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Capitals' playoff opponent watch: A suddenly open Metro race changes Washington's playoff scenario

Capitals' playoff opponent watch: A suddenly open Metro race changes Washington's playoff scenario

In the final stretch of the season, it’s time to start projecting possible first round matchups for the Caps.

As of March 15, Washington sits just two points ahead of Pittsburgh and three points ahead of Columbus for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. They also lead Montreal by 11 points for first place in the Eastern Conference.

As of right now the Caps would be playing: New York Islanders (77 points)

Caps’ record vs. Islanders this season: 2-3-0

Many expected the Islanders to drop out of the race with a nine-game road trip, but the Islanders managed a 5-3-1 record to keep their head above water. Still, New York may struggle to stay in this position because of the streaking Tampa Bay Lightning (more on them later). What also hurts them is how well the Boston Bruins are playing. That means even if the Lightning stay hot and catch the Bruins, Boston will be in a good position to slide into the wild card spot over the Islanders.

RELATED: Burakovsky rejoins teammates, eyes return to game action

Other possible playoff opponents

Pittsburgh Penguins (95 points)

Caps record vs. Penguins this season: 2-0-2

If you hated the NHL’s current playoff format before, just wait if we see a Washington-Pittsburgh series in the first round. Washington’s recent slide has left the door open for Pittsburgh and Columbus to take the top spot in the division. If that happens, the Caps will play the second or third place team in the Metropolitan, depending on where they finish. In my opinion, this matchup is unlikely to happen in the first round because the Blue Jackets would have to pass both Washington and Pittsburgh to win the division. I think if anyone passes the Caps, it will be the Penguins. While the Caps have earned at least a point in each game against the Penguins this season, you can go ahead and throw the record out when it comes to these two teams. Just about everyone believes if the Caps win the Stanley Cup, they will have to go through Pittsburgh, but not many thought this could happen in the very first round.

Columbus Blue Jackets (94 points)

Caps record vs. Blue Jackets this season: 1-1-1 (2 games remaining on March 23 and April 2)

If the Penguins do win the Metropolitan Division, Washington will face a John Tortorella-led Blue Jackets team. Columbus is not as good as they looked when they won 16 straight games earlier in the season, a win streak that was broken by the Caps in a 5-0 blowout, but to their credit they have kept pace with Washington and Pittsburgh to stay within striking distance of the top spot in the Metro. The biggest concern is goalie Sergei Bobrovsky who is having his best season with a .929 save percentage, 2.08 GAA and a career-high 37 wins. Caps fans all know just how much a hot goalie can change a series.

Boston Bruins (80 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, but Tampa Bay is red-hot and trails the Bruins by only three points. Boston may not fall into the wild card, they may be forced there. This isn’t a case of a team falling off at the end of the season, the Bruins are playing well. They are 11-3-0 since former Capitals head coach Bruce Cassidy took over as interim coach and Brad Marchand sits tied for the NHL lead in goals with 35.

Tampa Bay Lightning (77 points)

Caps’ record vs. Lighting this season: 1-0-1 (1 game remaining on March 18)

A Lightning team that has grossly underachieved all season long is suddenly surging and making a serious push to reach the postseason. Even as the injuries continue to mount, it seems like there’s no slowing down Tampa. This is not a matchup you want to see in the first round. 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 and they did it with Steven Stamkos playing in only one postseason game. Stamkos is skating with the team again and is nearing a return from a knee injury that has kept him out since November. Adding a superstar player to a team that is already on a hot streak makes the Lightning very dangerous.

Toronto Maple Leafs (76 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.

Florida Panthers (71 points)

Caps’ record vs. Panthers this season: 2-0-0 (1 game remaining on April 9)

Philadelphia Flyers (70 points)

Caps’ record vs. Flyers this season: 3-0-1

Neither the Panthers nor the Flyers will go away, doing just enough to stay alive in the playoff race, but only just. I don’t anticipate either team doing enough to reach the postseason.

MORE CAPITALS: Prediction recap: Caps find their offense in win over Wild

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The NHLPA won’t reopen the CBA, what does this mean for the 2022 Olympics?

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The NHLPA won’t reopen the CBA, what does this mean for the 2022 Olympics?

The NHL Players’ Association elected Monday not to exercise its right to reopen the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHL. The deadline for the NHLPA’s decision was Sept. 15, but, as that date fell on a Sunday, an exception allowed for the deadline to be extended to Monday, the next business day.

“While players have concerns with the current CBA, we agree with the League that working together to address those concerns is the preferred course of action instead of terminating the agreement following this season,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said via a statement. “We have been having discussions with the League about an extension of the CBA and expect that those talks will continue.”

The NHL also had the option of reopening the CBA, but like the NHLPA elected to keep the current CBA in place. The league’s deadline was Sept. 1.

