The Washington Capitals will open the Stanley Cup playoffs Thursday against the Columbus Blue Jackets with much less hype than the previous two years, when Washington, then a title favorite, twice failed to advance past the second round. Here are a few pressing story lines facing these Capitals, who relish the chance to fly under the radar for a change:
Can Alex Ovechkin continue his tear? Ovechkin gave Washington fans a memorable regular season finale in Saturday’s 5-3 win over New Jersey, scoring two goals to finish with 49. It has a been a decorated year for Ovechkin, who in the past month alone scored his 600th goal and played in his 1,000th game. How his jaw-dropping production at 32 translates to the postseason will again be a crucial component of Washington’s run. Ovechkin has a talented and intriguing sidekick in Evgeny Kuznetsov (83 points), but Ovechkin will face the brunt of the questions about whether he can exorcise the Capitals’ playoff demons, should they reach the second round.
Philipp Grubauer or Braden Holtby?: Coach Barry Trotz split his goaltenders for the final two games of the regular season and has remained mum on who will start Game 1. While Holtby struggled during the second half of the season, Grubauer has been one of the most productive goaltenders in the league since late November, posting a .937 save percentage over his past 27 outings. Holtby was pulled by Trotz in Washington’s 5-1 loss to Columbus when the teams last met in late February, but in the other three games with the Blue Jackets this season, he posted three wins and a .937 save percentage.
Will there be secondary scoring?: For as much as a potential playoff run is pinned on the offensive production of Ovechkin, he’ll need help from the second, third and fourth lines. The Capitals haven’t received a ton of scoring from their bottom six as Trotz continued to tinker with lineups late in the season. A boost could come from Lars Eller on the third line. In his ninth season, Eller had a career year, posting a career-high 18 goals and 20 assists in 81 games. Washington could also receive a lift from Jakub Vrana, who finished with 27 points in 73 appearances.
Has the defense stabilized?: After losing Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt during the offseason, Washington had piecemeal defensive lineups — which included relying on rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey for much of the season – and has struggled to find consistency on the back end. The unit saw an uptick after the trade-deadline arrivals of Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek, with Washington allowing nearly two shots fewer per game after their additions.
Which rookies will step up?: Washington has a stable of rookies who flashed their potential throughout the late stages of the season. Vrana had 13 goals. Chandler Stephenson, 23, was a versatile player whom Trotz has likened to a “wrench” that can fix a number of issues at different positions. Travis Boyd and Shane Gersich were promising in the bottom-six shuffle after joining the NHL roster. If Washington can get a contribution from this group, it could make a pivotal difference.
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