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NHL playoffs preview: Capitals walk through gates of hell to meet Panthers

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Unfortunate crossover situations have materialized ahead of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in previous seasons, but few can compare to this one. The Washington Capitals will not receive the customary Round 1 softball (or at least something manageable in the strike zone) after accruing triple digits in total points, and instead exit the Metropolitan Division to meet the NHL's most explosive offensive team in a quarter century: the Presidents' Trophy-winning Florida Panthers.

It's like walking through the gates of hell, and even if the Capitals managed to avoid being burnt to a crisp, it's either the Lightning or Maple Leafs next.

Florida, though, should have the Capitals' undivided attention at the moment. Almost in haste, and even outwardly haphazardly, Bill Zito has built something undeniably special in Sunrise around three franchise-changing draft picks chosen in the top three in early 2010s. In a situation we thought may never materialize, Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, and Jonathan Huberdeau are suddenly spoiled with complementary talent after having starved for so long.

A relative rookie in this game, Zito is almost singlehandedly responsible for providing those riches since taking the GM position less than 20 months ago, having acquired the likes of Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, Patric Hornqvist, Sam Bennett, Brandon Montour and Sam Reinhart, in addition to Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot at the trade deadline, in a swift, extreme, and even somewhat shockingly meteoric rise.

There were expectations for this team entering the season, but Florida has exceeded even the most unrealistic ones set out. With weapons galore, the Panthers are the highest-scoring team in the history of the salary cap and finished with more goals than any team in more than a quarter century. They build leads, they erase leads, and sometimes they cough them up behind a mercurial goaltending tandem of Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight.

But on balance, the Panthers have largely overwhelmed the opposition all season with an attack-focused brand and behind two forwards having seasons worthy of Hart Trophy consideration. Huberdeau is the more likely finalist after setting a record for points by a left winger, but Barkov's abbreviated season has been arguably even more dominant.

The Capitals' reward for their impressive season is a playoff matchup with the NHL-best Panthers. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
The Capitals' reward for their impressive season is a playoff matchup with the NHL-best Panthers. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Conversely, Washington is sliding away from what has been — just not at the speed some might have expected after crossing the 100-point threshold for the sixth straight full 82-game season and the ninth time in Alexander Ovechkin's career. The Capitals placed impressive bookends on the season, starting and finishing on legitimate six-week tears.

Where the major difference lies between Washington and Florida is how the Capitals performed through the meat of the schedule. In some ways bolstered by a hot start and the diminishing returns from non-playoff teams, there were prolonged stretches for the Capitals where they failed to perform at a level demonstrably better than the middling teams in an NHL ecosystem that has suddenly had the parity sucked from it. Washington managed just 21 wins from the 41 games — or half season — played through the middle portion of the year.

But with the Capitals, too, the talent is undeniable. They have a number of players with game-breaking or game-changing ability, including Ovechkin, who once again hit 50 goals this season; Tom Wilson, who can terrorize the best of teams with his physicality; Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has enjoyed a career resurgence; and John Carlson, who can match just about any team's No. 1 defenseman.

What have you done for me lately?

If the Panthers still had skeptics in the stretch run of the season, they've done their best to eliminate lingering doubt. The hottest team in the league since the trade deadline, the Panthers caught and since pulled away from the Colorado Avalanche in the race for the season-long hardware without the injured Ekblad. They had 15 wins in 17 games exiting the trade deadline, collecting points at an 88 percent clip to secure the Presidents' Trophy. They relied on the shootout for just one of those victories.

The underlying numbers are, rather predictably, outstanding over that stretch as the Panthers solidified the most prolific scoring season in the modern era. The production, the possession, the results were all spectacular. It's been so superb that it's completely distracted from the fact that Florida's netminding as performed at a sub-par level since the deadline.

Washington, too, has been fairly solid over the last few weeks, threatening Boston and Pittsburgh for improved positioning in the bracket only to come up just short. The Caps had just a single regular loss over a two-week stretch in April where they averaged 4.5 goals per game.

The Panthers will win if...

Florida's pace should be the difference in the series. This is a team that just doesn't offer opponents momentary reprieve as it rolls talented and physical forward lines over the boards in an aggressive, run-up-the-score style. Attack as they have, and the series should belong to the Panthers.

The Capitals will win if...

Bobrovsky falls apart in Florida's net.

Series hero

It's been Huberdeau commanding most of the attention throughout his pursuit of the Art Ross Trophy, but the captain's influence should come to the fore for the Panthers in this series. With Kuznetsov and Backstrom on the opposite side, Barkov will not only have to be on his toes defensively but should also have a chance to shine from an offensive perspective. He scored twice versus the Capitals in his only head-to-head matchup this season. It seems like an advantageous spot for the star centre, who just nearly scored 40 goals despite missing a solid chunk of the season with injury.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

Defenseman Gustav Forsling has quietly been an immensely important player for the Panthers. Mostly overlooked while Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar logged top-four minutes through the bulk of the season, Forsling has had to take on an enhanced role over the last few weeks since Ekblad went down with injury. He was dominant in those starts, scoring seven goals over a 10-game stretch and running up a 21-12 on-ice goal differential at even strength.

Prediction

Panthers in five.

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