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Capitals' playoff opponent watch: Toronto jumps into wild card

Capitals' playoff opponent watch: Toronto jumps into wild card

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

Washington still finds itself in a tight race for the top of the Metropolitan Division, but the Caps look like their are back on track after a recent slump and still hold first place.

As of right now the Caps would be playing: The Toronto Maple Leafs (81 points)

Caps’ record vs. Islanders 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 were not expected to reach the playoffs this year. Plus, with Mike Babcock behind the bench, this is a dangerous team. But considering the youth that makes up the roster, you have to expect them to hit the wall at some point. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nikita Zaitsev, the young rookies that make up the core of his team have never played in an 82-game season before and there is no more physically grueling hockey league than the NHL. Sure, should the Leafs make the playoffs, they will be playing with house money and should be very loose, but how much will they really have left in the tank for a seven-game series?

RELATED: Shattenkirk still looking for first goal as a Cap after scoring change

Other possible playoff opponents

Pittsburgh Penguins (101 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. We are headed for a photo finish in the Metropolitan Division between the Caps, Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. The two teams that lose that race will get to face one another in the first round. 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. As difficult as it is to comprehend just how these two teams could open the playoffs against one another, this perhaps would not be the worst thing in the world. The Penguins are not a healthy team right now as they are dealing with several injuries to key players. For my money, however, I think the Caps would be better off watching Pittsburgh get further beaten up in a series with Columbus and then face the winner.

Columbus Blue Jackets (100 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 making a case for the Vezina or the Hart with this play. He has a .931 save percentage and 2.04 GAA and is more than capable of leading the Blue Jackets deep into the playoffs.

Boston Bruins (82 points)

Caps’ record vs. Bruins this season: 2-0-0 (1 game remaining on April 8)

Boston is still clinging to third place in the Atlantic for now, but Toronto is hot on its heels and could well overtake the Bruins. Boston has lost three straight including a loss to the Leafs who could push the Bruins down into the wild card. This is not a wild card team to sleep on, however, as they boast one of the top offensive players and agitators in the NHL in Brad Marchand and a top netminder in Tuukka Rask.

New York Islanders (78 points)

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

The Islanders have finally lost their grip on the wild card spot. They have lost four of their last five and it looks like the honeymoon period between the team and interim coach Doug Weight is now over. Does a team that looked like one of the worst in the Eastern Conference for much of the season have enough steam to battle back into the wild card?

Tampa Bay Lightning (77 points)

Caps’ record vs. Lighting this season: 2-0-1

At last week’s update, the Lightning had 77 points. This week: 77 points. Not good. With three straight losses including a home loss to the woeful Arizona Coyotes, it appears the injuries have finally caught up to Tampa. They now trail Toronto by four points and the Leafs hold a game in hand so this matchup now seems unlikely.

MORE CAPITALS: Ovechkin will wear custom painted skates Thursday

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Caps finally solve Halak for improbable shootout win

Caps finally solve Halak for improbable shootout win

The Capitals needed a goal from T.J. Oshie with less than a minute remaining to force overtime on Saturday where they would go on to defeat the Boston Bruins 3-2 in a shootout.

It looked like Jaroslav Halak would once again pull off a miraculous win as he turned aside 42 shots, but the Caps kept up the pressure late to tie the game and get back in the win column.

Saturday's win is now Washington's 15th in the last 16 contests against the Bruins.

Here is how the Caps won.

Boyd makes the most of his opportunity

On Friday, Travis Boyd was a Hershey Bear. With Nic Dowd and Carl Hagelin both injured but without enough money under the cap for Boyd, the Caps recalled Tyler Lewington on Friday and skated seven defensemen and only 11 forwards against the Montreal Canadiens. On Saturday, the team sent Lewington and Ilya Samsonov to Hershey and recalled Vitek Vanecek and Boyd. The extra cap space the team gained from Vanecek taking Samsonov's spot allowed them to recall Boyd and skate four full forward lines. The impact of Boyd's addition was felt in the first period when Boyd scored a deflection to beat Halak and get the Caps on the board.

In seven games with the Caps this season, Boyd has one goal and four assists.

Caps get their power play setup on 6-on-5

For much of the night, the Caps just could not figure out Halak. They poured on the shots, but he was there each time and looked like he would be able to lead his team to the narrow victory. Late in regulation, the Caps pulled Braden Holtby for the extra attacker and the Caps gave Boston a power play look.

Washington had its top power play unit on the ice plus Tom Wilson. The goal looked like one right out of the power play's playbook with Evgeny Kuznetsov behind the goal line feeding Oshie in the slot. Oshie is great at getting those quick shots away from in close and he finally beat Halak with 59 seconds remaining.

Oshie was instrumental in setting up the goal as well as he blocked a clearing attempt from Zdeno Chara with his glove to keep the puck in the offensive zone just seconds before Kuznetsov set him up for the goal.

Backstrom and Vrana deliver in the shootout

Washington scored only twice on the shootout, but that would be all they needed.

