The Washington Capitals saw another early exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers. However, the Cats’ run wouldn’t last much longer after they suffered a second-round sweep at the hands of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
For Florida, the heavy Cup favorites looked like a team in control. The Bolts, while still the defending champs, were without Brayden Point and appeared out of gas after a rough-and-tumble series that went the distance vs. the high-flying Maple Leafs. And with Carter Verhaeghe on a roll and Aaron Ekblad and Ben Chiarot able to play in Round 2, the team had the opportunity to capitalize. However, that didn’t happen.
Washington saw Florida’s power play, which went 0-for-18 against the Capitals in the six-game first-round series, continue to struggle, but it did finally break through in the second round. Still, the Panthers went 1-for-31 on the man advantage in the postseason.
Something Tampa did that Washington couldn’t, though, was shut down the top stars and avoid mistakes. The Lightning didn’t allow the Cats’ high-powered offense to take control at any point, and they also took good care of the puck, won battles in the neutral zone and stopped Florida on the transition. Because of this, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Claude Giroux, Sam Bennett and Ekblad couldn’t get anything going. Ultimately, the team had just three goals total in the second round.
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While the underdog Capitals did get to six games against the Panthers, which arguably wore them down a bit, and did a decent job of battling for pucks. However, they were unable to hold onto leads and gave up several opportunities to win. Whether that was stepping off the gas, making mistakes or losing battles, it proved costly for Washington, as Florida got to the right areas and pounced on its chances.
“When we got the lead, we don’t have to give them empty spots, give them the chance,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Especially when they put the puck deep. We have to play much harder in the D-zone. Again, mistakes from everybody. Not want to blame someone, it’s us. All 20 guys who are out there have to be more responsible… We have it, but we just blow it away… it’s on everybody. Kind of fucked up situation.”
Also, something notable to consider: both teams’ netminding situation. While goaltending wasn’t the one reason the Capitals lost the series, it was definitely a big reason that Tampa swept the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Andrei Vasilevskiy was in top form and proved clutch once again to send Tampa to its third Eastern Conference Final in four years.
Despite questions regarding Washington’s netminders, the team elected to stick with Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek going into the playoffs, especially after Vanecek appeared to take control of the crease in March. However, both fell into inconsistencies down the stretch, and more question marks resulted in the team not deciding on a starter until the start of the postseason when Vanecek was given the nod.
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After a strong Game 1 for Vanecek, things went south in a 5-1 loss in Game 2. After that, Samsonov took over the crease for the final four starts of the series. While he proved to come up with quite a few big saves, there were some goals he would like back. The play in front of both netminders could have been better as well.
Looking at both series, there are some takeaways to consider and also important lessons to note when it comes to saying, “coulda, shoulda, woulda.”
With a definitive No. 1 goalie, shutdown play at both ends and a full 60-minute effort, Tampa played the right way and executed its game plan to the number. The Bolts know what it takes to win, and did just that against Florida, who may have had the best regular season in franchise history but still has a lot to learn when it comes to playoff hockey. And now, looking at the Battle of Florida, the Capitals have some takeaways to ponder as well.