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Capitals punch their ticket to the playoffs with third-period rally in Carolina

Capitals punch their ticket to the playoffs with third-period rally in Carolina

RALEIGH – The Capitals are headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Trailing the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1, Washington scored twice in the third period to rally for the 3-2 win on Thursday and punch their ticket to the postseason. With the win, the Caps also extended their lead in the Metropolitan Division to five points.

Here are four reasons Washington won.

Connolly’s quick response

Nino Niederreiter took advantage of a defensive breakdown by Washington and scored the game’s first goal early in the first period. Before the Hurricanes could really revel in having the lead, Brett Connolly had the game knotted up at 1.

Brooks Orpik cleared a puck out of the defensive zone that went up and over the defense, where Connolly was able to pounce on it to launch a 2-on-1. He looked like he was looking for the pass the whole way, but when Trevor van Riemsdyk slid too early to cut off the pass, Connolly curled the puck around him and fired a beauty of a shot past Curtis McElhinney.

It took just 42 seconds after Niederreiter’s goal for Connolly to tie the game.

End-to-end

The Caps entered the third period down 2-1, but Jakub Vrana needed just 95 seconds to tie the game thanks to some great end-to-end passing. Christian Djoos held the puck behind the net as Washington set up the breakout. He passed it up to Evgeny Kuznetsov on the right just in front of the blue line. Near center ice, Kuznetsov cut to the center and passed it to the left to Vrana, who had a step on the defense. He was behind the defense before they knew they were in trouble and cut to the center. McElhinney shifted to stay with the puck and Vrana tucked it through the open 5-hole.

Dowd’s deflection

Nick Jensen collected the puck at the wall near the blue line and flung what looked like a harmless looking shot toward the net. Just before it got to McElhinney, however, Nic Dowd stretched out the stick and managed to get a piece of it deflecting the puck between the netminder’s pads and into the net. The goal gave the Caps their first lead of the game and it would stick.

Braden Holtby

Holtby was not tested much in the first two periods as Carolina managed only 16 shots. He came up huge in the third period, however, with a number of key saves as the Hurricanes fought furiously to tie the game. Holtby finished with 24 saves on 26 shots, 10 of which came in the final frame.

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Capitals are the class of the Metropolitan Division for fifth year in a row

Capitals are the class of the Metropolitan Division for fifth year in a row

You know what’s fun? Winning Metropolitan Division titles. 

No, it’s not as good as the big prize. The Capitals will never top their 2018 Stanley Cup championship. But winning a competitive division against their biggest rivals five years in a row? Pretty, pretty good. 

Washington took its fifth in a row officially on Tuesday when the NHL announced that the regular season had concluded thanks to the ongoing coronavirus. The Capitals just outlasted the Philadelphia Flyers with 90 standings points to 89. The difference over 69 games? One extra Caps game going into overtime for a single point. 

Credit to the Flyers for making a late run. No one was playing better in the NHL than Philadelphia just before the season was halted. Whether that carries over into the Stanley Cup Playoffs remains to be seen. 

But the Capitals should take pride in that streak. It’s hard to do in an age of parity. They play in a division where the Pittsburgh Penguins won two Stanley Cups in the previous four seasons. The two teams slugged it out three times in the second round. That’s the luck of the draw, and so four straight division titles -- and two Presidents’ Trophies -- meant just one Cup for Washington. 

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It’s also rare to dominate a division the way the Capitals have for five years. The Anaheim Ducks won the Pacific Division title every year from 2013 to 2017. Prior to that, the Detroit Red Wings won the Central Division an astounding eight times from 2001 to 2009. It doesn’t get you a championship -- Washington won the expired Southeast Division from 2008 to 2011 -- but it does mean you played great hockey year after year.

And to do it in the reconstituted Patrick Division, where long-time rivals like the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers, Islanders and Devils joined with newer rivals Carolina and Columbus, makes it even sweeter. Add another banner to the rafters at Capital One Arena. The Caps are the class of the Metropolitan Division yet again. 

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Who will the Caps play in their first playoff series? The round robin, explained.

Who will the Caps play in their first playoff series? The round robin, explained.

Before the season pause, the Caps were in danger of falling down the standings. Now they could claim the top spot in the east.
 
When the NHL paused its season on March 12, the Capitals held just a one-point lead in the Metropolitan Division and trailed the conference-leading Boston Bruins by 10 points.

The Bruins held an almost insurmountable lead atop the conference and the Philadelphia Flyers were one of the hottest teams in the league. At that point, Washington looked more likely to drop in the standings than to climb. With the NHL’s new 24-team playoff format for the 2019-20 season, however, the Caps will have three games to possibly claim the top spot in the east.
 
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Tuesday the league’s return to play plan including the 24-team playoff format.

Washington, as one of the top four teams in the conference, will get a bye to the first round of the playoffs and not have to play in the play-in round. Instead, the Caps will play a round-robin tournament against the other top seeds in the conference: Boston, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. The winner of that round robin will determine the seeds for the playoffs.
 
The inclusion of a round-robin has some fans a bit confused as it is not something seen in a normal season so let’s break it down.
 
First off, you can throw out the current seeding for the top four teams. The regular season records determined who the top four teams are, but that is it. They no longer matter. The round robin is a clean slate for those four teams. Washington will play each of the other teams once and regular season rules will apply. That means there will not be continuous overtime in a tie game, but instead it will go to five minutes of three-on-three followed by a shootout.

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What this means is that Boston, despite being the presumptive Presidents’ Trophy winner, could fall all the way down to the No. 4 seed in the playoffs. The Caps, meanwhile, could claim the top spot in the conference with a strong showing in the round robin.
 
Why did the NHL do this? Bettman went into this in a video conference with the media after the initial announcement. Basically, this is an acknowledgment that the top teams need to play competitive games before playing against a team that had to win a playoff series just to get there.
 
What will be the reward for earning the top seed? It is not yet clear.
 
It has not yet been determined if the teams will be reseeded after the play-in round or if the playoff will be a bracket throughout. This could be significant depending on the upsets we see in the play-in round. For example, a bracket would set up for the No. 4 team to play the winner of the series between the No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins and the No. 12 Montreal Canadiens. If Montreal pulls off the upset as the lowest seed, that would give the No. 4 seed the best matchup on paper in the next round while the No. 1 seed would be playing either the No. 8 or 9 seed.
 
As one of the top seeds, the Caps will finish no lower than No. 4 in the conference but could potentially finish No. 1.

But we are still a long way off from determining who Washington will play in their first playoff series.
 

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