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How the Capitals could face the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs

How the Capitals could face the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs

For the past two weeks, updates to the 2020 postseason have been rolling in making it hard to keep track of them all. A very different 2020 postseason awaits when play resumes so you may not know all the ins and outs of how the playoffs will work. Right now the most important things for Capitals fans to remember are that Washington is in, we don't know who they will play in the first round or where they will be seeded and yes, they could play the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.

So let's go over the specifics.

Where will the Caps be seeded?

We don't know. Next question!

Washington finished third in the Eastern Conference and first in the Metropolitan Division, just barely edging out the Philadelphia Flyers, but that won't get them much. All this means is that the Caps are among the top four teams in the conference so they will play a three-game round-robin to determine the top four seeds. Washington will play Boston, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia each one time in games with regular-season rules (meaning shootouts instead of endless overtime). The team with the best record in that round-robin will earn the top seed in the conference. It doesn't matter that Boston had 10 more points than Washington when the season paused, the Caps could still jump to the top of the conference should the finish with a better record in these three games.

The only way in which regular-season records matter at this point is to determine the four teams that get to play in the round-robin and as a tiebreaker. Regular season points percentage will be used as the tiebreaker for teams tied after the round-robin.

Who will the Caps play in the playoffs?

We won't know that specifically for three reasons. First, we have to know where the Caps will be seeded and we won't until after the round-robin; second, we won't know until after the play-in round; and third, it was announced on Thursday that the teams will be reseeded after each round so it's possible we won't know exactly who the Caps will play until the play-in round is completely finished.

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If that sounds like reseeding makes things more complicated, it does in a sense, but it was the right decision. Yes, when the playoffs begin we won't be able to have a clear bracket for the playoffs but...so what? I mean, does that really matter? What reseeding does is prevent the top seed from getting screwed. A bracket is made with the assumption that the top team will win each round. That means the No. 4 is supposed to play the No. 5 in the first round, but what happens if a No. 12 upsets the No. 5 in the play-in? All of a sudden, the No. 4 team would be playing the lowest seed left in the tournament while the No. 1 would have to play the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 series.

That does not make sense.

Yes, trying to explain who the Caps could play after their bye from the play-in series is enough to make your head spin, but trust me, it makes a lot more logical sense to do it this way and ensures the better playoff matchups in the later rounds as opposed to the early rounds which has been a problem for the NHL since they adopted their division system.

How could the Caps play the Penguins in the first round?

For most Capitals fans, whenever the playoffs roll around everyone starts looking to see if a Washington-Pittsburgh postseason rematch is in the cards. Despite describing how we basically don't know anything about who the Caps could play in the first round yet, there is actually a pretty straightforward path for a Caps-Penguins matchup.

As the No. 5 seed, Pittsburgh is the highest-seeded team in the play-in round. Now that we know the NHL will reseed after each round, if the Penguins win their series against the Montreal Canadiens, they are guaranteed to play the No. 4 seed in the first round of the playoffs. If Washington finishes last in the round-robin and Pittsburgh wins its series, get out the popcorn and work on that bird celebration, because it will mean a Caps vs. Penguins series yet again.

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7 things to watch in the round-robin that will tell us if the Caps are Cup contenders

7 things to watch in the round-robin that will tell us if the Caps are Cup contenders

Hockey is back! Or at least we have a date for when hockey will be back. After pausing the season on March 12 due to the coronavirus, the NHL will return to action on Aug. 1 when the qualification and round-robin rounds begin. As one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference, Washington will play three round-robin games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins. You can view the schedule and a list of important dates here.

By the time the Caps return to the ice for their first game, nearly five months will have passed since the last time they played so the 2020 postseason will essentially be a clean slate. When trying to size up the team's chances at a Cup run, the round-robin will give us our first glimpse of what we can expect from them. Here are the specific areas to keep an eye on.

Braden Holtby

Todd Reirden has already declared that the starting goalie job is "Holtby's job to lose." Holtby had a rough regular season (.897 save percentage, 3.11 GAA), but he has a Stanley Cup to his name and the fifth-best playoff save percentage of all-time. While it makes sense to start Holtby going into the playoffs, you can bet he will be on a tight leash. The fact is that his numbers have been in steep decline the last three years. A lengthy pause could prove beneficial for the 30-year-old netminder who will turn 31 in September, but considering he wasn't even able to get on the ice until the team moved into Phase 2 of the NHL's return to play plan on June 11, just how well he will play after so much time off is a complete unknown.  

You also have to consider the fact that Ilya Samsonov will be the team's backup and played well for the majority of the season. While I believe Holtby would have to completely fall apart in the round-robin for Samsonov to start in the first round, I do think that Holtby's performance will dictate just how long the leash is once the playoffs start in earnest.

RELATED: CAPS SET TO RETURN AUG. 3 VS. LIGHTNING

The new players

The Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon and forward Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline. At the pause, Dillon has played in only 10 games for Washington while Kovalchuk played in seven.