The normally automatic Oshie was stopped on his shootout attempt putting Washington behind early on.I n a score-or-go-home situation for Nicklas Backstrom, he managed to sneak a shot in between the glove and the pad of Halak to force extra rounds of the shootout. Then Jakub Vrana pulled off one of the nices shootout goals you will ever see.

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Boyd makes his case, Oshie saves the game and Vrana dazzles

Boyd makes his case, Oshie saves the game and Vrana dazzles

The Capitals are back in the win column after Saturday's 3-2 shootout win, but they almost didn't get there because of that pesky Jaroslav Halak. It took a last minute goal from T.J. Oshie and some shootout magic by Jakub Vrana. Having four full forward lines certainly helped, too.

Check out the recap of Saturday's game here.

Observations from the win

Boyd or Stephenson? Boyd is making his case

Carl Hagelin and Nic Dowd are both out with injury. Both are considered day-to-day and one or both should be returning to the lineup sooner rather than later. When that happens, the Caps are going to have to send someone back to Hershey and, with a goal against Boston, Travis Boyd is doing his best to make sure it isn't him.

In all likelihood, the decision will come down to Boyd or Chandler Stephenson again. Boyd has lost that competition earlier this season, but after Boyd's goal on Saturday I think whether to keep him in Washington or not at least warrants a discussion.

The Caps are so close to the salary cap that when both Dowd and Hagelin were out injured, the team recalled Tyler Lewington, a defenseman, because it could not afford Boyd under the cap ceiling. With things so tight, the Caps need to find a way to bank more cap space and keeping Boyd ($800,000 cap hit) over Stephenson ($1.05 million cap hit) would certainly help.

It's not just about money. Stephenson responded to Todd Reirden's preseason challenge and justified his spot in the lineup to start. He is a very fast player which is an important attirbute in today's NHL and also plays on the penalty kill which Boyd does not.

Five-on-five play matters too, however, and Boyd has far exceeded Stephenson's play in that area including his production. In 18 games and an average of 11:22 of ice time, Stephenson has 2 goals and one assist. In just seven games and 9:09 of ice time, Boyd has one goal and four assists.

Boyd produces with less playing time in fewer games and has a lower cap hit. Is the fact that Stephenson can play on the penalty kill enough to send Boyd back to Hershey? I'm not so sure.

The value of dirty goals

Don't get me wrong, Jaroslav Halak was great in this game. He made 42 saves and did a great job tracking the puck and getting in front of it to make the first save. Having said that, he was shaky with the puck all night. He could make that first save, but everything after was an adventure. He struggled to control his rebounds or the puck and that was an area the Caps needed to take advantage of, but couldn't.

Washington has one of the top offenses in the NHL and they are doing it largely with an offense that shoots off the pass. There's nothing wrong with that. Clearly it works. Making a goalie move back and forth and not allowing him to get set makes life difficult. Having said that, on nights like this where Halak is getting to everything he can see, you need dirty goals and that is one area in which the Caps are lacking.

What are dirty goals? The deflections (like Boyd's), the rebounds, the screens, the loose pucks in front. Those were the goals the Caps needed and, apart from Boyd's first-period tally, they couldn't get them. Ultiamtely the result was a win so it does not matter, but it seemed like the offense was a lot more difficult than it needed to be. There were goals to be had and opportunities in front of Halak. That is a tool the Caps need to add to their arsenal and use more often than they do.

Time to see more of Hathaway and Gudas

We are seeing more and more of Tom Wilson mixing things up lately and that's fine. It's what he does and he's very good at getting under opponents' skin. Right now it seems like we are seeing a lot of Wilson doing it and not enough of it from Garnet Hathaway or Radko Gudas. In a physical game like this one, I would like to see more of them mixing things up and less of it fall on Wilson who is a top-six, often top-line forward.

Turning point

Washington had 44 shots on goal in this game, 11 of which came in the third period. It looked like it was just not going to be the Caps' night thanks to Halak (again). Oshie, however, delivered with just 59 seconds remaining in regulation.

Play of the game

I am not a big fan of the shootout. The 3-on-3 overtime format is amazing and it seems like such a letdown when games go to the shootout. Having said that, this Jakub Vrana shootout goal was filthy.

This, however, is a close 2nd to the play of the game.

Evidently Marchand is only tough when it comes to Lars Eller.

Stat of the game

Braden Holtby has put the early season struggles behind him.

Quote of the game

Boyd on Vrana's shootout goal:

"Man, nasty. Unbelievable. I'm sure it will be all over the highlights tonight. Not only to go ahead in the shootout and put us ahead there and give us a chance to win with a [Holtby] stop, but to do it in that fashion, that's pretty cool."

Fan predictions

You guys may have overshot this one...just a bit.

Patrice Bergeron was out injured. Even so, David Pastrnak still got a goal.

Boyd didn't get two points, but he did get a goal.

Keep trying. You'll get there.

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