The Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes are set to meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Caps fan Tiger Bjornlund and Canes fan Shane Simmons discuss the series.
Tiger Bjornlund (lifelong Caps fan):Shane, as a Canes fan, how are you feeling about this matchup?
Shane Simmons (lifelong Canes fan): Going into Saturday’s games I desperately wanted the Rangers to beat the Penguins so the Canes would face the Islanders instead of the defending champs. I see this Washington team as one of the toughest and deepest teams in the NHL, with superstar talent unmatched by this Canes team. How do you see this young Canes core stacking up against the defending champs?
TB: I think the crazy matchup scenarios on the last day (Pittsburgh scoring with three minutes left to make the Canes get the Caps) worked in the Caps’ favor. By no means are the Canes a bad team and they’ll no doubt give the Caps a tough series, but they’re less scary than Columbus or Pittsburgh would’ve been.
I think you hit one of Carolina’s strengths and weaknesses: their youth. On the one hand, guys like Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are fantastic young players who had career years. On the other, they’ve never played NHL playoff games before. Playoff hockey is a different animal to the regular season, and they’ll face a battle-tested and vastly more experienced Capitals team. Canes captain (and former Cap) Justin Williams will have to impart some playoff wisdom.
SS:I agree. The biggest question for the Canes is not whether they are a good team, but whether players like Aho, Tuevo, Dougie, and Slavin will elevate their game to match the stage. There is no questioning the leadership core of the Canes, though. Justin Williams, as I’m sure you know, is not “Mr. Game 7” without merit; he scored the cup-sealing goal in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final with Carolina. Who was the captain of that team? Current head coach Rod Brind’Amour. If they can implement that mindset on a young group who have shown nothing but a sheer willingness to buy in, this series could be a nail-biter.
TB: Us Caps fans know all too well that Justin Williams’s playoff magic isn’t perfect. Two second round losses to Pittsburgh taught us that.
SS:I’d say three cups, a Conn Smythe, and the most Game 7 goals in modern NHL history make him a pretty reliable leader, but I understand that.
With the rising offensive talent and what I believe to be a clear blue-line advantage for the Hurricanes, what do you see as the biggest key for the Capitals to avoid an upset in the First Round?
TB: I think one key to any series is goaltending, and I see the Caps as having an advantage there. Braden Holtby is a Vezina- and Stanley Cup-winning goalie. Canes starter Petr Mrazek is…pretty good. Holtby has the third best playoff save percentage of all time and if he can recreate his play from last year’s run, the Caps are in good shape.
SS: I can’t argue Holtby has more experience, has better playoff numbers, or is the better goaltender overall, but if we are going on streakiness, Mrazek might be the hottest goaltender in the NHL. Mrazek is 13-4 (.938% 1.82 GAA) in 2019 and has been the biggest difference between this year and last years Canes team (along with Curtis McElhinney). Holtby, on the other hand, will need to flip a switch from the regular season to the playoffs just like he did last year in order to reach the potential he displayed en route to the Stanley Cup victory.
TB:But I think you’re right that the Canes have the better defensive corps. Beyond John Carlson, the Caps’ defensemen have been shaky this year, especially their shutdown pair of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov. Add to that the season-ending injury to Michal Kempny, Carlson’s normal partner, and the Caps are not in great shape on the back end.
SS: Maybe a slight bias involved, but I’d rate the Canes blue-line top to bottom better than any other in the NHL (minus Tampa). Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have been grossly undervalued for years, and Dougie Hamilton has turned into a top offensive defenseman. Their ability as a whole to add numbers on the rush and complement a fast young offensive core has taken this team to a new level this season.
TB:I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I get your point.
But just as the Canes have the superior defensive depth, the Caps’ forwards have more options. It’s not just having the greatest goal scorer of all time, who just so happens to have had one of his best seasons yet at age 33. The Caps have six 20-goal scorers other than Alex Ovechkin, who himself had 51 goals. They’ve got two elite playmakers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov and depth scoring with Brett Connolly and Lars Eller, as well as one of the elite offensive defensemen in the league in Carlson. They just have so many ways to score.
SS: My biggest worry going into this series is the glaring difference in game-changing talent, but I don’t think it discounts the Canes from mounting a serious upset watch. With the stellar defensive corps and a heating goalie in net, the Canes will look to out-youth this veteran Caps team. The Cane’s strength comes in the gritty areas and on the forecheck, leading the NHL in time of possession, scoring chances, and shot differential. This Canes team simply doesn’t get fatigued and will outwork almost any team on any night, it truly is a joy to watch.
