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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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Red Penguins: The story you've never heard about the Penguins' partnership with Russia's Red Army hockey team

Red Penguins: The story you've never heard about the Penguins' partnership with Russia's Red Army hockey team

It may be the greatest hockey story you've never heard of and it's almost too crazy to believe.

The upcoming Universal documentary Red Penguins tells the story of how the Pittsburgh Penguins developed a partnership with a Russian hockey team. But it wasn't just any hockey team, it was CSKA Moscow, the government-run Red Army hockey team, the most storied hockey team in Russia. They had no idea what they were in for.

Barely three minutes into the movie produced by Gabe Polsky - whose 2014 documentary "Red Army" covered the four decades of dominance by the Russian national hockey team from the 1950s to the 1990s - and you are quickly caught up in a wild ride with Howard Baldwin and Tom Ruta, Pittsburgh's owners at the time, talking about how crazy the idea of getting involved with CSKA really was.

It's never really clear who had the idea and who approached them to form the partnership so you are left wondering why exactly the organization decided to take this gamble. Weirder still: The tangential involvement of celebrity investors like actor Michael J. Fox. 

Even if the movie initially feels rushed to start, however, you soon find out why: Because the real story is what happens when ownership sends eccentric lawyer Steven Warshaw to Russia to manage business there. That's when things get truly crazy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a hockey team that never had to wonder where its resources would come from suddenly had to think about how to make money. Meanwhile, the American investors had no idea what they were stepping into. The Iron Curtain may have fallen, but what Russia was really like behind it was still largely a mystery to everyone. 

"I expected that the country would be somewhat functioning," Warshaw said. "It turned out I was wrong."

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A strip club in the arena, strippers on the ice, the Russian mob, bears, stolen money and even an alleged relationship with Disney all followed. Russia was a country in which there were few rules in the post-Cold War era and Warshaw and the Penguins found this out very quickly.

As the team grew in popularity, so did the interest of the Russian mob. Interestingly enough, the ownership group always expected their Russian counterparts to steal from them, but this only became a problem when they began stealing too much.

A plea for help from the Russian Army to combat the influence of the mob led to this telling quote from a Russian general: "I never had any problems with the criminals. If they paid on time then the arrangement worked.”

It wasn't until people involved with the team began to die that the ownership group realized they needed to end their partnership and get Warshaw out.

It's a story too crazy to be fiction and you'll have to see it to believe it.

Red Penguins will be available to stream via iTunes, Amazon and on demand on cable systems across the country on Aug. 4.

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T.J. Oshie's turning point fight, Richard Panik stays hot and the Caps get physical

T.J. Oshie's turning point fight, Richard Panik stays hot and the Caps get physical

The Capitals opened round-robin play with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, putting them in third place of the round-robin standings. Washington rallied from a 2-0 deficit and was the better team in the third period and overtime, but they walk away with only the single point.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

It’s still early

The team that played the first half of this game wasn’t very good, but the team that played the second half was much better. A lot of that was just getting back into game rhythm so it’s still too soon to tell how good this team really is yet. Are they the team that blew through the first half of the season or the team that looked like they couldn’t beat anyone from January to March?

RELATED: CAPS WON'T DISCUSS OVI EXTENSION UNTIL OFFSEASON

Physical play is key to this team’s identity

When the Caps began to get more physical, the game turned around. At its core, Washington is a physical team. A 2-0 game turned around because of a fight in the second period (more on that later). This is how they are successful and this is how they will need to continue to play.

Holtby looks completely different

Braden Holtby looks like a completely new goalie from the one that could not even manage a .900 save percentage in the regular season. He made a number of difficult saves and, critically, he made a number of those saves without giving up any rebounds. Rebound control has always been a strength of Holtby’s so to see him swallow up shots without giving up any second or third chance opportunities is a good sign.

Holtby was always going to be key to the team’s playoff success, but that is even more true without the safety net of Ilya Samsonov as a backup. This was a good game for Holtby and a good sign for Washington.

What to make of the power play

Not counting the nine-second power play the Caps had at the end of overtime, Washington had three opportunities with the extra man. The first two looked about as bad as any we have seen this season. The third looked very good and resulted in a goal. I hope the third power play was the result of adjustments made on the first two efforts and not just a result of a talented team getting a token goal.

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Turning point

The Caps were down 2-0 and looked like they were headed for a lackadaisical loss until T.J. Oshie dropped the gloves with Yanni Gourde.

Less than five minutes later, the game was tied at two and the Caps were the better team from then until the shootout.

Play of the game

Midway through the first period, Lars Eller turned the puck over to Brayden Point in the neutral zone. He took it into the offensive zone and handed it off to Nikita Kucherov. Michal Kempny forced him wide, but Kucherov let off an incredible shot to the far corner to beat Holtby. When the defense does its job, the goalie is ready and you are still able to pick your spot and score, that’s a dangerous sniper.

Stat of the game

Richard Panik scored Washington’s first goal of the game. He has been on a roll even before the pause.

Also an important stat: the Caps did not give up a single power play to Tampa Bay.

Quote of the game

Brenden Dillon on physical play:

“Yeah, I think that’s what we pride ourselves on. When we’re playing our best hockey, we’re playing physical. When we’re playing our best hockey, we have the skill to go with it and the speed as well. Come playoff time, we know we’re built for this style of game. We know when we’re at our best and playing Caps hockey. We’re finishing our checks, we’re hard on the forecheck and playing hard in the D zone. I think altogether tonight, we were pretty happy with our performance, but at the end of the day we’ve got to find a way to get an extra win and keep pushing forward for the next game.”

Runner up goes to Pat Maroon who was asked how his legs felt in overtime.

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