(1A) Florida Panthers vs. (WC2) Washington Capitals
Panthers: 58-18-6, 122 points
Capitals: 44-26-12, 100 points
season-series: FLA 2-1-0; WSH 1-1-1
Match 1: Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; ESPN2, BSFL, NBCSWA, SN360, TVAS)
All eyes will be on the Florida Panthers as they start the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Washington Capitals.
The Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s regular-season points leader for the first time in their history after rolling to team records in wins (58) and points (122). Now they’ll try to become the first No. 1 overall seed to also win the Stanley Cup since the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013. But first, the Panthers must start by winning a playoff series for the first time since their run to the 1996 Stanley Final Cup.
“We still have our eyes on a bigger prize and this group has been really good at just kind of keeping it day to day,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said. “We’re going to need that going in because we’ll be a target. Our group has got some veteran guys who have been there… and they understand that it’s a new season starting [Tuesday].”
With much of the core remaining from their 2018 Stanley Cup championship team, the Capitals also are approaching the playoff opener as the start of a new season. Washington finished the regular season with four straight losses (0-3-1), playing the final three without captain alex ovechkinwhose status is uncertain for Game 1 because of an upper-body injury.
But Washington points to a 16-5-2 surge from March 1 to April 23 as evidence it’s ready for the playoffs.
“I think over the last month or so we’ve played some of our best hockey all year,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “So, with that said, I think we’re a confident group. We know what we have in there and what we’re capable of and it’s go-time.”
This will be the first playoff series between the Panthers and the Capitals, and they haven’t played each other since Florida rallied for a 5-4 victory on Nov. 30.
But Washington is aware of the test it faces against Florida, which scored a League-high 337 goals and features four players who scored at least 30 goals in forwards Alexander Barkov (39), Sam Reinhart (33), Anthony Duclair (31) and Jonathan Huberdeau (30). Sam Bennett finished was close behind with 28 goals.
“Extremely fast team, a lot of power up front, a lot of scoring capability, so it’s going to be fun,” Capitals forward Lars Eller said. “They were the best team in the League this year, so a huge challenge for us. But I think our team can play a lot of (different) games. Whatever game is presented, we can adjust, and we can be successful.”
The Panthers are confident they can handle whatever style the Capitals want to play too.
“We’ve been prepared for anybody and everybody, so we know that it’s not going to be easy,” forward Ryan Lomber said. “We’re going to have to go through the best teams in the League. So we’re worried about ourselves. We’re worried about playing our best hockey.”
Panthers: Huberdeau established himself as an elite offensive player during the regular season. I have tied Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames for second in the League with an NHL career-high 115 points and led with 85 assists (also an NHL career high) in 80 games. He has scored 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in 16 career playoff games, including 10 points (two goals, six assists) in six games during a first-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last season.
Capitals: Ovechkin was fourth in the NHL with 50 goals in 77 regular-season games, setting the League record shared by Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy with his ninth 50-goal season. The 36-year-old forward’s 40 assists were his most since he had 53 in 2010-11 and his 90 points since he scored 109 in 2009-10. Ovechkin has never missed a playoff game in his 17-season NHL career and leads active players in goals with 71 in 141 postseason games.
Panthers: Sergei Bobrovsky Andrey Vasilevsky of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the NHL lead in wins (39-7-3) while posting a 2.67 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and three shutouts. But the two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy awarded to the NHL’s top goalie (2012-13, 2016-17 as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets) is 13-23 with a 3.24 GAA and .899 save percentage in 41 playoff games and has won one postseason series. Backup Spencer Knight (19-9-3, 2.79 GAA, .908 save percentage, two shutouts in his first full NHL season) started the final two games of Florida’s first-round loss to Tampa Bay in 2021.
Capitals: Coach Peter Laviolette has yet to pick a Game 1 starter between Ilya Samsonov (23-12-5, 3.02 GAA, .896 save percentage, three shutouts) and Vitek Vanecek (20-12-6, 2.67 GAA, .908 save percentage, four shutouts), who have been inconsistent. Vanecek started the playoff opener against the Boston Bruins as a rookie last season but injured his hamstring in the first period and missed the remainder of the series. Samsonov was 0-3 with a 2.99 GAA and .899 save percentage in that series.
numbers to know
Panthers: Florida led the NHL with 4.11 goals per game. The Panthers also led the League with 29 comeback wins, including nine after they trailed by more than one goal.
Capitals: Washington’s .683 points percentage on the road (25-10-6) led the NHL and its 10 regulation road losses were the fewest. The Capitals went 1-for-23 on the power play over their final six games.
Panthers: claude-giroux was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers prior to the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline to add to Florida’s offensive depth and bring playoff experience, which will be invaluable for a number of players who have never won a postseason series. Although the forward has never won the Stanley Cup, he reached the 2010 Stanley Cup Final with Philadelphia and he’s scored 73 points (25 goals, 48 assists) in 85 playoff games.
Capitals: forward Anthony Manta missed nearly four months while recovering from shoulder surgery, but has played well since returning March 3, scoring 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in 27 games. Mantha’s scoring from the third line could be a difference-maker for Washington in the playoffs.
they said it
“When we had new guys coming in here at the deadline too, we just kept going. Usually, you don’t see that when you add new pieces to teams. It usually takes a little while to get used to each other, but they fit right in as players and as the person they are off the ice, too. I think that’s a big part of our success this year.” — Panthers forward Patric Hornqvist
“We played [the Panthers] well. They were good games. They went back and forth, and we had our moments when I thought we were really good. They had their moments where they were really good, but they were some good games.” — Capitals coach Peter Laviolette
Will win if…
Panthers: Their defense and Bobrovsky play well enough not to offset their advantage in scoring depth. The possibility of getting defenseman Aaron Eckblad back from a lower-body injury that has kept him out since March 18 will also help.
Capitals: Ovechkin is healthy enough to be effective, they play within their defensive structure and are able to wear down the Panthers with their forecheck and physical game. But none of that will matter if Washington’s goalie allows a questionable goal or two a game.
how they look
Panthers projected lineup
Mason Marching — Aleksander Barkov — Claude Giroux
Jonathan Huberdeau–Sam Bennett–Anthony Duclair
Carter Verhaeghe — Anton Lundell –Sam Reinhart
Ryan Lomberg — Eetu Luostarinen –Patric Hornqvist
MacKenzie Weegar –Aaron Ekblad
Gustav Forsling — Radko Gudas
Ben Chiarot — Brandon Montur
Scratched: Lucas Carlson, petteri lindbohm, Noël Acciari, Joe Thornton, Robert Hagg, Maxim Mamin, Cole Schwindt, Alexis Heponiemi, matt kiersted, jonas johansson
Injured: Markus Nutivaara (undisclosed)
Capitals projected line-up
Alex Ovechkin — Yevgeny Kuznetsov — Tom Wilson
marcus johansson — Nicklas Backstrom — conor sheary
Anthony Mantha — Lars Eller — TJ Oshie
Johan Larson — Nic Dowd — Garnet Hathaway
Martin Fehervary –John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov — Nick Jensen
Trevor van Riemsdyk — Justin Schultz
Scratched: Connor McMichael, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Michael Kempny, Matt Irwin.
Injured: Carl Hagelin (left eye), Joe Snively (left wrist)