TB: I think that speaks to another interesting aspect I wanted to bring up: the Canes’ glaring superiority in advanced analytics. The Canes are a darling of the advanced stats community with their excellent possession stats. The Caps are an average at best team in those same stats. The same is true among individuals: the Canes have 18 players above 50% Corsi for percentage, while the Caps have only eight. Does that make them an underrated team? Maybe, but possession stats aren’t everything and there’s a reason the Caps won a lot more games.
SS: As a nightly viewer of this team, it has almost been a foregone conclusion that the Canes will outplay their opponents on a nightly basis. I’d tell people that and they wouldn’t believe me, but if you look at stats it backs my side. The Canes will spend more time in the opposition end, but where the Canes slip so often is on the counter-attack and odd-man rushes the other way. We often get caught up in a situation where our goaltenders are forced to watch for several minutes, then make a key save without much to go off of. In years past, with goalies like Cam Ward and Eddie Lack, this would be detrimental to the squad, but Petr and Curty seem to make stellar saves night after night to avoid those collapses.
TB:Unfortunately (and, again, I say this from painful experience as a Caps fan) it doesn’t matter who outplays who in the playoffs: it matters who wins four games first. That’s probably unfair, but the Canes have yet to beat the Caps this year and they’ll obviously have to find a way to do that.
SS:And that’s been the real frustration every Canes fan has been dealing with for the past couple seasons.
What do you see as the biggest difference, if any, from the team last year to this current roster?
TB: It’s an incredibly similar team, especially personnel-wise, and the stats bear that out, as you can see here:
I think Todd Reirden, despite some Caps fans prematurely calling for his head in January, has done a nice job maintaining continuity. After all, you really should change as little as possible after winning a cup.
With that being said, there’s no guarantee that it will lead to another cup. There’s a lot of luck involved in the NHL playoffs and it would have to go the Caps’ way again this year. Also, Tampa is more dangerous than anybody in the league was last year, and it’ll be tough to get through them in the ECF (if we even make it that far).
If you had to put an honest percentage chance on the Canes winning the cup this year, what would it be?
SS:With Tampa looking like Goliath and a potential matchup against the Penguins even if we do pull off the upset, I’d have to stop at 7% to be realistic. In the next five years, however, this team will be a constant contender with the plethora of talent in the system and waiting to join. Luck has been foe #1 for each and every die-hard Canes fan for the full decade without a playoff berth. I think any team will need a good amount to surpass the Tampa Bay All-Stars this year.
TB:Alright, last thing I want to bring up before we offer our series predictions: special teams. The Caps’ have a stacked power play that has arguably underperformed this season at 20.8 percent effectiveness, but any time Ovi is in his office there’s potential for danger. Their penalty kill is bad when you look at the numbers (78.9%), but it’s been way better since the trade deadline acquisitions of Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen (84.6 percent since March 1). The Canes are pretty bad (17.8%) on the power play and pretty good (81.6%) on the penalty kill. Who has the edge here?
SS: The Canes powerplay is almost less efficient than their 5-on-5 play, it’s horrendous. The penalty kill, on the other hand, has been magnificent ever since it was dead last in the NHL during the first half of the season. Still, it would be foolish to say anything other than advantage Caps in the special teams department, they have the deadlier options.
TB: Let’s hear some predictions. I’ve got the Caps in six. I think they’re a better team and I don’t think the Canes are there yet. Why six games? The Caps find a way to make everything difficult even when it doesn’t have to be. They became the first team to ever win the Stanley Cup after trailing in each of their four series, and I don’t expect anything less this season. I think Carolina steals one in Washington, goes up 2–1 in game three, but the Caps battle back for a 4–2 series win. Shane?
SS:I adore this Hurricanes team, maybe more than any sports team in my lifetime; they play without limits, fight for each other, and have that “bunch of jerks” mentality that has brought joy back to hockey fans in the Raleigh-Durham area. I have to go Canes in six, and in order to do so, they have to start strong. The Canes find a way to steal game one in Washington, let one go in Carolina, and take the next two en route to a shocking upset of the defending champs. Remember, the Carolina Hurricanes have never been in the playoffs without at least reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.
TB: Shane, it’s been a pleasure. Good luck to the Canes, and above all, I hope to see a great series. Go Caps!
SS: Good luck to you as well, I look forward to a highly entertaining, fast-paced series!
-Tiger Bjornlund & Shane Simmons