubois was outstanding, particularly once he clicked with linemates Panarin and Atkinson, but asking a player that young to carry such a load will be a tall order.

4. The helpers. On the flip side, the Blue Jackets did pick up some very valuable depth at the trade deadline in defenseman Cole as well as Thomas Vanek and Mark Letestu up front. Letestu will provide them with a penalty-killing defensive presence with an ability to win faceoffs and Vanek has found some late-season chemistry with linemates Wennberg and Boone Jenner. He’s also playing for a contract.

5. Forget the regular season. The Blue Jackets team the Capitals will face in Round 1 is a much different team than the one that lost the first three games of the season series. Since March 4, the Blue Jackets have gone 13-2-2 with one of those losses coming in the final game of the season. After losing the first two games to Washington by one goal and the third by two – despite outshooting the Capitals 37-17 – the Blue Jackets whipped the Capitals 5-1 in late February.

THN Series Prediction: Blue Jackets in 7.

LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES

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