What this means is the current CBA will remain in place until Sept. 15, 2022 ensuring an additional three years of labor peace. That is significant news for a league that has experienced two work stoppages in the last 15 years.

That’s the good news. The potential bad news is what this could mean for Olympic participation.

The next winter Olympic Games will be held in Beijing in 2022 months before the current CBA will officially expire. Olympic participation is not guaranteed under the current CBA and the players were not allowed to participate in the PyeongChang games in 2018.

Every issue the league had with PyeongChang in terms of having to pause the regular season to participate and the time difference restricting viewership and interest will still be present in the 2022 games.

You have to wonder how that may impact the future of Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin takes Olympic participation very seriously and 2022 will likely be the last time for him to represent his native Russia in the Olympics and compete at a high level. If there is no sense that the NHL will allow its players to participate, does that affect Ovechkin’s future plans when his current contract expires in 2021?

Having said that, the league has made a concerted effort of growing interest in China. Recent years have seen preseason games played there and Ovechkin took a tour through China during the offseason as an NHL ambassador. It seems likely the NHL would be much more interested in participating in Beijing than they would have been in PyeongChang.

To reopen the CBA for the Olympics and its other concerns, however, would have been too much of a gamble. The league has shown its willingness to miss games in order to get a favorable CBA in the past and there is no reason to think that option would not be on the table in 2020.

The NHLPA’s decision on Monday ensures we will see hockey through the 2021-22 season and that’s good for everyone.

“We are pleased with the NHL Players' Association's decision not to reopen the Collective Bargaining Agreement," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "We look forward to continuing to work with the NHLPA for the benefit of all stakeholders, especially our fans."

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3 Caps who impressed in the preseason opener vs. Chicago: Take a bow, Aliaksei Protas

3 Caps who impressed in the preseason opener vs. Chicago: Take a bow, Aliaksei Protas

WASHINGTON -- Hockey made its long-awaited return to Capital One Arena on Monday as the Capitals opened their preseason slate with a 4-3 overtime win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Tom Wilson was the best player on either bare-bones roster and he scored the overtime winner.

Besides Wilson, here are the players who impressed on Monday.

Aliaksei Protas

Protas already stands out because of his size at 6-foot-6. It was his play that stood out during the game, however, as Protas was the best player of the night for Washington.

Playing in the high slot on the power play, Protas took a pass from Christian Djoos. Chicago’s penalty kill box collapsed around him and he calmly backhanded a pass to a wide-open Travis Boyd who ripped the shot past goalie Collin Delia.

Less than two minutes later, Protas took the puck from behind the Caps’ net and started the breakout. He passed off the puck then made a beeline down the ice. When he saw Beck Malenstyn grab the puck along the boards, he headed to the front of the net and was there when Delia lost control of the puck to get the goal.

In addition, Protas recorded an assist on the overtime winner and was impressive for his all-around play. He forced Chicago to the neutral zone with a poke check on the blue line out of the defensive zone and he recorded two blocked shots.

Christian Djoos

The Capitals will need to cut salary early in the season to get under the salary cap and to many, Djoos looked like a possible candidate to be headed out of Washington. He did what he could on Monday, however, to show he should stick around.

Djoos does not typically get much power-play time during the regular season -- he had a grand total of 3:15 power-play TOI in 45 games last season -- but he got plenty of it on Monday and he looked right at home. He was good holding the blue line with the extra man and distributed the puck well from the point. He was rewarded with a secondary assist when he fed Protas in the high-slot in the second period.

Djoos, however, needed to show more than his prowess on the power play -- where he likely will not get much time again this season -- and he did that with an overall solid effort on defense. He outplayed his counterpart, Jonas Siegenthaler, whose place on the team seems all but assured. The only of Chicago’s three goals Djoos was on the ice for was Adam Boqvist’s wicked shot off the post and in and there was nothing anyone could do about that one whether it was Djoos, John Carlson or Bobby Orr.

Beck Malenstyn

If Malenstyn has a future in the NHL, it will be as a fourth-liner. He gave a glimpse of what he had to offer at that NHL level in this game with his high-energy play.

Malenstyn was relentless on the forecheck and looked like he was in constant search of something to hit every time he was on the ice. He was also great on the penalty kill and recorded an assist on Protas’ goal when he flung the puck at the net from the sideboards.

Malenstyn is not going to be a top-six NHL player. He’s not going to put up 20-30 goals. What he can provide, he showed on Monday and it was exactly what you want from a fourth-liner.

Honorable mention: Connor McMichael had the play of the game with his no-look backhand pass to set-up Damien Riat for Washington’s first goal fo the game. His overall game was solid with one assist, two shots on goal and another two attempts blocked.

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