In the final stretch of the season, it’s time to start projecting possible first round matchups for the Caps.
There are several teams still technically in play as possible opponents for the Caps, but let’s be real. The Capitals are going to finish in the top spot of the conference. Their magic number is one and they would have to lose all three of their remaining games in regulation and the Pittsburgh Penguins would have to win all three of their remaining games for Washington to slide down the standings. So let’s focus on teams that could possibly finish in the second wild card spot.
As of right now the Caps would be playing: The Toronto Maple Leafs (93 points)
Caps’ record vs. Leafs this season: 2-1-0
The Caps dominated on Tuesday in the last meeting between these two teams, but don’t draw any conclusions from that game. There’s a big difference between Game 79 of the regular season, a game in which both backup goalies played, and a playoff series. 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. All of the pressure will be on the Caps to go with all the media that comes with playing Toronto. If you are looking for the “ideal” first-round matchup for Washington, this isn’t it.
Other possible playoff opponents
Ottawa Senators (94 points)
Caps’ record vs. Senators this season: 2-1-0
The fact that we are talking about the Senators at this point is a surprise. At the beginning of the season, I did not look at Ottawa as a playoff team. Then, just a few weeks ago, it looked like the Senators would challenge for first in the Atlantic. Over the course of the season, they have gone from a team with few expectations, to division contender, to possible wild card team. So here we are. Ottawa is dealing with some injuries that have taken their toll in the latter part of the season, but there’s no denying that when the games started to matter, the Senators came up short. In three games against the Montreal Canadiens in March, with the division still up for grabs, Ottawa lost all three of those matchups. They are also the only team in either conference currently in playoff position that owns a negative goal differential (-3). Having said that, the Seantors are certainly no pushover. In January when the Caps were playing at their best, they managed only two narrow wins against Ottawa. While they were beating everybody else 6-0, they beat the Senators 2-1 and 1-0. Ottawa eventually snapped Washington’s 14-game point streak with a 3-0 win. Erik Karlsson is one of the top defensemen in the entire NHL and you can bet this team is going to be playing its heart out for goalie Craig Anderson who has had to leave the team at various points over the season to be with his wife as she battles cancer.
Boston Bruins (94 points)
Caps’ record vs. Bruins this season: 2-0-0 (1 game remaining on April 8)
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. Marchand also seems incapable of behaving himself. In a critical game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, Marchand speared Jake Dotchin right in the pucks. While I seriously doubt any punishment from the league will include any sort of playoff suspension, all eyes will be on him in the postseason. It won’t take much for the NHL to throw the book at him given his growing list of transgressions. Overall, this looks like a team the Caps would matchup well against. Rask is overworked, Zdeno Chara isn’t what he once was and while they may be revitalized under Cassidy, you can go ahead and give Washington the big advantage in terms of coaching.
New York Islanders (88 points)
Caps’ record vs. Islanders this season: 2-3-0
Tampa Bay Lightning (88 points)
Caps’ record vs. Lighting this season: 2-0-1
Trailing Toronto by five points with just three games remaining, it would take a minor miracle at this point for the Islanders and Lightning to reach the postseason.
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