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Penguins lost to Flyers on stunning goal -- here's how that affects their playoff picture

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Penguins lost to Flyers on stunning goal -- here's how that affects their playoff picture

If the Stanley Cup Playoffs started today, the Washington Capitals would have to face none other than the Pittsburgh Penguins first in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. 

As of Monday morning, the Caps currently hold a three-point lead over the Penguins, who suffered a stunning loss Sunday to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins have now lost their last two -- the St. Louis Blues rocked them Saturday, 5-1 -- and have dropped three of their last six, but they beat the Caps in there last week too.

Making a late playoff push, Flyers James van Riemsdyk scored with 19 seconds left in the third period to tie the game at 1-1 and force overtime. And in the final seconds of overtime, Philly center Sean Couturier snuck another one past Penguins goalie Matt Murray for the 2-1 win.

The unlikely comeback is the first time in NHL history that a team knocked off the same opponent more than once in a season with a game-tying goal in the final 30 seconds, after the Flyers beat the Penguins under similar circumstances about three weeks ago. With another W over their instate rivals, Philadelphia is now within six points of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the conference's second wild card spot.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are sitting at the top of the conference with an astonishing 114 points, followed by the Boston Bruins (95 points), the Toronto Maple Leafs (91 points) and the New York Islanders (91 points). The Caps are currently fifth (91 points) in the conference, the Penguins are sixth (88 points), the Carolina Hurricanes are seventh (85 points) and Columbus is eighth (84 points). 

Along with the potential Caps-Pens series if the playoff standings don't change, Tampa Bay would play the Blue Jackets, the Bruins would play the Maple Leafs and the Hurricanes would face the Islanders.

Tied for first in the Metro Division with the New York Islanders, Washington has 10 games remaining in the regular season, starting with the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday on the road. The Caps then have a four-game homestand and will close out the regular season with two games against the conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, two games against Carolina and a season finale at home against the Islanders.

Conference wide, the Caps and Islanders are also currently tied with the Maple Leafs, leaving a bit of room for the playoff matchups to change. A late surge from the Caps, plus a few losses from the Leafs and Islanders could have them taking on the Bruins. Or, on the other side, if Washington stumbles, it could still get stuck with the Penguins or maybe even the Islanders. 

The Penguins only have nine games left in the regular season. They have two games each against the Hurricanes, the Detroit Red Wings, the Nashville Predators and the New York Rangers. In the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes are barely holding onto that wild-card spot, while the Red Wings have already been eliminated and the Rangers are almost there too. The Predators are currently fourth in the Western Conference.

For the Flyers after Sunday's win, they still have 10 games remaining in the regular season to surge into the playoff picture, they're not just chasing the Blue Jackets. The Montreal Canadiens are currently the first Eastern Conference team out of the playoffs and are only three points behind Columbus with 10 games left -- including ones against the Flyers, the Hurricanes, the Blue Jackets and the Caps on April 4.

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The 2 biggest questions the Caps still need answered after 10 games

The 2 biggest questions the Caps still need answered after 10 games

The Capitals are 10 games into the 2019-20 season. For the most part, things have gone well. The team is 6-2-2 and sits atop the Metropolitan Division. John Carlson leads the entire NHL with 18 points which puts him in some pretty elite company. Ilya Samsonov looks as good as advertised while Braden Holtby looks like his old self after a brief reset. Alex Ovechkin has six goals already and T.J. Oshie leads the team with seven. Plus, both special teams units look improved.

That’s a pretty solid start.

But there remain two important questions that still need answers.

Who should play on the right on the second defensive pair?

Michal Kempny finally returned after missing the first eight games of the season. He started the last two on the third pair, but is working his way back up to the top pairing. Once he gets there, the defense will finally be at full strength.

That gives Washington a pretty solid top three of Kempny and Carlson, plus Dmitry Orlov. But who should play on the right with Orlov?

Jensen had the first crack at it to start the season, but after some up-and-down play, Radko Gudas was bumped up for a few games. Since Kempny returned, Gudas moved back down to third to play with him and Jensen moved back with Orlov.

So far Gudas has been as good as advertised, but playing well on the third pair does not necessarily mean he should be on the second.

Jensen was one of Detroit’s top defensemen when he was acquired by the Caps. The team is still waiting for that player to emerge. It has been a tough transition for him to Washington's system and, while he has shown flashes of strong play, he remains largely inconsistent. His Corsi-For percentage at 5-on-5 is the second-worst on the team at 46.82-percent. He is one of only three Caps below 50-percent with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tyler Lewington being the other two.

The issue for the Caps may be that they have two high-quality third pair right defensemen in Jensen and Gudas and only one top-four right defenseman in Carlson which leaves a hole on that second pair.

When it comes to the defense, we should reserve all judgment until Kempny is back to playing on the top-pair full-time so we can see this defense at full strength. Until then, however, the second pair remains a question mark.

Can the Caps get enough production from the third line?

There wasn’t much offense to speak of from the Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik trio and it didn’t take Todd Reirden long to split them up. Hagelin is the Swiss Army knife of the Caps’ offense, but his offensive production is limited. Panik meanwhile has had a tough start to his Caps’ tenure with zero points and is on long-term injured reserve.

As always, the top six for this team remains lethal and the additions of Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway to the fourth line have been home runs. The third line is the only one that remains a question and it may need a boost from a player like Jakub Vrana, who has been playing there the last few games with Eller and Hathaway, to help spark some production. Ultimately, however, you would like to see Vrana back in the top six and Hathaway back on the fourth. Hagelin, Eller and Panik are the best fit for the third, but if they can’t produce together it may mean weakening the top six or the fourth line by moving players around to find a combination that produces on that third line.

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John Carlson's seven assists nabs him the NHL's second star of the week

John Carlson's seven assists nabs him the NHL's second star of the week

John Carlson has opened this season with monster numbers, putting up three goals and 15 assists in 10 games. He currently leads the league in points with 18. 

The NHL has noticed and named Carlson their second star of the week. Boston's David Pastrnak got the first star, while Buffalo's Carter Hutton was named the third star.

In four games last week, Carlson notched one goal and seven assists for eight points. He currently leads the league in assists with 15.

Carlson is also in historic company. The only other two defensemen to score as many or more points than Carlson in the first 10 games of a season are Bobby Orr (2‑16—18 in 1969-70 and 5-13—18 in 1973-74, w/ Boston) and Paul Coffey (3-17—20 in 1988-89, w/ Pittsburgh).

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