By Bill Sands
After Monday night’s thrilling 6-3 win, the Washington Capitals have clinched their Stanley Cup Playoffs first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets and secured their spot in the second round.
The series got off to a rocky start for Washington as the Caps dropped the first two at home. The Caps stormed back to win four straight, inspired in part to a guarantee from the captain Alex Ovechkin.
For a team used to disappointing finishes and heartbreaking collapses, the sudden turnaround was as surprising as it was impressive. How exactly did the Caps pull off such a recovery? Let’s take a look at the stats:
Caps’ Dominance Down the Middle
Coming into the series, the Capitals had the clear advantage when it came to the center position. Nicklas Backstrom has been one of the best passers of the past decade, Evgeny Kuznetsov is one of the most skilled players in the league, and Jay Beagle is as good as anyone in the faceoff circle. The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, were decidedly weaker in this category. Alexander Wennberg and Pierre-Luc Dubois are promising youngsters, but still have a ways to go, while Brandon Dubinsky’s best days are behind him.
This mismatch was evident throughout the entire series, as Washington’s centers were instrumental in the victory. Backstrom had the OT winner in the Game 5 win that turned the series, Kuznetsov had eight points (including four in Game 4 alone), and even Beagle chipped in a couple of important points. Backstrom and Kuznetsov were right around 50 percent on face-offs, while Jay Beagle won 71 percent of his draws.
The Depth Chart
Instead of making a big splash at the trade deadline, Washington played it safe and picked up depth players instead of pricey superstars. Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek were added to the blue line and joined other offseason acquisitions such as Devante Smith-Pelley and Alex Chiasson.
As the series wore on, it became obvious that the Capitals had four lines that Head Coach Barry Trotz could confidently roll out. While John Tortorella leaned heavily on his star players, Trotz took a more balanced approach, and it paid off admirably as Columbus showed signs of fatigue late in games.
Capitals’ Clutch Scoring
One of the trademarks of Washington Capitals playoff hockey is a complete lack of timely goals. Whenever the Caps really need a big goal, the team goes cold and fails to convert. This time around, however, the Caps got big goals at just the right time. After falling behind 1-0 early in Game 5 on a shorthanded goal, Washington responded quickly with a Backstrom goal. In overtime and in danger of falling behind 3 games to none, Lars Eller got a lucky bounce to win the game and keep the team alive. When Columbus made it 3-2 in the third period last night, Smith-Pelley got one right back to quiet the crowd and restore the lead.
Success in the playoffs is dependent on when you score goals as much it is on how many you score. In the past four games, the Caps have been scoring timely goals, controlling the middle of the ice, and rolling four lines. They’ll need their A game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2, and – as always – it’s likely that the perennial series will come down to the wire.