The Capitals and Blue Jackets are meeting in the postseason for the first time, but the division rivals are hardly strangers.
“We’ve definitely had some battles,” said Tom Wilson, who has racked up 62 penalty minutes in 21 games against Columbus, more time than he has against every other team but Philadelphia.
There have been plenty of opportunities for confrontations. Columbus has played Washington 18 times in the regular season over the last four seasons, Washington’s most frequent opponent over that stretch. The Capitals went 12-3-3 in those meetings.
“Games get nasty,” T.J. Oshie said. “Emotions stick around. And they’re a hard team to play against. They play hard. That demands a hard game from us.”
The Blue Jackets boast players with high-end skill in winger Artemi Panarin — who led the team in goals (27) and assists (55) in 81 games — and All-Star defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. But there is also a gritty, blue-collar element to their game that may wear on the Capitals.
“It’s a division rival so it will get heated pretty fast,” Capitals blue-liner Matt Niskanen said. “That’s just the way the first round is. It’s a bloodbath.”
Part of what makes the Blue Jackets such a challenge is their doggedness once they gain the offensive zone. They ranked fifth in the NHL with 33.7 shots-on-goal per game, and firing the initial shot is just the start.
“They’re a shoot-and-crash team,” said Niskanen. “They go to the net hard. A lot of net jam plays, hard wraparounds, traffic in front. I’d characterize them as really hungry around the net.”
The blue paint in front of the net has historically been a frequent meeting point for animosity and fisticuffs between these teams. The tradition isn’t likely to end in the playoffs.
“They like to put two of three guys at the net,” winger Devante Smith-Pelly said, “throw [the puck] there and converge there.”
That could pose a challenge for Philipp Grubauer, who was named the starting goalie over Braden Holtby on Tuesday. It could also mean a long series for Washington’s defensemen.
In the days leading up to Game 1 this week, the Capitals were reminded in video sessions of Columbus’ aggressive checking in the offensive zone.
“Sometimes it feels like they’re coming with five guys,” Niskanen said. “They’ll have two guys pressuring and both [defensemen] coming down each wall. There’s not much space out there.”
Breakouts and puck management will be critical for the Capitals from inside their own zone.
At the other end of the ice, the Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Wilson could be a handful, particularly with Wilson emerging as a top-six forward with 14 goals and 35 points, both career-highs.
The combination of Wilson’s size (6 feet 4, 220 pounds), speed and ability to create space for teammates makes him uniquely equipped for the rigors of playoff hockey and a potentially tough series against the Blue Jackets.
“He’s evolved,” coach Barry Trotz said of Wilson, noting that few players move from the fourth line to the first in just a few years. “You saw the growth in his offensive game and his confidence that he can handle pucks and make plays. He’s one of those all-in guys that can drive your group.”
Four players to watch in the series
A case can be made that — when healthy — the Capitals have one of the strongest quartets of centers in the postseason, and Kuznetsov is as important as any of them. He reached career highs this season with 27 goals and 83 points, playing some of his best hockey in the past month. Kuznetsov capped off the regular season with seven goals and 19 points in his last 11 games.
Coming off the best regular season of his career, the defenseman could be down to his final postseason run in Washington. A free-agent-to-be, Carlson had a personal-best 15 goals and led all NHL blue-liners with 68 points this season. He averaged a career-high 24:47 of ice time but showed few signs of fatigue, recording 15 points in the final 15 games as the Capitals went 12-3-0.
Few teams head into the postseason with a 19-year-old rookie as the No. 1 center, but the Blue Jackets are an exception. Dubois, the third overall pick in the 2016 draft, had 20 goals and 48 points in 82 games and was frequently used in a shutdown role as well. At 6 feet 3 and 207 pounds, Dubois is large and has a knack for getting under opponents’ skin.
The Capitals will see plenty of Jones, 23, and Zach Werenski, 20. The two don’t just make up the Blue Jackets’ top defensive pairing; they’re one of the NHL’s best tandems. Jones, the son of former Wizards forward Popeye Jones, is 6-4 and can be tough to handle when carrying the puck and joining the rush as a fourth attacker. He scored six of his 16 goals this season in his past 11 games.