In the final stretch of the season, it’s time to start projecting possible first round matchups for the Caps.
As of March 8, Washington holds a five-point lead over Columbus for first place in the Metropolitan Division and an 11-point lead over Montreal for first place in the Eastern Conference. That means we need to look at teams that could finish in the second wild card spot for possible opponents.
As of right now the Caps would be playing: New York Islanders (73 points)
Caps’ record vs. Islanders this season: 2-3-0
The Islanders have been a tough out for the Caps this season and have also been on a roll under interim coach Doug Weight who took over for Jack Capuano in January. Washington has only played New York once since Weight took over, a 3-2 loss on Jan. 31. If you’re worried about the Islanders, however, the good news is that they are not likely to stay in this spot through the rest of the season. Every game is going to matter down the stretch and the Islanders have a four-game road trip in April and close out the season with a back-to-back with New Jersey on April 8 and Ottawa 23 hours later on April 9.
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Other possible playoff opponents
Boston Bruins (74 points)
Caps’ record vs. Bruins this season: 2-0-0 (1 game remaining on April 8)
Boston currently sits in third place in the Atlantic. For them to slide into the second wild card spot, another team from the Atlantic will have to overtake them and bump them out of the top three. Like the Islanders, Boston is thriving after a mid-season coaching change. Former Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy is now the interim coach of the Bruins and they have gone 8-3-0 under his watch thus far. If they can keep that pace up, they will remain in the top three and avoid that matchup with the Caps.
Toronto Maple Leafs (72 points)
Caps’ record vs. Leafs this season: 1-1-0 (1 game remaining on April 4)
This is a team that Washington simply has not played well against this season. The Caps’ one win came on Jan. 3 in a game in which they allowed five goals and Braden Holtby was pulled after the first period. The Leafs are way ahead of schedule with their rebuild and have a very good chance of sneaking into the playoffs in that last wild card spot. Because of their youth and inexperience, a Washington-Toronto series is one the Caps should win, but playoff matchups against a Mike Babcock-coached team are best avoided.
Philadelphia Flyers (70 points)
Caps’ record vs. Flyers this season: 3-0-1
After a 10-game win streak earlier in the season, being three points out of the playoffs is not where Philadelphia expected to be at this point. The Flyers have essentially been swooning ever since that streak and have not come close to that level of play. The only issue a series with Philadelphia would likely pose for the Caps is a risk of injury considering how physical the Flyers play. Otherwise, this would likely be an easily winnable series for Washington.
Tampa Bay Lightning (69 points)
Caps’ record vs. Lighting this season: 1-0-1 (1 game remaining on March 18)
This is a matchup you should hope the Caps avoid. Yes, they are 1-0-1 against Tampa, but this Lightning team has grossly underachieved all season and has only recently begun to heat up. Tampa went to the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, forcing seven games out of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins. But Tampa is without Steven Stamkos, you say? Do you know how many games the Lightning got out of Steven Stamkos in the playoffs last year? Just one and they still came within one game of repeating as Eastern Conference champs. What’s more is Stamkos is skating with the team again and is nearing a return from a knee injury that has kept him out since November. Tampa is far better than a second wild card team and that’s without Stamkos. Add him to the mix and this is a matchup you really don’t want to see for the Caps in the first round.
Florida Panthers (69 points)
Caps’ record vs. Panthers this season: 2-0-0 (1 game remaining on April 9)
The Panthers are another team that elected to make a midseason coaching change, but they did not seem to get the same sort of spark from the move as Boston or New York. Tom Rowe took over behind the bench when Gerard Gallant was unexpectedly fired in November. Since then, Florida hovered around mediocrity until Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov returned to the lineup in February prompting a surge in the standings. After sweeping a five-game road trip, however, Florida has lost six of their last seven and are in danger of soon falling out of the playoff race completely.
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