With four games and six days remaining in the NHL’s regular season, the Caps may not know which team they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs until Sunday night.
Will it be the Flyers, who currently hold the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings but just lost defenseman Andy MacDonald? Will it be the seventh-seeded Islanders, who just lost defenseman Travis Hamonic and are likely to start the playoffs without starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak?
Will it be the Bruins or Red Wings, who have traded places in the Atlantic Division and will face each other in a pivotal battle on Thursday night?
“It could be four different teams, right?” pondered Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom. “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be until the last game, I think. It’s interesting. That’s what makes it fun, too.”
After a pair of games against non-playoff games, the Capitals expect the intensity to ramp up when they close out their regular season with games against the Islanders, Penguins, Blues and Ducks, four teams currently holding playoff spots. The Caps got a good taste of what the playoffs might be like when they visited the Flyers last week and fell 2-1 in a shootout.
“I think those type of games are really good for us right now,” Capos right wing T.J. Oshie said. “It’s hard not to look at the standings and see you already have first place and take a step back. But when we play these teams that are desperate and fighting for their lives I think it really brings out the best in us.”
That was certainly the case last Wednesday night, when the Caps and Flyers combined for 64 hits.
“I’m sure tomorrow would be the same thing,” Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “They’re coming off a pretty good beating on Saturday (a 5-0 loss to the Penguins), so I’m sure they’re trying to respond. All these games this week will be a challenge for us. At some point in the playoffs we might face Pittsburgh as well. Psychologically, it’s a good opportunity to leave a mark on certain teams.”
The Islanders have been an unpredictable team lately. After losing six of seven games in early March, they won four out of five before getting blown out at home by the Penguins, who are currently without goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The Isles lead the Flyers by two points with a game in hand. They face the Lightning tonight at home, followed by visits to Washington and New York and home games against the Sabres and Flyers. It’s possible that last makeup game of the season between the Isles and Flyers on Sunday night will determine which team faces the Caps in Round 1.
“Obviously, the Islanders are playing for position and Pitt is probably playing the best of any team in the league right now,” Capital coach Barry Trotz said. “(The Penguins) are feeling it. They’re probably the team coming into the playoffs, as of today, probably feeling the best about themselves.”
With their No. 1 playoff seeding clinched, Trotz said it’s hard to replicate during the final week of the regular season the desperation we’ll all see in the playoffs.
“You don’t practice running into a burning house like firemen, but that’s what it is,” Trotz said. “All of a sudden the playoffs start and you’re running into a burning house and it’s chaotic. Things are happening quicker and it’s intense. You just don’t practice that all the time.”
Oshie said that no matter who the Capitals face in Round 1, they’ll need to play at a higher level than they have the past few games.
“Personally, I don’t look ahead,” he said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in playoffs, everyone’s got a shot. Everyone’s playing good hockey. You can’t overlook anyone. Obviously, if someone’s dinged up, especially a key player, it gives you a slight advantage. But a lot of the teams that are in the playoffs are really deep.”