The transition to a new team during the season can be a tough one for players, but they have certainly had a significant amount of time to study up on their new team's system. They also will get a brief training camp before heading to Toronto that will give them more practice time to adjust. That could be a huge boost for Washington when looking at Dillon in particular. Defense is the major weakness of the team and Dillon has taken on a top-pair role with John Carlson.

On the other hand, while the number of games Dillon and Kovalchuk would have gotten before the playoffs would be limited, its more than they are getting now. Ultimately you're not going to be able to adjust to a new system without playing in it. Instead of a few regular-season games to adjust, Dillon and Kovalchuk's next game will be in the round-robin when the games count again.

General manager Brian MacLellan acquired both players with roles in mind for a Cup run. Both players now have to learn on the job and get up to speed quickly in order to live up to the roles MacLellan acquired them for.

The veteran players

The Caps are a veteran-heavy team. Nicklas Backstrom is 32, John Carlson is 30, Lars Eller is 30, Carl Hagelin is 31, Braden Holtby is 30, Ilya Kovalchuk is 36, T.J. Oshie is 33 and Alex Ovechkin is 34. After such a long pause, the veteran players will come into camp well-rested, but also a few months older.

After nearly five-months in between games, this has essentially been a full offseason for the league and a player's performance varies from season to season. Five months is not an insignificant amount of time and age may catch up to a handful of players at some point during the postseason even after having so much time to recuperate. These three games will give us a look at whether players like Ovechkin and Backstrom will still be able to perform at an elite level for another postseason run.

Michal Kempny

Kempny may have saved the team in 2018, but in the 2019-20 season, he was really struggling. A torn hamstring affected his preparation in the offseason and even after he returned he did not look like he was quite right. It's unclear if that had to do with any lingering physical issues or if it was purely mental. Regardless, he has had plenty of time to either heal further or regain his confidence which should mean improved play.

if the Caps suddenly got back 2018, first-pair Kempny, that would be a huge boon for the blue line.

Lineup decisions

Offensively, you can pretty much pencil in these lines:

Ales Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Ilya Kovalchuk
Richard Panik - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway

If those lines change going in, that's significant and bears watching. If they change over the course of the three round-robin games, that is something to keep an eye on to see if there is something Reirden does not like or wants to switch up.

Defensively, there are more question marks.

Can Kempny regain a top-pair role? Where does Dillon ultimately fit? Who plays on the right side of the second pair? Does the team dress three lefties and three righties or does Reirden go with four lefties?

Granted, all of these decisions have to be taken in context. Whether Reirden is reacting to someone's play or to the standings of the round-robin is important to keep in mind. Still, there is not much time to really experiment with and I would expect Reirden to give his projected lineup for the playoffs as much time as possible to prepare for the playoffs.

The power play

The power play has been terrible this season and ranked 24th in the NHL since Dec. 23.  Many have argued it has become too predictable, but really, everyone knew what they were trying to do for years and still couldn't stop it. Zone entries and puck movement have been the two biggest issues with the power play unit this season. The quick puck movement that makes a power play so hard to cover just has not been there and the players appear to be slower and more methodical with their puck movements, to their detriment. Even if the power play can improve to just average for the payoffs, that will be a major boost.

Defense

The biggest weakness of all for the team this season, the defense has been just flat out bad. The team has struggled to find a partner for Carlson, the team has only one top-four right defenseman and the efforts to shuffle players in and out of the top four have led to some dreadful third-pair combinations. Carlson has to be the team's best blueliner every night, someone has to lay claim to the top-pair role and Nick Jensen or Radko Gudas need to show they can handle a second-pair role.

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NHL restart schedule: Capitals return to the ice Aug. 3 against Lightning

NHL restart schedule: Capitals return to the ice Aug. 3 against Lightning

In one fell swoop, the NHL and its players union voted Friday to approve a package deal that included both the NHL’s return-to-play plan and a new Collective Bargaining agreement. The tentative agreement reached upon Tuesday became official when it was approved by the NHL’s Board of Governors and received a simple majority in the player vote.

The 24 teams that qualified for the expanded Stanley Cup playoffs will begin formal training camps Monday in preparation for an Aug. 1 start to the postseason. The Capitals have already guaranteed themselves one of the top four spots in the East and will play in a round-robin tournament to determine seeding before the first round.

RELATED: NHL, PLAYERS UNION AGREE ON SEASON RESTART PLAN IN NEW CBA

Here’s what Washington’s postseason schedule will look like in the seeding round and when they would be on the ice if they make it all the way:

Aug. 3 – Capitals vs. Lightning (seeding game)

Aug. 6 – Capitals vs. Flyers (seeding game)

Aug. 8 – Bruins vs. Capitals (seeding game)

Aug. 11 – First round of Stanley Cup playoffs begins

Aug. 25* – Second round of Stanley Cup playoffs begins

Sept. 8* – Conference finals begin

Sept. 22* – Stanley Cup Finals begin

Oct. 4* – Last possible day of Stanley Cup Finals

*Date still tentative

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