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Capitals' playoff opponent watch: Battling Brooklyn

Capitals' playoff opponent watch: Battling Brooklyn

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.

RELATED: Capitals ink two college free agents

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.

MORE CAPITALS: Burakovsky won't travel with Caps, after all

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Brooks Orpik's knee injury helped decision on retirement

Brooks Orpik's knee injury helped decision on retirement

One big reason Brooks Orpik decided to hang up his skates, as he announced on Tuesday, was the severity of a knee injury, which impaired him for most of the 2018-19 season.

"I knew a long time ago, to be honest with you," Orpik told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "From the time I had surgery on it was pretty evident that I wasn't gonna play another year after this."

After playing 10 games in October to start the season, Orpik was was placed on long-term injured reserve, then underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in November. 

He returned to the lineup Dec. 31 and played a total of 53 games during the regular season last year.

But despite the medical staff's best efforts, Orpik remained in pain for the duration of the season.

"I'd use the elevator at [Capital One Arena] to go up and down cause I couldn't go up and down stairs," Orpik said. "When I couldn't do that it was time to stop playing hockey I figured.

"I could just get it to a point where I could play for two and a half hours and then pay for it afterward and then try to do it all over again."

Orpik's dealt with a multitude of injuries during his career in Washington. During the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, Orpik lost part of his pinkie finger after a brutal slash courtesy of Erik Haula. He also dealt with an infection in his leg during the Caps 2017 playoff run, which he acquired after blocking a shot.

During his tenure with the Penguins, Orpik suffered a broken finger in 2011 and was carted off the ice in 2013 after being pulled down and punched by then Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton.

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Free Agency Bracket: Brett Connolly vs. Devante Smith-Pelly

Free Agency Bracket: Brett Connolly vs. Devante Smith-Pelly

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin, and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s quarterfinal matchup:

Region: Capitals free agents

Brett Connolly vs. Devante Smith-Pelly
 
2018-19 stats

Brett Connolly (27 years old): 81 games played with the Capitals, 22 goals, 24 assists, 46 points, 13:20 TOI
 
Playoffs: 7 games played with the Capitals, 2 goals, 0 assists, 4 points, 13:50 TOI

Devante Smith-Pelly (27 years old): 54 games played with the Capitals, 4 goals, 4 assists, 8 points, 10:51 TOI

Playoffs: 3 games played with the Caps, no goals, no assists, no points, 9:47 TOI

 
Hockey-Graph contract projections

Brett Connolly: 3 years, $3,536,091 cap hit
 
Devante Smith-Pelly: 2 years, $1,149,369

The case for Brett Connolly

The Capitals have already re-signed one of their third-line free agents with Carl Hagelin’s new deal. Is there room left for Connolly? Connolly has made himself comfortable in Washington. He tied his career highs in goals twice (15) and then broke through with a career-best 22. And he is one of the league’s most productive players given his limited ice time. 
 
There are just too many big names in front of Connolly to get him much power-play time. Those 22 goals wouldn’t be easy to replace and GM Brian MacLellan said scoring depth is a concern this offseason. If he is again willing to sacrifice role for a bump in pay and some security then maybe Connolly returns to a place he re-ignited his career. The talent is certainly there as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2010 draft and Connolly is headed into his age-27 season so a three or four-year deal takes care of his prime years. 
 
But the argument ultimately rests on the salary cap, which at $81.5 million is problematic. It might be out of Washington’s hands anyway. Even if the Capitals want to keep him, other teams could use money AND ice time to entice Connolly. But can they strike gold again with another cheap third-line winger as they did with Connolly? That’s not easy to replicate. They could simply sign Connolly and take care of it, but the salary cap is tight.

The case for Smith-Pelly

There is no question that Smith-Pelly can be inconsistent, but he always seems to bring it in the playoffs. Before his seven-goal performance in the 2018 Cup run, Smith-Pelly was brilliant with the Anaheim Ducks scoring five goals in 12 games back in 2014.

With Carl Hagelin re-signed and players like Jakub Vrana, Christian Djoos and other depth pieces still on the horizon, affordability is pretty much the biggest asset for any free agent available to Washington and it won’t get much more affordable than Smith-Pelly.

Hockey-Graphs can be spot on with some of its projections and outright wrong for others and this case is definitely the latter. Smith-Pelly’s contract for the 2018-19 season was a one-year deal with a cap hit of $1 million. After scoring just eight points and getting demoted to the AHL, there is no way he walks into next season with a two-year deal and a raise. The cap hit is going to be low for Smith-Pelly and that makes him a very attractive choice for the Caps – if both sides can put last year’s awkwardness behind them. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here. 

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