As of the time of this writing, there is currently a very high chance that the Caps will face the white hot Panthers in the first round. And even if they don’t get the Panthers in the first round, they’d likely have to face them later on anyway, should they find a way to advance.
The Panthers are easily the best team in the league, currently sitting at a .750 Points% and averaging an unbelievable 4.14 Goals/Game. Even if they are shut out in their remaining two games (which, lets be real here not going to happen) they are guaranteed to become the only team in the salary cap era to average over 4 Goals/Game, and the first since the 95-96 Penguins.
Not only are they just that good, they’re coming in with a ton of momentum, winning 22 of 27 since the start of March, including a 13 game win streak.
Long story short, it’s going to be a tough sell for the Caps to pull it off. But for the sake of (possibly foolish) hope, let’s dive into what things will have gone the Caps way if they some how do beat the Panthers.
The Caps have the best road record in the league and that is going to have to persist if they want any chance of winning this thing. Obviously, the Panthers are going to have home ice advantage in the series, so if the Caps win it, they’ll by definition have to win at least 1 on the road. But realistically there’s no shot they win all 3 of their home games, so they’re going to have to at least split the games in Florida 2-2.
It’s not completely out of the realm of possibilities. The Caps “Best Road Record” also holds in games that end in regulation, as they won 71% of such road games, also best in the league. According to Natural Stat Trick, since March 1st, they have the 6th highest 5v5 Goals For/60, the 8th best Powerplay Goals/60, and the 3rd best Penalty Kill Goals Allowed on the road, so they are putting pucks where they should be when away from home.
The more advanced numbers don’t look quite as kindly on them, as they are mostly in the middle of the pack in terms of Expected Goals and other things like that, which is a spot of concern, but as it stands, they’ve been finding ways to win on the road.
Further aiding the Caps here is that the Panthers have just abysmal attendance. Excluding Canadian teams (who spent much of the year with Capacity restrictions) the Panthers have the lowest average attendance among playoff teams this year, with just over 14,000. Obviously, that number will go up a bit in the playoffs, but the Caps need to take advantage of one of the more subdued crowds in the league if they want to win this thing.
The Return of Playoff Bob
I’m gonna be honest with you, I always thought the idea that Bobrovsky was terrible in the playoffs was just some nonsense that really came down to a collapse of the team in front of him, but it kinda looks like a legit thing. During his career in the regular season, he averages 0.06 Goals Saved Above Expected/60, while in the playoffs that number drops to -0.70. (Data via Natural Stat Trick). In other words, during the playoffs, a little under once a game, Bobrovsky gives up a goal that he wouldn’t have during the regular season.
Obviously the Caps have their own goaltending situation to work out, but again, the point of this exercise is look at how a Caps series win would hypothetically happen if they pulled it off. The Caps have been able to abuse goalies this year (see their 7th best Shooting Percentage), and facing a goalie with a tendency to collapse in the playoffs could be something that guys like Ovi could take advantage of. (Look we’re assuming Ovi’s shoulder is healed in time for this, because if not, this will be a rough series).
In any event, I’m just hoping that the goalie the Caps face in the first round doesnt look like this guy:
Everything to the Outside
The Caps are solid defensively. It’s a staple of Laviolette’s system. In particular, keeping pucks away from the front of the net is something the Caps have done well this year.
If they want a shot at beating the Panthers, they are going to need to be their absolute best defensively in front of the net, especially in light of their goaltending situation. It seems like a general no brainer to say, but it’s especially imperative against Florida: No shots from the slot.
Based on Data from Natural Stat Trick, the Panthers average about .06 xG per unblocked shot attempt. On nights where they exceed that number they win about 81% of the time. On nights where they fall below that number they win a “mere” 59% of the time. Translated from numbers into English, if they are allowed to shoot from the slot, they are GOING to win. If you can keep them away from it, they are only PROBABLY going to win.
It’s going to be a tough challenge. The Caps are a very physical team, but they aren’t going to be able to bully the Panthers, who also rank highly relative to the league in terms of both hits given, and taken (according to Natural Stat Trick data). They’re going to need to clog passing lanes, block a ton of shots (they’re in the top half of the league there, but not elite), and be very communicative about defensive assignments near the net.
Finally, there are some things which don’t really need an elaboration on. Whoever gets the start in net is going to have to tighten up the soft goals at least a little bit. You cannot give the Panther’s electric powerplay time to cook, so discipline will be at a premium. Defensive zone turnovers can’t keep happening. Powerplay Zone Entries need to be cleaner. If the Caps want any shot at beating the Panthers, a lot of little things that we all know and love to talk about are going to have to improve.