In the final stretch of the season, it’s time to start projecting possible first round matchups for the Caps.
Washington has given itself some breathing room away from the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they can’t seem to shake the Columbus Blue Jackets who remain hot on their heels for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. As of now, however, the Caps remain in first place in the division which would mean a first-round matchup against the second wild card team.
As of right now the Caps would be playing: The Boston Bruins (86 points)
Caps’ record vs. Bruins this season: 2-0-0 (1 game remaining on April 8)
Boston slid out of third place in the Atlantic, but they did manage to stay in a playoff spot with two wins to end a four-game skid. This is not a wild card team to sleep on given that they boast one of the top offensive players and agitators in the NHL in Brad Marchand and a top netminder in Tuukka Rask. There is a concern, however, that Rask has been overworked this season and that is a sentiment shared by Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. As good as Marchand is, Boston won’t be going anywhere without Rask. Does he have enough left in the tank to lead the Bruins into the postseason and if he does, how much more will he have left for the playoffs?
Other possible playoff opponents
Columbus Blue Jackets (105 points)
Caps record vs. Blue Jackets this season: 2-1-1 (1 games remaining on April 2)
Columbus and the Caps battled in a tight game over the week that saw the Caps earn a narrow 2-1 shootout win. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is making a case for the Vezina or the Hart with this play. He has a .935 save percentage and 1.97 GAA and is more than capable of leading the Blue Jackets deep into the playoffs. But, as Columbus continues winning, the battle for the Metro is becoming more and more of a two-team race. Pittsburgh, currently five points back of the Caps, would have to pass both Columbus and Washington for a Caps-Jackets first-round matchup. That seems unlikely at this point.
Pittsburgh Penguins (103 points)
Caps record vs. Penguins this season: 2-0-2
With the Caps and Columbus separating themselves from the Penguins, the race to win the Metro has suddenly become the race to avoid a first-round matchup with Pittsburgh. While the Caps have earned at least a point in each game against the Penguins this season, you can go ahead and throw the records out when it comes to these two teams. While this may not be the matchup you want to see in the first round, it perhaps would not be the worst thing in the world for Washington. The Penguins are not a healthy team right now as they are dealing with several injuries to key players including Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Would the Caps be better off getting Pittsburgh early while they are still getting healthy?
Toronto Maple Leafs (87 points)
Caps’ record vs. Leafs this season: 1-1-0 (1 game remaining on April 4)
It’s hard to know what to expect from a young team like the Leafs when they reach the postseason. Toronto is way ahead of schedule with its rebuild and was not expected to reach the playoffs this year. With Mike Babcock behind the bench as well as young stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Nikita Zaitsev this is a dangerous team that will be playing very loose and free with no expectations. Plus, they are a team the Caps always seem to struggle against. The last time these two teams met, Braden Holtby was pulled after allowing three goals in the first period. The health of goalie Frederik Andersen is a concern, however, as he is dealing with an unspecified injury. That could lead Toronto to slide in the standings down a wild card spot or perhaps even out of the postseason altogether, depending on how much time he may miss.
Tampa Bay Lightning (83 points)
Caps’ record vs. Lighting this season: 2-0-1
Every time I’m ready to write the Lightning off, they surge. Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman are single-handedly keeping a beaten up Tampa team in the playoff race. Here’s what makes them so dangerous: At some point, a Lightning team that has reached the conference finals in each of the past two seasons is going to start getting some of their injured players back such as Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson. At full strength, Tampa is much better than a wild card team. No one wants to be playing them when they finally do get healthy.
New York Islanders (82 points)
Caps’ record vs. Islanders this season: 2-3-0
I'll be honest, I have no idea really what to make of the Islanders right now. They recalled Jaroslav Halak from the AHL and he started in a shootout win over Pittsburgh. Since then, they went back to Thomas Greiss and have lost both games. Now, to be fair, New York scored only one goal in both games so you can’t lay all those problems at the feet of Greiss. Having said that, however, why recall Halak if you’re not going to use him? Now the Islanders are back to three goalies and seemingly no plan on how to utilize them. This feels like a team just throwing everything at the wall and hoping something will stick. I am not giving them much chance of getting back into the wild card.
Carolina Hurricanes (82 points)
Caps’ record vs. Hurricanes this season: 3-1-0
A 12-game point streak in which the Hurricanes have gone 8-0-4 has resurrected Carolina’s playoff hopes. Rookie Sebastian Aho has been tremendous, Jordan Staal remains as dangerous as ever and the goaltending, long thought to be the Achilles heel of this team, has been just good enough. It’s not great, but it is not the glaring weakness it was last season. Bill Peters is one of the most underrated coaches in the NHL and the Hurricanes are peaking, but is there enough time left for them to climb over the teams in front of them?
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