Another edition of the Stanley Cup playoffs, another edition of the Washington Capitals entering the playoffs looking strong as ever -- and maybe, just maybe, this'll be the year when they break through and win the sport's ultimate prize. But before we plan the parade route through the Illuminati-engineered streets of D.C., Alex Ovechkin & Co. must get by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Capitals closed out the season on an 8-2-0 run to finish at 49-26-7, with a goal differential of plus-20. Ovechkin added another Rocket Richard trophy to his collection, though he was one goal shy of notching 50 for the eighth time in his career.
Kirk Herbstreit's favorite team certainly looks like the early winner in the Artemi Panarin-for-Brandon Saad trade from last summer, as the Bread Man led the Blue Jackets in points with a career-high 82. Panarin adds a dynamic scoring element to a franchise that has been renowned for grit, toughness and other intangibles that sometimes serve as a polite way to say "lack of elite scorers."
First line. Pierre-Luc Dubois, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2016 draft, will not soon be confused for the two players taken before him (Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine). After an up-and-down 2016-17 campaign, however, Dubois came into his own this season, anchoring the Blue Jackets' top line along with Panarin and either Josh Anderson or Cam Atkinson. The trio including Anderson was particularly effective, with a 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage of 59.0, and a 5-on-5 goals for percentage of 59.3. The Caps' top unit of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom (sometimes Evgeny Kuznetsov) and Tom Wilson posted similar rates, but there's something about having a 49-goal scorer on the ice that tilts things a bit. Advantage: Capitals.
Depth. The trade-deadline addition of winger Thomas Vanek was a game-changer for the Blue Jackets, as he scored 15 points in 19 games, 14 of which came at even strength, finding quick chemistry with Boone Jenner (32 points) and Alexander Wennberg (35). Capitals coach Barry Trotz can counter with a second line that includes Kuznetsov (or Backstrom) with T.J. Oshie (47 points), Andre Burakovsky (25) or Jakub Vrana (27). Advantage: Capitals.
Defense. When considering the critical components to building a championship contender, three parts are essential: a No. 1 center, a No. 1 defenseman and a workhorse goaltender. Well, the Blue Jackets happen to have two No. 1 defensemen, in Seth Jones (57 points, 24:36 in ice time per game) and Zach Werenski (37, 22:35). Not to be outdone, Washington's John Carlson led all defensemen in scoring this season, with 68 points, and skated 24:47 per game. We'll go with the team that has two No. 1s, thank you very much. Advantage: Blue Jackets.
Goaltending. The 2017-18 season will go down as one to forget for Capitals backstop Braden Holtby, as his .907 save percentage was the worst mark of his career, and that came after the worst postseason of his career, as he finished the 2017 playoff run at .909. Backup Philipp Grubauer had better numbers this season, but has just 78:34 of playoff experience; the team has announced he'll be the Game 1 starter. At the other end, Sergei Bobrovsky had another solid campaign, including a .921 save percentage and five shutouts, though he has tended to fall apart in the postseason, with.908 and .882 save percentages the past two times the Jackets made the playoffs. We'll give the slight edge to Bob here. Advantage: Blue Jackets.
Special teams. For years, Ovechkin has set up camp at a spot in the faceoff circle to the opposing goaltender's right -- and proceeded to score an obscene number of goals thanks to his rapid release. Every opponent knows it. Every fan watching knows it. Heck, even the cotton candy vendor knows it. No one has been able to stop it, however, and that release is particularly dangerous on the Caps' seventh-ranked power play (22.5 percent). The Blue Jackets lack bite with the man advantage themselves (17.2 percent, No. 25), and at 76.2 percent, finished No. 26 on the penalty kill. This could be trouble. Advantage: Capitals.
Coaching. Capitals coach Barry Trotz has assembled one of the NHL's most accomplished regular-season coaching staffs, including goalie whisperer Mitch Korn. John Tortorella's staff in Columbus is a bit less renowned, though Torts himself does have his name on the Stanley Cup. Then again, that was back in 2004, and neither coach has been great in the postseason recently. Advantage: Even.
Health. Compared with some other playoff-bound teams around the league -- we're looking at you, Minnesota Wild -- the Blue Jackets and Capitals enter this series relatively healthy. Columbus captain Nick Foligno has been out since March 26 with a lower-body injury, and his availability is in question, along with defenseman Markus Nutivaara's and center Lukas Sedlak's. Capitals energy forward Jay Beagle has missed the past three games with an upper-body injury, and remains day-to-day. Advantage: Capitals.
Series pick: Capitals in six.