Only two points separate the Capitals from the second place New York Islanders for the top of the Metropolitan Division. Only four points separate Washington from third-place Pittsburgh. If Washington hopes to edge out both teams to win the division, however, it is going to have to earn it.
No team in the NHL has a tougher schedule to close out the season than the Caps.
The NHL evaluated the strength of schedule for every team prior to the games being played on Wednesday. Based on the point percentage of their remaining opponents, Washington has, by far, the toughest remaining schedule.
The Caps’ opponent points percentage is a whopping 0.612. The Montreal Canadiens are second at 0.599. That is a significant gap.
Washington has 11 games remaining in the regular season. Three of those games come against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the top team in the NHL. The Lightning have a 19-point lead for both the division and the conference. As the season goes, Tampa will have less and less to play for, but I am not expecting the Lightning to take their foot off the gas against Washington. They have a score to settle.
The Caps eliminated Tampa Bay in the Conference Final last season. Those two teams have not met since. If the Lightning want to send a message to the league that they truly are the team to beat despite their playoff struggles in recent years, beating the defending champs in the rematch would be a good start.
In addition to Tampa Bay, Washington also must play the Carolina Hurricanes, one of the hottest teams in the NHL, twice. And let’s not forget about perhaps the most important game of all. On April 6 in the regular season finale, the Caps will host the Islanders. With both teams battling for first place, that game could determine the winner of the division.
In Washington’s 11 remaining games, five of those games come against teams not currently in playoff position. That’s not so bad, right? It is when you consider Minnesota, Philadelphia and Montreal are three of those teams, and all three are still battling to make the playoffs. Really, the Caps only have two games left against teams that are essentially out of the running in New Jersey and Florida.
Eight wins in nine games only gave the Caps a two-point lead in the division. There is no margin for error for Washington against the toughest schedule in the NHL.
As cliché as it may seem, the playoffs start now for the Caps. The good news is they will be battle tested and ready to go once the playoffs do finally start in April.
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