Capitals

Playoff watch: Who are the Capitals likely to face?

Capitals

Believe it or not, there are only 18 games remaining for the Capitals in the regular season. That means it is time to start talking about the playoffs.

Washington currently sits atop the East Division and looks like a lock for the playoffs. But who will they play? What teams will join them from the East? With less than a week before the trade deadline, let's look at the standings.

  1. Washington, 54 points, 38 GP
  2. New York Islanders, 52 points, 38 GP
  3. Pittsburgh, 50 points, 38 GP
  4. Boston, 44 points, 35 GP
  5. Philadelphia, 41 points, 37 GP
  6. New York Rangers, 39 points, 37 GP
  7. New Jersey, 32 points, 36 GP
  8. Buffalo, 22 points, 37 GP

If the playoffs were to start today, the Caps would be playing Boston in the first round. Given how great the games between those two teams have been this season, that's a series everyone would love to see.

Here are a few thoughts on the early playoff picture.

We may know the playoff field already

The top three have already started to separate themselves from the pack. It is hard to see any of those three teams faltering at this point. Boston also looks in complete control of No.4. The race to watch down the stretch of the season may not be for who makes the playoffs, but just who finishes where.

The battle for first

Washington is in the driver's seat with a two-point lead over the Islanders and a four-point lead over the Penguins, but each team controls its own fate.

The Caps have four games left to play against New York. Yes, Washington is 3-1-0 against them this season, but three of those four remaining games are on Long Island where the Islanders have lost only once in regulation in 18 games (and where they beat the Caps 8-4). Those are going to be tough games.

 

Washington has only another two games against Pittsburgh, but the Penguins still have another five games against New Jersey and four games against Buffalo. Add in the three remaining games against the faltering Flyers and the Penguins certainly have an eminently soft schedule down the stretch.

The Rangers probably aren't going to make the run everyone says they are

Most Caps fans know by now that Washington has struggled against the Rangers this season with a 2-4-0 record in six meetings. After a slow start to the season, New York has gone on a bit of a run of late to vault themselves back into the playoff conversation. This has led to panic among fans who think the Rangers are going to just sneak into the playoffs and end up playing Washington in the first round, a matchup that does not seem ideal given the season record.

But it is going to take a pretty dramatic finish for this to be possible.

Sure, it is far too early to dismiss New York, but it is going to be a really tough hill for them to climb to sneak into the top four. Boston currently holds that spot with a five-point lead over the Rangers. That's not insurmountable but look at the games played. The Bruins also have two games in hand over New York. That makes the Rangers' chances really slim.

New York's final two games of the season are against the Bruins setting up potentially a massive late-season showdown for a playoff spot, but those are also the Rangers' only two remaining games against Boston.

The only reason I think the door is still open is the fact that Jaroslav Halak tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday and has entered into the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list. With Tuukka Rask still out with an injury, Boston will be trying to cement a playoff spot with its third goalie, barring any deadline moves.

Boston is the team to watch

The Bruins are the real wild card in the East. With only 35 games played, Boston is still very much within striking distance of the top three in the division. Another three wins puts them in a tie with Pittsburgh. The goalie situation, however, also means Boston's comfortable lead over the Flyers and Rangers could evaporate very quickly.

And if they manage to tread water and not climb or fall, then they will play the division winner which could very well be the Capitals.