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NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Capitals vs. Hurricanes

Oct 5, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Carolina Hurricanes goalie Anton Khudobin (31) makes a save on Washington Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky in the third period at Verizon Center. The Capitals won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After a long and strenuous journey, the Capitals finally broke through, got over the hump, and won the Stanley Cup last season. Years and years of regular season success and division titles had ended in crushing defeats to rivals like the Penguins and Rangers. However, last year they rewrote all the narratives and exercised the demons with a second-round victory over the Penguins, and from there wouldn’t be denied their chance to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup. Now, hot off their fourth straight division crown, they look to defend their title.

Meanwhile, the Hurricanes ended the longest playoff drought in the NHL this season, surging their way up the standings with a spectacular second half of the season. With markedly improved goaltending, a solid blue line, and some good young talent up front, the Canes are looking to once again embark on a deep playoff run and win their first Cup since 2006.

In this first playoff series between two old Southeastern Division foes, can the Capitals withstand the Canes and continue their title defense? Or will the battering of the Canes prove too much for the Caps to handle?

OFFENSE

The Capitals boast a very strong and balanced group up front, scoring 3.34 goals per game, good for 5th in the league. Among their group, they boast a league-leading 7 players with 20 or more goals, led by the greatest goal scorer in today’s game in Alex Ovechkin (with yet another Rocket Richard Trophy to his name). Behind him, a talented group consisting of names like Nick Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, TJ Oshie, and the controversial Tom Wilson can all produce at a high level. The balance in scoring will be hard for any opposing team to stop.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are not necessarily known as being an offensive juggernaut. They score a pedestrian 2.96 goals per game (16th in the league), and only have four players with 40 or more points on the year. However, they do have a potent first line in Nino Niederreiter, Sebastian Aho, and Justin Williams, plus Teuvo Teravainen has produced points behind them. However, scoring can be scarce at times, especially from the bottom six, which must chip in for the Canes to keep up with Washington’s firepower.

Advantage: Capitals

DEFENSE

The Capitals are more average on the back end, allowing 3.02 goals per game, 17th in the league. While John Carlson is a stud and the leader of that blue line, and they have some depth with guys like Matt Niskanen and Dimitri Orlov, the loss of Michal Kempny is huge. He was a major contributor to the top four, and their depth will really be tested with him missing the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the blue line is probably the biggest strength of the Canes, only allowing a stingy 2.70 goals per game, 8th in the league. Their top four of Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, and Brett Pesce is one the most well-rounded in hockey, more than capable of shutting down the opposition and even chipping in at the other end. I’ll give the edge to the more complete and deep blue line in Carolina.

Advantage: Hurricanes

GOALTENDING

Braden Holtby of the Capitals has not really put up gaudy regular season stats for the last couple of seasons, leading to him sitting on the bench at the beginning of last year’s playoffs. Once he went on for Grubauer, however, he was lights out, putting the team on his back and leading them to their first Cup. This year, Holtby had another rather pedestrian campaign, only posting a 2.82 goals against average and a .911 save percentage. However, if he can activate playoff mode, he is more than capable of leading the Caps back on another deep run.

A big reason for the Canes’ return to the postseason came with markedly improved goaltending. Curtis McElhinney began the year as a waiver-wire pickup; he proved to be a quality backup, even being the starter at times. The starter going into these playoffs, however, will be Petr Mrazek, probably playing the best hockey of his career. He posted a 2.39 GAA and a .914 save percentage this year; however, can he keep this up as he heads into the playoffs? I’ll lean towards the goalie that just won a Cup.

Advantage: Capitals

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Capitals have a good (but not elite) power play at 20.8%, ranking 12th in the league. However, their penalty killing is a bit lacking, only at 78.9%, 24th in the league and second-worst among playoff teams (Colorado is slightly worse). Their combined percentage then comes to 99.7%, very close to the average benchmark of 100%.

The Hurricanes have struggled on the power play, only converting 17.8% (20th in the league). However, their PK is much better than the Capitals’, ranking 8th in the league at 81.6%. That brings their combined special teams to 99.3%, making their special teams numbers very similar overall to Washington’s. When the teams are comparable, I’ll defer to the better PP, and give an oh so slight edge to the Capitals.

Advantage: Capitals

COACHING

This is the first season of being a head coach for both Washington’s Todd Rierden and Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour. While Rierden was an assistant with the team during the Capitals’ Cup run last year, the job that Brind’Amour has done in completely turning around the Hurricanes and guiding them back to the postseason for the first time in a decade has been incredible. Therefore, I’m going to give the edge to the Canes here.

Advantage: Hurricanes

SEASON SERIES

Dec 14-Capitals 6, Hurricanes 5 (SO) in Carolina

Dec 27-Capitals 3, Hurricanes 1 in Washington

Mar 26-Capitals 4, Hurricanes 1 in Washington

Mar 28-Capitals 3, Hurricanes 2 in Carolina

Capitals: 4-0 in season series, 2-0 at home, 2-0 at Carolina

Hurricanes: 0-3-1 in season series, 0-1-1 at home, 0-2 at Washington

Advantage: Capitals

COMING INTO THE PLAYOFFS…

The Capitals followed a 7 game winning streak up by finishing 7-5-1 in their last 12 games. They lost their last game to the Islanders, which was meaningless for the Caps.

The Hurricanes finished 10-5 down the stretch, however went 0-2 to the Capitals in this stretch. They won 4 of their last 5, including each of their last 3.

Advantage: Hurricanes

OTHER FACTORS

The last three appearances of the Hurricanes in the postseason yielded deep playoff runs. 2002 saw a run to the Cup Finals, 2006 saw the Canes winning their first and only Cup in franchise history, and 2009 saw another improbable run to the conference finals. However, the Capitals have made at least the second round in their last 4 appearances, including of course last year’s Cup run. Will the Hurricanes build on their reputation of making improbable deep playoff runs, or will the Capitals maintain their consistency?

PREDICTION

The Hurricanes will enter the playoffs with a lot of enthusiasm, which will carry them to winning one of the first two games in Washington (the third straight year Washington will have surrendered a home playoff game in the first round). However, the Capitals should stave off the initial surge, and eventually prove too much for the upstart Canes to handle. The Cup defense continues for another round, while the Canes will have to fight another year.

Prediction: Capitals in 6

GAME ONE: Thurs, 7:30pm, USA (nat’l), NBCSWA (Caps), FS CAR (Canes)

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