It’s getting spicy between the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The series heads to the District of Columbia tied 1-1 after a pair of intense matches, with everything to play for in Game 3.
Florida, the reigning Presidents’ Trophy champions, opened the series by laying an egg on home ice, losing 4-2 in a contest defined by an Alex Ovechkin poke check in the neutral zone. Two days later, the Panthers struck back. Andrew Brunette’s squad won 5-1 on Thursday [5 May] night, capitalising on a shaky netminding performance from Washington’s Vitek Vanecek to level the series.
On Saturday [7 May], the Caps and Cats will lock horns again – this time at Capital One Arena. Game 3 of the series is an 18:00 GMT face-off on NHL TV, making it the perfect watch for hockey fans in the UK.
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of puck drop:
Tale of the Tape: Panthers versus Capitals
Florida finished the regular-season with a 58-18-6 record, topping the Eastern Conference to earn the right to face off against a wildcard club in round one of the playoffs. They scored at will on route to the Presidents’ Trophy title, ending the campaign with four 30-goal-scorers on their roster.
Jonathan Huberdeau was the Panthers’ top point-getter during the regular-season: he notched 115 points (30 goals, 85 assists) in 80 appearances on Florida’s second line. Aleksander Barkov also put up serious numbers for the Miami-based club, registering 88 points (39 goals, 49 assists) in 67 outings.
Florida struggled in Game 1 of the series, with goals from Sam Bennett and deadline acquisition Claude Giroux unable to lift them to victory. They bounced back in the rematch at FLA Live Arena: storming to a 5-1 win thanks to strikes from Aaron Ekblad, Carter Verhaeghe, Anton Lundell, Mason Marchment, and Barkov.
Peter Laviolette’s Capitals, on the other hand, endured an up and down regular-season, ending the campaign with a 44-26-12 record as the Eastern Conference’s second wildcard team.
That isn’t to say 2021-22 wasn’t without landmark moments for the Capitals: Ovechkin struck the ninth 50-goal season of his career to continue his chase of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record. In defence, John Carlson slipped under the radar with an impressive season – hitting 71 points (17 goals, 54 assists) in 78 games.
Washington opened the postseason with an incredible road performance, scoring thrice in the final period to stun the Panthers in Game 1. However, they fell back down to earth on Thursday and enter the weekend with a goalie controversy on their hands.
Goaltending Will Define Game 3 Between Capitals, Panthers
Heading into the playoffs, the biggest question hanging over the Capitals related to the crease: “Which goalie, Ilya Samsonov or Vanecek, gives them the best chance of upsetting Florida?”
After a surprise victory in Game 1, the answer seemed to be Vanecek. He performed admirably in the face of a potent Panthers attack, stopping 30 of the 32 shots he faced.
“He was really good,” Laviolette said of the 26-year-old’s Game 1 performance. “They caught one off the post and then another one, there’s things that we could’ve done better in front of him with regard to that. But I thought he played a solid game.”
Vanecek’s form didn’t carry into Game 2: he was chased from the crease within 40 minutes of puck drop, allowing five goals on 15 shots.
“We did just about everything right (to start the game) and we were down 2-0,” Laviolette said after Game 2. “Then, even at the start of the second period, I thought that we were doing the right things. Then they got a third and a fourth, and our game unravelled from there.”
The timing and type of goals Vanecek conceded on Thursday night are concerning for Washington. He was beaten five-hole just 27 seconds after Nicklas Backstrom reduced the Caps’ deficit to one and conceded a long-distance wrist shot in the final frame.
Samsonov entered the game at the start of period three and stopped every shot (17) he faced, although many of them came from the perimeter.
The situation in Florida’s crease isn’t exactly settled either. Sergei Bobrovsky hasn’t played up to his $10,000,000/year contract for a while, with young gun Spencer Knight closing in on the stater’s job in Miami.
Washington Will (Try To) Pushback in Game 3
Game 2 ended farcically for the Capitals, who were outshot 17-3 in a miserable final frame for the travelling side.
“It was one of those games where the score goes to three and then four, and it wasn’t a reflection, for me, of the game,” Laviolette said. “But after that, I don’t like how we played when it was 4-1. That’s the problem that I have with the game.”
Tom Wilson’s absence certainly played a role, he exited Game 1 after the first period and is out with a lower-body injury. Even so, Washington’s performance on Thursday fell short of their usual standings. Ovechkin, though, isn’t too worried heading into Game 3.
Series tied heading home. pic.twitter.com/rk4cIsuFxA
— NBC Sports Capitals (@NBCSCapitals) May 6, 2022
“Shit happens,” he explained. “We move on. It’s 1-1, it’s a good scenario for us.
We’ll find out if the Capitals are in a good spot on Saturday afternoon when they face off against the Panthers in Game 3 at 18:00 on NHL TV. It’s must-watch Stanley Cup hockey. Don’t miss it.