If you paint a portrait of the first-round series pitting the Washington Capitals against the Carolina Hurricanes with recent history, it gives the matchup a certain David-versus-Goliath feel.
In one corner is an Eastern Conference juggernaut that has been a playoff fixture for much of the post-lockout era, in the other is a team that has finally, at long last, snapped a near decade-long playoff drought. On one side is a team with one of the greatest goal scorers in NHL history, on the other is a team that has largely scored by committee. One club has a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist and one-time winner between the pipes, the other is backstopped by a pair of keepers plucked off the scrap heap. And if historical context was all one had at their disposal when making playoff prognostications, Round 1 would be a wash for Washington. The Capitals’ play over the past decade-plus, not to mention their on-paper roster, makes them the clear-cut favorite.
Come Thursday night, though, recent history can be thrown out the window, particularly given that when you turn an eye to the play of the Hurricanes over the past few months, all indications are that there may be no team more well-positioned to deliver an upset special in the opening round than Carolina.
Record alone supports the theory that the Hurricanes have what it takes to give the Capitals all kinds of headaches in the first round, because while Washington was undoubtedly good in the back half of the campaign, sporting a 24-15-5 record in 44 games since Jan. 1, Carolina was among the class of the league. To wit, since New Year’s Day, the Hurricanes find themselves among the league’s elite, their 30-12-2 record and resulting 62 points putting them third in the league since Jan. 1, behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning and St. Louis Blues. But more than results, it’s the process that has led there that stands to make Carolina a handful.
What the Hurricanes’ greatest strength has been over the past several seasons, and the foundation upon which first-year bench boss Rod Brind’Amour has built success this campaign in the wake of former and now-Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters’ departure, is a possession-heavy game that can overwhelm the opposition. And how well has Carolina fared in major underlying statistics this season? Well, as of season’s end, the Hurricanes boasted the league’s second-best Corsi percentage (54.8), best shots percentage (54.5), third-best scoring chance percentage (54.2) and fourth-best high-danger chance percentage (54.7) at five-a-side. The result, too, was the NHL’s 12th-best 5-on-5 goals percentage (52) and top expected-goals percentage (55.4), with the former rate improving to 56.7 percent, the fifth-highest in the league, since the beginning of January.
Conversely, while by no means a poor possession team, Washington spent the majority of the campaign as a middle-of-the-pack outfit and it was much of the same in the back half of the season, a time when Carolina either improved upon or maintained its rates. What the numbers then tell us is that the odds are that the Hurricanes, not the defending champions, have a system in place that will see them control the run of play. That said, while Carolina bested Washington in Corsi, scoring chance and high-danger chance percentages during the four-game regular season set between the teams, the Capitals had a slightly higher shot percentage and outscored the Hurricanes significantly at five-a-side.
Even when taking that into account, though, this Carolina team still strikes one as a team that can frustrate and potentially upset Washington for reasons that go beyond new-age numbers. During the same four-month span – Jan. 1 through to the end of the regular season in April – in which the Hurricanes produced the better record, Carolina also held the edge in other statistical categories. For instance, the Hurricanes’ penalty kill, though not nearly league-best, operated at an 82 percent clip, a full percentage point better than that of the Capitals. And though the power play is regarded as one of Washington’s fortes, Carolina had the better conversion rate over the back half of the season at 21.7 percent, 3.4 percent clear of their first-round rivals’ percentage.
And while the Capitals’ top talents – Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Braden Holtby – eclipse the Hurricanes’ star power, it could be argued that Carolina comes into the playoffs with the better attack. Not only did the Hurricanes score 150 gaols after Jan. 1, a mere four shy of matching the Lightning’s output, Teuvo Teravainen’s 47 points are the most of any player on either team since the calendar turned, Sebastian Aho gives Carolina two 40-point players to Washington’s one (Ovechkin) and the Hurricanes had 13 players with at least 15 points, two more than the Capitals had in their arsenal. Taking that into account, it would appear the Hurricanes’ deep and quietly effective offense matches up well against the Capitals, particularly with Washington’s defense corps dinged up after Michal Kempny’s season-ending injury.
Speaking of D-corps, too, it’s on the blueline that Carolina might have its biggest and most obvious advantage. In Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Justin Faulk and Dougie Hamilton, the Hurricanes trot out one of the steadiest bluelines in the league, and it’s a group that will be ready, willing and able to log big minutes against a skilled Capitals top six. The job the top four, not to mention bottom-sixers Trevor van Riemsdyk and Haydn Fleury, has done in insulating Carolina’s crease has been excellent.
Which brings us to goaltending. Most would give the nod to the Capitals, but recent weeks have seen the perceived chasm between Holtby and Hurricanes’ starter Petr Mrazek shrink considerably. There is little doubt that historically Holtby has been the better keeper and he has the Stanley Cup ring to show for it, but Mrazek’s .922 save percentage since the beginning of January is significantly better than Holtby’s .910 SP. Even going on just the run into the post-season, Mrazek, with a .938 SP since the beginning of February and .942 SP since March 1, has been the better keeper. Holtby’s marks are .920 and .921, respectively. If history was cast aside and onlookers were asked to make a blind statistical choice, Mrazek would be the choice every time.
Getting past the defending Stanley Cup champions and stopping their pursuit of back-to-back crowns won’t be easy, and in order to earn a series victory over a veteran-laden and battle-tested Capitals, the Hurricanes might need to go the distance. But don’t go thinking Carolina doesn’t have what it takes to push Washington to the brink. For the back half of the season, the Hurricanes have been penning quite the story, and they have all the trappings of a team that is ready to write another chapter.