Tampa Bay has scored one goal in 101:35 of EV minutes through two games versus Washington. The Capitals have seven EV goals. They dominated the Lightning in both games in Tampa Bay. It really wasn’t close, and outside of two powerplay goals 3:14 apart in the first period (on two questionable calls), Tampa has looked completely overwhelmed thus far.
Are the Capitals much different from previous years, or have they simply learned from previous heartbreak?
1.They aren’t much different personnel wise. The new players up front are 22-year-old Jakub Vrana (13th pick in 2014), Chandler Stephenson (77th pick, 2012), Devante Smith-Pelley (25 years old and on his fourth NHL team) and journeyman Alex Chiasson. They replaced Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Daniel Winnik. The Caps played eleven forwards in six of their 13 playoff games last year. On defence, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt are gone, while Michal Kempny and Christian Djoos have skated along with the returning four defenders in John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitri Orlov and Brooks Orpik.
Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer are in goal. Grubauer lost the first two games of the playoffs, both in OT, and since then Holtby has come in and he is 10-2 in 12 starts. Holtby has a .926sv%, which is better than his .909sv% from last year, but in the four years previous he posted .942sv%, .944sv%, .922sv% and .935sv%. He has been great in the past and they couldn’t get out of the second round.
2. The Capitals didn’t make any major changes. The essentially replaced Alzner with Kempny, while their bottom six has some new faces. Their core is still the same with Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, TJ Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Carlson, Niskanen and Holtby. I’m sure we could come up with different “explanations”, but I think right now the Capitals are simply playing great and their best players are leading the way.
3. The Capitals haven’t missed a beat without Nicklas Backstrom, and that illustrates how good they are right now. Backstrom has averaged the most minutes, 22:02/game, of any Capitals forward, but in the past three games without him the Caps are 3-0. They have outscored the Penguins and Lightning 12-5 in those games and outshot them 99-78.
4. The one big difference has been the play of Kuznetsov. He was playing great prior to Backstrom’s injury, but he has six points in three games without Backstrom. He wasn’t going to replace Backstrom — they are on different lines — but Kuznetsov scored the OT winner to eliminate Pittsburgh and scored a huge goal late in the second period last night. He has 19 points in 14 games this year. In his previous three playoff seasons (38 games), he had 19 points. He has been great.
5. And every team that goes on a good Stanley Cup playoff run has one role player really step up. Lars Eller has been that guy for the Capitals. He has 5-6-11 so far. He had no goals in 13 playoff games last year. In 2015 he had 1-2-3 in 12 games with the Habs, but in 2014 he played like he is now when he scored 5-8-13 in 17 games for Montreal. He has shown in spurts he can be a really effective NHL player, but he did have a career-high 38 points this regular season. I wonder if maybe he has learned how to be more consistent.
6. Were the Capitals a bad team in previous years? Did their stars not perform? I’d say no to both, but this year they have three forwards producing big numbers, and the rest of their team is playing very well at 5×5. Last year in the playoffs only two forwards, TJ Oshie and Andre Burakovsky, outscored the opposition when they were on the ice at even strength. The rest of the team was either even in GF/GA or were outscored. The Capitals still have a very good power play, but they aren’t relying on it as much to win games. They have scored the most EV goals in the playoffs thus far, 31, and if that continues they should make their first Finals appearance since 1998. They just look like a team who believes more than they have in the past. I know some don’t like hearing that, but watch how confident they are making plays with the puck. Many feel Tampa is the higher skilled team, yet they are making more bad decisions with the puck.
7. In their 43rd season, the Capitals are two games away from making their second Finals appearance. If the Winnipeg Jets win their series we will see two organizations with no Stanley Cups meeting in the Final for the first time since 1996, when Colorado defeated Florida.
8. In October, I was wrong picking the Oilers to make the playoffs. I was wrong picking Vegas to miss them. I was wrong to pick LA in the first round and San Jose in the second round, but if you need proof even a blind squirrel can find an acorn, my prediction in early April might come true. I wrote:
“The Jets will represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals. They will face Washington. Yes, two long suffering fan bases will be in the Final. One will be elated, while the other will be disappointed again. Sadly, the Canadian curse in the Finals won’t end. Capitals win their first Stanley Cup.”
We will see if it plays out.
9. Congrats to the Swift Current Broncos on winning the WHL. They ended the “Saskatchewan” drought. None of the five Saskatchewan-based teams had won the Ed Chynoweth Cup since the Broncos won in 1993. Swift Current was the last Saskatchewan team to win the Memorial Cup in 1989. Prince Albert won it in 1985 and Regina won it in 1974.
The Broncos have been one of the best junior teams in the country all season. Full marks for their victory, and I firmly believe the difference between them and the Moose Jaw Warriors this year, was the Broncos players loved their coach, Manny Vivieros more. He related to them better. Oilers draft pick, Stuart Skinner, who signed his entry level contract with the Edmonton Oilers today, said this about Vivieros.
“I can’t say enough about him. He has changed my game. He brings so much positivity and wisdom. It is amazing. He has been life changing, honestly,” said Skinner. Vivieros challenges his players, but he is extremely positive in how he goes about it, and I firmly believe his players were more comfortable and confident than Warriors were under their head coach Tim Hunter. The Broncos beat them in seven games in each of the past two seasons.
10. I’m curious to see what the Oilers do with Skinner and Dylan Wells. Both have one year remaining of junior eligibility. They have six goalies under contract: Cam Talbot, Mikko Koskinen, Al Montoya, Shane Starrett, Skinner and Wells. I presume they won’t resign pending UFA, Laurent Brossoit, but will qualify RFA Nick Ellis so that gives them seven goalies. I could see one of Skinner or Wells being the starter in the ECHL and the other going back to junior. You rarely want two rookie goalies on your ECHL team, especially when both are 20 years old (Skinner turns 20 on November 1st), so I’d guess one of them goes back to junior unless they make another goalie move. I’d lean towards it being Wells, considering Skinner has produced better stats in junior.
11. Kevin Woodley from In Goal Magazine feels there could be a market for Al Montoya, if the Oilers explore a trade. “We often see the backup carousel, and if a team doesn’t land a veteran I could see them interested in Montoya,” said Woodley. Would the Oilers be better off keeping Montoya and hope he clears waivers, instead of trading him? If Koskinen doesn’t play well, they have no other option. I think their best strategy will be to keep Montoya and hope he clears waivers.