Carolina Hurricanes (4) at Washington Capitals (1)
Regular Season Record: Carolina 46-29-7 (99 points) Washington 48-26-8 (104 points)
Head to Head Record: Washington swept season series 4-0
The defending champions head into the playoffs hot and ready to defend last year’s Stanley Cup title. Alex Ovechkin scored 50 goals reaching a plateau only the greatest in the game achieve. Washington possesses enough offensive firepower to escape a rugged Eastern Conference. Last year, they overcame the Tampa Bay Lightning, on the way to winning their first Cup in a dramatic series. Of course, the Caps are going to have to get by a “Bunch of Jerks” in the first round.
The Canes clinched their first playoff appearance in a decade as the number one wild card in the East. Carolina accomplished the task in entertaining fashion while perfecting their Storm Surge celebrations. The moniker of “Bunch of Jerks” came from Don Cherry who did not share the enthusiasm of the Hurricanes fans over the celebrations. Jerks they may be, but Carolina is a fun club to watch. The Canes are second in the league in Corsi For (basically every time the puck heads toward the goal counts as Corsi For) bringing a lot of excitement to the ice. Carolina enjoys spraying the puck at the net, topping the NHL in shots going up against Washington a team with a reputation of less shots and more accuracy.
Alex Ovechkin won his first Stanley Cup last year and intends to hoist the trophy again this year. Ovechkin turned in his typical season ranking in the top of the league in goals with 51 putting himself into the Most Valuable Player conversation. Nicklas Backstrom finished second on the team in points, scoring 22 goals and claiming 52 assists. Evgeny Kuznetsov eclipsed the 70-point mark notching 21 goals and 51 assists, even though he missed six games. Washington employs 4 others on their front line who scored 20 goal this season. T.J Oshie (25), Jakub Vrana (24), Brett Connolly (22), and Tom Wilson (22) can each pick up the slack if Ovechkin is being slowed down.
Carolina employed a spray and pray method on the offensive side. The Canes lack a true finishing threat in the mold of Ovechkin, but 13 skaters nailed double figures in goals. Sebastian Aho leads the way on Carolina’s front line with 30 goals and 53 assists. He is the biggest key to a Canes upset victory. I believe Aho skates 22-25 minutes a night trying to put the puck in the net and keep Carolina close. The biggest steal of the year might be the Hurricanes acquisition of Nino Niederreiter. The veteran right winger rejuvenated his career with the Canes hitting 53 points for the year. Justin Williams, 23 goals, and Teuvo Tervainen may be located close to the net, knocking in rebounds off the Caps goalie for a score.
The Capitals were led on defense by John Carlson’s 13 goals and 57 assists, making him another of Washington’s 70 point scorers. Washington counts on three pairings of defensemen to keep shots taken at their netminders to a minimum. The Capitals wear out opponents playing physical defense with Matt Niskanen knocking the opposition off stride. Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik complement Carlson and Niskanen along the blue line.
Brendan Holtby can be streaky at times, but provides veteran leadership for the Caps in the crease. His goals saved above average were slightly above even at 1.76. Holtby’s save percentage ended at 91.1% with his high danger save % checking in at 82.4%. The numbers may show Holtby in the middle of the pack for netminders this year, but he elevated his game as the season was in the final quarter. He was more than able to backstop the Caps to the Cup last year, but needs to be at his best against a Canes team that loves to fire away.
No different than the front line, the back line likes to shoot the puck towards the net. Dougie Hamilton leads the group with 18 goals followed by Justin Faulk who watched the red lamp go off 11 times. Carolina plays the puck up ice quickly- Hamilton and Faulk each place near the top of the team in assists to go along with their goals. Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce both had over 20 assists, spending roughly 18 minutes a night on the ice. Calvin de Haan keeps the other team honest and was credited with 187 hits on the year.
Carolina employed two full time goaltenders this season in Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek. Each of them had successful years, with McElhinney allowing 2.39 goals against and Mrazek at 2.58. McElhinney can be beat up close displaying a below 80% high danger save percentage and -6.13 HDGSAA. Mrazek was slightly better with 81.9% of shots saved and .04 high danger goals saved against average. These numbers could spell trouble against a Capitals team that is known for fewer, but more accurate shooting. McElhinney started the preponderance of games early in the year, but Mrazek has been in form at the close of the season. Neither goalie provides an edge to the Canes in the series or are better than Holtby. I would expect Mrazek to start in net, but with a quick hook to McElhinney if ineffective.
The series is between two teams with opposite philosophies. The Hurricanes did well in my model this year because they are analytical darlings. The playoff previews are an attempt to give basic familiarity to the teams and players without doing a deep dive into Corsi, Fenwick and other more advanced analytics. The Capitals are not favorites in the new analytical world of the NHL. They shot less and have negative Corsi and Fenwick For percentages on the season which may throw off some modeling numbers. Carolina is an entertaining, young team which I am rooting for to get past the defending Stanley Cup champions. However- the Capitals have the home ice advantage, pinpoint shooters and a small edge in the crease. This series is a coin flip and Carolina may be a better betting value, but I believe the Capitals win in 7.
Current Odds as of 4/10: