The first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs will see two Metropolitan Division giants face off in the series between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets. These two teams have had very different seasons in 2017-18 with the Capitals virtually being a playoff lock all year and the Blue Jackets having to jump multiple hurdles throughout the season.
Columbus Blue Jackets vs Washington Capitals First Round Preview
The Capitals have experienced yet another solid regular season in 2017-18. They have won the Metropolitan Division for the third season in a row. Despite their success in the regular season, however, they have not been able to translate it into the postseason.
The Blue Jackets are a much different story. Finishing fourth in the division due to a very hot finish to the season has paid off in not having another playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, the Capitals are not a team to be taken lightly, even if they have had a hard time translating their successes into the postseason.
Regardless of who prevails, there are a few notes as to why this will be a great series to watch.
Shutting Down the Russians
One of the tallest tasks for the Blue Jackets will be to contain the scoring of Alex Ovechkin. While this may seem like an impossible task, keeping him within reason is a must for the Jackets. They have one of the best goalies in the league in Sergei Bobrovsky and a defensive corps that is as solid as any. They have to use these to their advantage and shut down The Russian Machine as best they can.
Outside of the 49 goals that Ovechkin scored in 2017-18 there were no other 30-plus goal scorers for the Capitals. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov were the only other two to break the 20-goal mark, with 21 and 27 respectively. Slowing down Ovechkin and throwing the weight of scoring on the shoulders of the other Capitals players will make for a huge step for the Jackets in winning their first ever playoff series.
On the other end, the Capitals will have a Russian of their own to deal with in Artemi Panarin. While he is not the prolific goal scorer of Ovechkin, much of the Columbus offense goes through number nine. He will undeniably be the emphasis of many strategic talks for Washington leading up to the series, and rightly so.
While both Washington and Columbus will be hoping to slow down the respective Russian phenoms, it goes without saying that even when slowed down they will both still produce at an elite level.
This is one of the points that almost every series preview talks about. However, it is both an important and interesting talking point leading up to this series. Washington is going into the series starting a goalie they did not expect, and Columbus will hope for a different result from last years Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Washington confirmed that they will start Philipp Grubauer in Game One. This, while surprising to those not paying attention, is a decision made in their best interest. Braden Holtby has had an off year, to say the least. He posted a 2.99 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage. Both numbers are career lows for the goaltender.
Grubauer, on the other hand, has started to fulfil the potential that many have said he has. He posted a save percentage above .920 for the fourth time in his career, with a .923 over 35 games this season. When you add that to his 2.35 goals-against-average and his 15-10-3 record on the season, you start to understand why the Capitals decided to go with him.
Blue Jackets Goaltending
The Blue Jackets are a much different story. Despite having one of the top five, arguably top three, goaltenders in the NHL, there are questions to be answered heading into the series. Even though he has two Vezina Trophies to his name and another strong season in the books, Bobrovsky has struggled to translate his regular season play in the postseason.
It goes without saying that if he cannot do this again, the Blue Jackets are going to find it very difficult, if not impossible, to beat the Metropolitan Division-winning Capitals.
Another name that needs to be talked about is that of Joonas Korpisalo. Much like Grubauer, many experts have spoken about the high ceiling that Korpisalo has. Unlike Grubauer, Korpisalo has yet to reach his potential in any way. If Columbus cannot ride Bobrovsky through the entire series, Korpisalo is going to have to improve on his below average season and snag a game for the Jackets if they hope to advance.
This is going to be an important note for both the Capitals and the Blue Jackets. Neither team can rely solely on their stars if they want to survive this series. Depth scoring is going to be an important tool in moving on.
Both organizations have had difficulty finding depth scoring during the 2017-18 season, but the Blue Jackets may have the edge in this area since acquiring Thomas Vanek during the NHL Trade Deadline.
Since joining Columbus, Vanek has found a comfortable spot in the lineup playing with Boone Jenner and Alexander Wennberg, two promising young players who had struggled up until his arrival. While the two of them did not have final numbers that would flatter them, their play with Vanek down the stretch was pivotal to their playoff push.
The Capitals are going to need someone, really anyone, outside of their top forward line to produce during the playoffs. As stated before, they rely heavily on their top forward line and one defenseman in John Carlson for their scoring. Players like the underperforming T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky are going to need to pitch in a bit if the Capitals hope to get the playoff monkey off their back.
This is a series that could easily go the distance if all of the above notes go the right way. If Bobrovsky can perform in the playoffs, the Blue Jackets might very well win their first ever playoff series.
When taking into account that depth scoring favours Columbus, and Bobrovsky is performing well again, it is hard to go against them. However, some would think it to be foolish to sleep on the Capitals with the Russian Machine at the helm. None the less, depth scoring and goaltending will dominate the storyline of this series.
Columbus wins in six games.