Matt Niskanen wards off Artemi Panarin Image by: Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images
The first-round tilt between the Blue Jackets and Capitals has been almost unbelievably tight, but there are three things in particular to watch as Columbus attempts to close it out and Washington seeks the comeback win.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were one shot away from pushing the Washington Capitals to the brink of elimination on Tuesday night. Following two big road victories, both of which came in overtime, the Blue Jackets headed home for Game 3 with a chance to all but bury the Capitals under the weight of a 3-0 series deficit. Try as they might, though, it was Washington’s Lars Eller who eventually found pay dirt in yet another overtime contest.
In the second overtime frame, Eller drove the net hard on a Capitals 3-on-2, and after Brett Connolly’s shot from the wing was turned aside by Sergei Bobrovsky, the puck bounced off of his glove and was swept away by Zach Werenski only for it to deflect off of Eller, ping-pong around and wind up crossing the goal line. It wasn’t pretty, but in overtime during the playoffs, these things seldom are.
Eller’s goal sets the stage for another crucial contest in this series. Friday night will see an all-important Game 4 that will either send the Blue Jackets back to Washington having failed to take control of a series that was well within their grasp or see the Capitals return home under the considerable weight of another potential playoff failure.
As we head towards another pivotal game in a series that has thus far been decided by the slimmest of margins, here are three key things to watch:
Washington needs to find a way to light up Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets netminder hasn’t necessarily stolen the show and he’s been far from infallible, allowing 10 goals on 133 shots through the first three games of the series. But the Capitals really need to shake his confidence at some point because he’s only gotten better as the series has worn on. In Game 1, he faced 30 shots and allowed three goals against. He surrendered four goals on 58 shots against in Game 2. And in Game 3, Bobrovsky turned in a 42-save performance in a 3-2 overtime loss. But it might take just one high-scoring game for Washington to get in Bobrovsky’s head.
Entering this series, Bobrovsky had been as sound as any regular season netminder over the past several seasons, posting a .923 SP and 24 shutouts over his past 312 games, but the playoffs haven’t been that kind to him. He had a 3-10 record with an .887 SP in 14 starts. And while the Blue Jackets' blueline has undoubtedly gotten better in front of Bobrovsky, the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to rattle the netminder enough last post-season that he only managed a SP better than .900 in one of five games. Putting five or six past Bobrovsky in a single game could be the key to continuously beating him if the series goes to six or seven games.
Of course, Washington has its own goaltending to worry about, too. Braden Holtby can’t afford to have a bad game at this point or the Capitals will be on the brink of elimination. He has made 40 saves on the 43 shots he’s faced, though, and if he can build on that Washington can get right back in this series. That said, if the Capitals can’t buy up some real estate inside Bobrovsky’s mind, though, he could continue to render Washington’s top stars obsolete and Holtby might need nothing less than perfection to keep his team in this. And speaking of stars…
Artemi Panarin continues to outshine every other player in this series. That’s not entirely unexpected given the way he finished up the regular season, but that Panarin alone has two goals and seven points in three games while Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov have combined for four goals and 11 points is a big reason why this series is 2-1 for the Blue Jackets. Panarin has been lethal, and every single touch of the puck for the skillful winger is coming along with that oh-boy-watch-this feeling.
Look at his Game 1 overtime winner. Panarin shouldn’t have been able to make anything of that possession, but he embarrassed Capitals defenseman Dmitri Orlov with a burst of speed to the outside and found enough daylight that he was able to move the puck back to the middle of the ice before deftly flicking the puck into the far corner past Washington goaltender Philipp Grubauer. In Game 2, Panarin made the slick cross-ice feed that led to Cam Atkinson’s game-tying goal. And in Game 3, Panarin was the author of another great assist and his 2-on-1 goal with Atkinson was the tying marker that sent the contest to overtime. Time and again, he’s come up big in this series.
Now, Washington needs their stars to take over in a way they haven’t quite done so to this point. John Carlson’s goal and seven points are mighty impressive, to be sure, but at 5-on-5, the aforementioned Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kuznetsov trio has one point. In fact, Devante Smith-Pelly is the only Capital with more than a single point at even strength. Washington needs a response to Columbus’ top line.
But Washington shouldn’t panic. The Capitals have been here before and come out the other side. Back in 2008-09, Washington suffered back-to-back losses on home ice at the hands of the New York Rangers, both by a single goal. In Game 3, though, the Capitals bounced back with a victory and went on to win the series in seven games despite dropping Game 4. That series was equally as close, too, with five of the seven games decided by one goal. No doubt, the two rosters are almost entirely different as Ovechkin, Backstrom and Jay Beagle are the only holdovers from that squad, but there’s experience enough in the dressing room to complete the comeback.
The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, will be trying to shake their own playoff demons. This is the fourth time in franchise history Columbus has made it to the post-season, but the organization has never advanced. Just last season, the Blue Jackets stole one on the road from the Penguins in Game 2 and went back to Pittsburgh in a series that was tied at two games apiece. After Game 6, however, Bobrovsky and Co. were booking tee times. That’s not to say this time around will be the same — all franchises take a step forward at some point — but Columbus is going to have to prove they can take a stranglehold of a series and close it out in the coming games.
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