Game 1 in DC tonight, 6:3o
Game 2 in DC Saturday, 2pm
Game 3 in Carolina Monday, 6pm
Game 4 in Carolina Thursday, 6pm
There’s a chance that being everyone’s bandwagon team, the Carolina Hurricanes could get kind of annoying pretty soon. I’ll never find them that way, because of Our Dear Sweet Boy, but you can see where plenty will. And rarely, outside of Vegas last year, does the hot new thing that everyone likes with all the fun stuff ever go very far. And the Caps are just the the kind of tried and trusted yet boring-ass team that snuffs this kind of thing out with no mirth whatsoever. The Authority always wins Let’s see if we can find a way to an upset.
Goalies: The only longer shot to leading a revival than Jordan Binnington had to be Curtis McElhinney, who is 35 and already proven to be an NHL journeyman. Then he and Petr Mrazek put up a ridiculous February, the Canes got hot, and here we are. But McElhinney has only been so-so since, and was actually pretty bad in March as the Canes made the playoff chase harder than it needed to be. So another unlikely revival came to save the day, as Mrazek has been on fire for the whole of the spring, and he has taken the job and will start tonight. But it’s still Petr Mrazek, who was basically woeful for three years before this. The Canes certainly limit what their goalies have to do, which is good, because other than recency you’d be awfully afraid of Mrazek having to do that much.
Meanwhile, Braden Holtby basically did what he did last year, which is kind of just be ok. His numbers are pretty much on-line with what he did last season, and then of course he turned it on in the playoffs, took his job back after a game and a half, and ended covered in beer. That’s probably been his plan all along. So while he might not looked all that good in the season, his playoff record is what it is. He’ll take some beating, because history says he’s going to turn back to Vezina-level now.
Defense: You won’t find a better defense than Carolina’s, and it’s getting Calvin de Haan back. It includes the best d-man who’s never considered among the top tier but the metrics say he is in Dougie Hamilton. It’s got another premier puck-mover in Justin Faulk. It’s got two guys who dominated the dungeon shifts before Dougie’s arrival in Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin.
And then there’s Maude (TVR).
It can do anything, it does everything, and is the main reason why the Canes remain one of the more dominant even-strength possession teams around. When it comes to possession and expected-goals, the Canes are the best.
The Caps will be hamstrung by Michal Kempny being injured, which is a sentence that also hurts to write. Still. He provided a platform for John Carlson to pull something of a cowboy act, and now that appears to fall to Nick Jensen, who was a Red Wing d-man so you know he sucks. Orlov and Niskanen still do the mine-sweeping here, and if they don’t get the pop they got from Carlson this spring as they did last (and all season) then they lack a little punch from the back. Or if they’re getting buried because Kempny isn’t around to spring Carlson. And there’s still a belief that Brooks Orpik will cause damage at some point. Against a team loaded with fast, nippy forwards would seem the prime time for that.
Forwards: Once again, you’ve got a classic tale of Star Power vs. The Collective. Which is what last year’s Final was supposedly. How’d that go?
It’s something of a disservice to Sebastien Aho, who is a genuine star or will be one day very soon. But he is not Nicklas Backstrom, at least not yet even though he outscored him this year. And there’s our Darling Finnish Prince, but of course he is not Alex Ovechkin. Justin Williams is a fine leader and gritty gutty guy, but the Caps answer with TJ Oshie.
The Canes do have some depth, as Nino Neiderreiter showed up, was nearly a point-per-game, and was the perfect Cane which everyone except for Minnesota predicted. McGinn, Foegle, Martinook have chipped in with big goals as the Canes locked down a playoff spot. Still, Jordan Staal is a #3 center miscast as a #2 here, and you can see where this could be a problem.
Because not only do the Caps have stars, not only do they have pedigree, but they also have depth. And where the Canes are trying to convince you Staal can score, the Caps have Kuznetsov who does. The Caps boast seven 20-goal scorers. The Canes have four. Eller and Burakovsky are always lurking down at the bottom of the lineup, along with Brett Connolly. Carl Hagelin has been a playoff hero before. and he’s down there too.
Prediction: This is something of a classic matchup, where one team’s strength goes right up against another’s. The Canes have the deepest defense in the East, possibly in the entire playoffs. The Caps have forwards for days. So it would be easy to think this is where the series is decided.
Except the Caps aren’t weak defensively. Or more to the point, they have good players on defense. But this year, they’ve given up more chances than before, and have one of the worst expected-goals against in the league. They were seriously only a little better than the Hawks in that category. But the Caps do what they always do, which is outshoot their problems, with a league-leading 10.0 SH% at evens. Do the Canes have enough scoring to make that weaker defensive play hurt against Washington while surviving the firing squad at the other end? With Petr Mrazek? You can almost make the case. Just not quite.
Caps in seven.