It’s Friday the 13th. College students all across the continental US are mired in Finals Week, sacrificing sleep to the Aztec study gods in hopes that they’ll grant their benediction in the form of a passing grade (news flash-the bastards missed my memo). Bad luck runs rampant. And adding the cherry on top of it all, the Florida Panthers get to reenact Friday the 13th, as their 28th ranked penalty kill squares off against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals‘ fearsome power play.
ON ICE! It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
The crux of the match-up, finding a way to corral a red-hot Ovie, presents a problem big enough to unsettle teams possessing significantly better special teams figures than the Cats. His eleven power play tallies pace the National Hockey League; at even strength, the man is a menace, rifling an average of 5.38 shots per game at opposing netminders (his total shot count of 156 bests the next closest total, Phil Kessel and Zach Parise’s 133 by 23). Standing at 16.7%, his rate of shot conversion bests anybody not named Alex Steen who has taken at least 100 shots on goal.
Factor in Ovechkin’s 52.0% Corsi-for percentage (in plain English-he’s pretty good at retaining possession), a Panthers squad who’s team save percentage stands at an imposing .892% and who’s leading hitter-big rearguard Erik Gudbranson-has nine less hits than the dangerous forward, and the potential for disaster slowly begins to creep higher and higher, swamping even the mighty Redwood that is Nick Bjugstad.
That potential is very, very real- I remember going to a Caps-Cats game last season, only to watch The Great Eight pot two power-play goals. Both came from the goalie’s right face-off circle. Both came in the form of the laser beam that is his one-timer. Both came to pass as a result of Tyson Strachan completely ignoring the sniper lurking in his favorite rest.
And both came against a Panther penalty kill unit that was effective a meager 74.2% of the time. The EXACT SAME NUMBER that the Cats have managed to stymie thus far in the young campaign.
If the Panthers hope to build up another mini-hot streak, the task of containing the NHL’s goal-scoring leader holds the utmost priority. The beleaguered penalty kill will need to step up to the plate and lean into-literally, get in front of-the rocket of a fastball Alex Ovechkin is capable of ripping off the tape of his blade.
And yet, while Mike Weaver anchors the back-end in terms of defensive aptitude, I’d look to the young pairing of Gudbranson and Dylan Olsen to make a difference on special teams. The unit, emerging as a reliable two-way crew, has provided the Panthers with steady defensive play, all the while providing a surprising bit of offensive spark. Arguably, Dylan Olsen-the 22-year old defenseman received in the package return from the Kris Versteeg trade-has created the most waves; thus far, Olsen has proved his worth, posting two goals and six points through eight games, on top of owning a plus-two rating. Furthermore, he has dished out 17 hits through his eight games, only four less than Tom Gilbert has through 32. Meanwhile, Erik Gudbranson seems to reaped the benefits from Dale Tallon’s latest acquisition; having previously built up chemistry with his new battery-mate while representing Canada at the World Juniors, playing alongside a like-minded individual with a similar skill-set appears to have buoyed Guddy’s development. He leads the squad in hits with 75-the highlight of which was this annihilation of Tobias Enstrom (1:15 in the video)-and trails Weaver by two for the team lead in shots blocked.
They possess the size needed to stave off the raging bull that is Ovechkin and the possible blitzkrieg of his speedy rushes to the net; they possess the awareness needed to keep tabs on the lethal marksman, all the while holding the box formation of the kill. But the question remains-will they live up to the challenge? Can they hold down the proverbial fort? Or will the deadly Russian strike from a distance, leaving a tattered defense in his wake?