Hard hits, more offensive zone time and a full 60 minutes. Those are the fundamentals, the type of hockey straight from the textbook that the Washington Capitals want to bring to the table against the Florida Panthers. However, in a high-stakes first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, that can be easier said than done.
Over the last four games, the Capitals have become more accustomed to the Panthers, for better or for worse. With the series all tied up 2-2 heading back to Sunrise, Washington is eager to get a lot going and turn the tide against Florida with a commanding series lead up for grabs.
“It’s the same as any playoffs series. I think there may be a little feeling out process the first couple of games then you start to see the same matchups, you start to play against the same players, you get frustrated at those same players and it grows the rivalry a little bit more each game,” Conor Sheary said of the matchup. “Like I said, it’s down to a three-game series. I’m sure it’ll be an intense game tonight and hopefully, we can come out with a win.”
Taking that into account, Washington is turning its focus to the details and “little things” with the series even and a best-of-3 marking the difference between a trip to the round two or the fourth consecutive first-round exit. Those details, of course, include physicality, offense and shutting down the high-flying Panthers.
Through four games in this series, each team has combined for a whopping total of 393 hits. The Capitals own 203 of those checks, with Florida dishing the other 190. Big hits have proven to be difference makers in this series, whether it leads to a scoring chance or a change in momentum. And ultimately, that physicality and grit can not only help set the tone but slow down teams and make things more challenging out on the ice.
“Again, I think that’s just part of the playoffs. Maybe in the regular season you won’t finish a couple checks. You won’t take the extra stride to finish a check. But in these series, it’s about wearing the other team down,” Sheary explained. “A guy like me isn’t gonna blow anyone through the board. But if I can get in someone’s way, make it harder for them to get up the ice, I think that’s important, and all those little things throughout the playoffs.”
Martin Fehervary agreed but said that it’s also important not to get lost in trying to make big hits and plays for the sake of making hits. Instead, he emphasized the need for attention to detail and structure, as well as discipline and strong play at both ends of the ice.
“All of these teams playing really physical this time of year and it helps a lot. You don’t want to play against the team that hitting a lot, so we trying to that,” Fehervary said, adding, “We just focus on ourselves, we know what to do. We just need to be really detailed in our zone in the defensive zone and play a little bit more in the offensive zone. Trying to make some plays and score some goals.”
“They have some high offensive talent that when they get the puck in our zone sometimes, it’s hard to get away from them. We won’t worry too much about the zone time, more the chances we’re giving up. But if we’re keeping them on the perimeter, that’s a good thing,” Sheary added. it’s when they get inside and get scoring opportunities, that’s tough.”
At the other end of the ice, the Capitals also have plenty of work to do when it comes to the forecheck. Washington didn’t get the best of the Panthers back in Game 4 with regard to scoring opportunities, shots or zone time, as Florida doubled up 32-16 in shots on goal and limited the Capitals’ offense.
“We got to get onto our forecheck and increase our O-zone time because I don’t think it’s been high enough the last few games… when you can establish a forecheck and wear teams down I think that’s when you can be most effective,” Sheary said.
So, going back to Sunrise, head coach Peter Laviolette pulled some guys to the side and chatted about fundamentals and keys to the game heading into Wednesday’s tilt. He said that there are a lot of things that the team has done well, citing the defensive play, good work on the penalty kill and strong starts, but also said he wants to see improvement from Game 4, as well as more pressure and opportunity on offense.
“What we try to focus on is defense, chances, zone 1s and quality chances, we’re working hard to try and limit those. I’d like to be better in the area that has to do with possession and the puck being on our stick more,” he added. “…It’s [about] battle, it’s attitude, it’s structure, it’s possession.”
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Washington and Florida face off at FLA Live Arena at 7:30 p.m. ET for Game 5. With a lot on the line, Sheary said that the experienced group, which is considered an “underdog” against the Presidents’ Trophy winner, plans to take things day-by-day as the series turns into a best-of-3.
“Yeah I mean, it’s just a confidence within the team. I think we’ve obviously proved that we can play with this team, we can play in their building, we can win in their building,” Sheary said. “Like you said we’ve been a good road team all year. So I think if we put a full team effort for 60 minutes or if it takes OT, I think we like our chances. That just has to be the mindset.”