With six games left to go in the regular season for the Capitals, three teams have started to emerge from the Eastern Conference pack as the three most likely first-round matchups for Washington. The Caps have clinched a playoff berth and currently sit in the second wild card spot, but still within reach of the top wild card spot or third place in the Metropolitan Division.
To give fans a headstart on their playoff prep, here's a look at the three most likely first round matchups for the Caps and some initial thoughts on those matchups.
How it could happen: Capitals catch Boston for the top wild card spot, Carolina remains in first place of the Metropolitan Division OR Capitals catch Pittsburgh for third place in the division and Carolina falls to second
Initial thoughts of the matchup: The last time these two teams met, Carolina obliterated Washington 6-1. I am ignoring that game, however, given that the Caps won the previous three matchups and the game was the final game before a week off for Washington. It just mattered more to the Hurricanes than it did to the Caps.
Carolina is a deeper team and has been statistically better than Washington in almost every aspect of the game. There are, however, two factors you should keep in mind. First, the status of goalie Frederik Andersen is now a huge question mark after he suffered an injury Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche. Head coach Rod Brind'Amour said he would be re-evaluated on Monday which sounds hopeful, but really we don't know if he's going to miss any time in the playoffs or for how long. We also don't know that he will be 100% back to his .922 save percentage form from this season if and when he does come back.
The second factor to consider is how much the budding rivalry for these two teams could benefit Washington given its style of play. The Caps are at their best when they are playing a physical style of game. In a playoff series between budding rivals and with a head coach as fiery as Brind'Amour, I think there is the possibility the Hurricanes could allow themselves to get distracted by physical play and lose focus.
A Hurricanes player was literally fined this season after he slapped a Caps player on the bench with his stick. Who does that?
How it could happen: Capitals remain in second wild card spot
Initial thoughts of the matchup: This is the matchup you want to avoid. Florida is an offensive buzzsaw this season averaging 4.17 goals per game while goaltending is Washington's biggest question mark. That's not a favorable combination for Washington.
Because this is hockey, the reaction to a hockey team that is fun to watch and lights up the scoreboard has been predictable: People hate it. An offensive powerhouse from a non-traditional market that is able to come back against any deficit? Can't win in the playoffs that way, right? This has led to comparisons of this Panthers team to the infamous 2010 Capitals who were stunned in the First Round by the Montreal Canadiens.
Sure, I get why people would want to compare the two. Florida is an offensive powerhouse with inconsistent playoff goaltending, a suspect defense and a head coach with an unproven playoff record. All of those were a factor in Washington's loss in 2010, but the biggest factor was the guy between the pipes, Jaroslav Halak.
The Canadiens needed their goalie to be almost completely unbeatable just to win by one goal in seven games. What have we seen from Washington's goalies this season to think either Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek could be their "Halak?" It's unreasonable to me to assume Washington's greatest weakness this season will suddenly become its greatest asset in the playoffs just because you see similarities with a team from 12 years ago.
This does not mean that I think the Caps can't beat Florida -- a team that has not won a playoff series since losing in the Cup Final in 1996, a team whose head coach had not been a head coach at any professional level prior to taking over midseason in Florida, and a team whose starting goalie has been wildly inconsistent in the postseason. But I think it's unreasonable simply to assume because there are some similarities between the 2010 Caps and 2022 Panthers, that Florida is destined for an early exit no matter who they play against.
New York Rangers
How it could happen: Capitals catch Pittsburgh for third place in the division and New York remains in second OR Capitals catch Boston for the top wild card spot, New York catches Carolina for first place in the division.
Initial thoughts of the matchup: New York is not as good as their record says they are, rather they are a good team with a phenomenal goalie. Igor Shesterkin should be the runaway Vezina Trophy winner this year and is probably about a year away from being considered the best goalie in the world. For the season, he has a .936 save percentage and a 2.01 GAA.
When you look at the two rosters overall, I actually think Washington is a bit better, or at least deeper and that makes this a somewhat favorable matchup.
But this is also a "be careful what you wish for" scenario. The Caps know better than most the impact a goalie can have on a playoff series. If a goalie is hot enough, it doesn't matter which team is better. To say the Caps should beat New York if they can get to Shesterkin is technically true, it just undercuts the enormity of that task.
Sure, if the Caps can get through to the goalie who has been undeniably the best goalie in the sport this season and continues to get better, beating the Rangers should be a cakewalk.