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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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Samsonov shines, the bottom-six was the difference and time to Panik?

Samsonov shines, the bottom-six was the difference and time to Panik?

Ilya Samsonov had his best NHL performance on Saturday in a big 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Capitals got contributions from players all over the lineup in a big win.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the win

Everyone is pitching in

Look at Saturday's game and Wednesday's game. Whatever the Caps needed, they were able to get. Against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, they needed a key coach's challenge and the video coaches delivered. They needed someone to take over the game and T.J. Oshie delivered. They needed a big night from the penalty kill and Carl Hagelin and Co. delivered. They needed a response to Boston's tying goal and John Carlson delivered.

Now look at Saturday's game. Ilya Samsonov got the start and he delivered when the Caps had a slow start to the game. The fourth line settled everything down and Alex Ovechkin forced a turnover behind the net to give Washington the lead. The bottom-six scored twice to give Washington control, Oshie scored a quick response goal when Tampa Bay tried to battle back and the penalty kill delivered again.

The Caps are not being carried by Ovechkin, it's not a hot goalie or a dominant blue line, it is a complete team effort and it is extremely impressive to watch.

Samsonov had his best NHL game

We knew Samsonov and Braden Holtby were going to split the weekend's games for the dad's trip. I expected Holtby would get the tougher game in Tampa Bay, but instead Todd Reirden went with Samsonov. The rookie had three brilliant saves in the first five minutes of the game. Tampa Bay was the better team for the first two periods and Samsonov only gave up one goal in those 40 minutes. This was a big boy offense and some big boy hockey. Samsonov was up to the task.

Good penalty kill, too many penalties

The Lightning entered this game with the second-best power play in the NHL. Limiting penalties was a big key to the game for Washington and...they did not do that. The Caps gave up five power play opportunities to Tampa Bay, just daring the Lighting offense to take fire. Tampa Bay was only able to cash in only once.

On the one hand, it's great that the penalty kill is playing so well. On the other hand, the Caps must stop taking so many penalties.

Time to Panik?

I have stressed the importance of patience for Richard Panik who is not only adjusting to a new team, but who had an injury and missed 10 games on LTIR. Now, however, it seems like patience is starting to run out.

Panik played a team-low 8:10 on Saturday. Players who get that little ice time are usually either fourth line players or players who do not contribute to special teams. Panik is supposed to be a penalty killer, but despite five penalty kill opportunities, he registered only 14 seconds of shorthanded ice time.

Panik's offensive struggles have been well documented (he had an assist on Saturday), but if he is not contributing on the penalty kill either...well, that's an issue.

Turning point

Tampa Bay looked like the better team for the first 40 minutes. Thanks to Samsonov, the game was tied at 1 at the start of the third. These two teams boast some of the top offensive stars in the NHL, but it was Washington's bottom-six that gave them the edge as Lars Eller scored early in the third and Garnet Hathaway added a second goal just 45 seconds later.

Suddenly the Lightning were on their heels after looking in control for the majority of the game.

Play of the game

Just when the Caps took the one-goal lead, Hathaway came swooping in to make it 3-1.

Stat of the game

The Caps' PK had a success rate of only 78.9-percent last season. This is a dramatic improvement.

Quote of the game

John Hathaway, father or Garnet, stole the show between the first and second period:

"I think as parents, we try to teach them like two lessons as kids growing up. It's like, if you can dream it, you can do it and never, never, never give up. The dads are here tonight and I think they're not only so proud of their sons, but they're happy for their sons because they know that they had big dreams, they dared to dream big and they never gave up."

Fan predictions

Hey, two for two.

No Ovechkin goal, but you got the score right.

Eller with a big goal tonight assisted by Panik.

Backstrom had only two, but just a few games removed from returning from injury, he looks like he hasn't missed any time at all out there.

This bit will never get old to me.

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Samsonov weathers the Lightning in shutdown performance

Samsonov weathers the Lightning in shutdown performance

Ilya Samsonov got the difficult assignment on Saturday of playing on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He proved to be up to the challenge with a brilliant performance in net, leading the Capitals to the 5-2 victory, their second win over the Lightning in 16 days.

Here is how Washington won.

Ilya Samsonov

There's no question who the player of this game was. Samsonov was brilliant in this game. He had an immediate impact as the Lightning came out firing. Samsonov robbed Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev all in the first five minutes of the game.

Samsonov did not fade down the stretch either. Tampa Bay dominated in the second period and Samsonov turned aside 10 of the 11 shots he faced. For the game, he stopped 26 out of 28.

The fourth line and top line team up

The Lightning were all over Washington at the start of the game and Samsonov was the only reason Tampa Bay did not take advantage. A really strong shift by the fourth line for Washington seemed to settle everything down. Soon after, the Caps were celebrating a 1-0 lead.

Defenseman Jan Rutta had the puck behind the net. Ondrej Palat came wheeling around for the handoff and Alex Ovechkin saw him coming. As Palat wheeled one way, Ovechkin came charging the other. That forced Rutta to flub the pass and the puck bounced right in front of the net to a wide-open Nicklas Backstrom who fired it into the net.

Incidental contact

Tampa Bay thought they had the tie early in the second when Carter Verhaeghe finally got one past Samsonov, but the goal was immediately waved off for goalie interference.

Mathieu Joseph and John Carlson were battling in the defensive zone when Joseph was skated into Samsonov. He was not necessarily pushed, but he and Carlson battled their way into the Caps' netminder, which did not allow Samsonov the chance to defend against Verhaeghe's shot.

You never know what can happen with a goalie interference call, but in this case the referee got it right. It was no goal for incidental contact and no penalty for goalie interference.

The bottom-six

These two teams boast some of the top offensive stars in the NHL. But that's not all it takes to win in the NHL and the Caps' showed off their depth in the third period, which really proved to be the difference.

With the game tied at one, Dmitry Orlov made a great play at the offensive blue line to get the puck over to Richard Panik despite the immediate pressure he faced. Panik set up Lars Eller who one-timed it past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Just 45 seconds later the fourth line came streaking down the ice and Brendan Leipsic teed up Garnet Hathaway, who took it in on net and chipped it through Vasileskiy.

Those two quick goals suddenly turned the game on its head. To that point, the Lightning had been the better team. After that, the Caps were dominant.

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