Capitals Need to Focus on Playoffs, Not Division Title

The Washington Capitals are heading into the home stretch with just 10 games left in the regular season and their playoff seeding up in the air. They could finish anywhere from first to fourth in the MassMutual East Division before the postseason begins in mid-May.

The Capitals’ next five games are against the New York Islanders (three) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (two), the two teams directly behind them in the standings, with all three clubs separated by a single point. With a key stretch ahead, how many points does Washington need to grab the division title, or even home-ice in the first round?

This season’s division realignment doesn’t offer much of a reward for finishing first. As of Thursday, the fourth-place club is the defending Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins, who are just four points behind Washington with two games in hand. Unlike a normal playoff season when division winners play wild-card teams to offer some advantage in a tight race, this year offers no such benefit.

Washington’s spot in the playoffs is nearly secure. With a 10-point lead on the fifth-place New York Rangers, they only need to play at a .500 pace in the final stretch to finish at or ahead of the Rangers (even if New York runs the table in the final 10 games).

Who Wants a First-Place Finish More?

The Capitals are used to finishing first in the division, winning five Southeast Division titles and five Metropolitan Division titles since the 2007-08 season, including five consecutive titles heading into this altered season. It’s so common, the organization barely acknowledges the achievement anymore; there used to be an elaborate banner-raising ceremony, which is now just a quietly updated flag hanging at Capital One Arena when the next season starts.

Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin 700 goals
With 10 division titles since 2008, Washington’s success is no longer determined by regular-season titles. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Of the four teams seriously in the hunt this season, the Islanders have gone the longest without a regular-season division title; they last won the Patrick Division in 1987-88. After advancing to the third round last season, and with a younger team looking to make their mark, the Isles might have the most motivation to try and claim the division crown. 

The Penguins last won a division title in 2013-14 — the last time the Caps missed the playoffs — but they have also won a pair Stanley Cup championships in the meantime, which might reduce the importance of finishing first. The Bruins have won five division crowns since 2008-09, three in the Northeast and two in the Atlantic, along with a pair of Presidents’ Trophies and three Eastern Conference championships, and the Cup in 2011. Of the four top teams in the East Division, the Islanders probably have the most drive to go all out to finish first.

Capitals’ Mixed Division Results

Washington has had a decidedly mixed bag of results against the other three likely playoff qualifiers in the East, and there is no opponent that might be considered an easier foe. The Caps are 8-7-3 against the three clubs this season, with highs and lows against each team.

Justin Schultz Washington Capitals
The Capitals have been a successful team away from Capital One Arena this season. (Photo by Sara Schmidle/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Capitals have a 3-4-0 record against the Bruins. The teams have traded blowout wins and losses in the past few weeks that featured some nasty hits in a preview of what could be a very punishing seven-game series for both clubs.

The Penguins have also played the Capitals tight this season. While Washington has just one regulation loss in six games against Pittsburgh, they also have three overtime or shootout losses to go with a pair of regulation wins. Pittsburgh may be a more favorable matchup on paper, but their playoff history indicates that the regular-season series doesn’t mean much.

Against the Islanders, the Capitals have battled through some low-scoring affairs. While Washington won the first three of the eight-game series, New York has won the last two at Nassau Coliseum with two more on tap before the series shifts to Washington on Tuesday. Isles head coach Barry Trotz has his team playing playoff hockey already, and they were able to grind down the Capitals in a five-game series win in last season’s playoff bubble.

As for home ice, the Capitals seem to be better equipped for the road. They have the best road record in the East at 15-7-2 — three more wins than the next teams on the list — but they rank fourth among division foes at home, all behind the other three likely qualifiers.

Temporary Format Doesn’t Favor Firsts

Historically, finishing first in the division has not translated to playoff success.

When the NHL used the strict divisional playoff format where the top four in each division played to advance between 1981-82 and 1992-93, the regular-season division winner won the playoff division title 18 times out of 48 times, so 37.5 percent of those winning the regular-season title also advanced to the conference final. Teams that didn’t win the title advanced 30 times, with the second-place finisher winning 13 times, third place winning nine times and the last qualifier advancing eight times.

Add to that, the last two years none of the eight division winners got to the conference finals, and the NHL opted to modify its playoff format the next season to give the division winners more of an advantage in the postseason by allowing the two division winners in the each conference to play the last two teams in. But, with this year’s COVID-19 threat, the NHL temporarily adopted a format that makes some of the division brackets a very tough place to navigate, and the East will be no exception.

Washington can attest to the relative unpredictability of this season’s format. The one season they won the Patrick Division in the regular season in 1988-89, they were ousted in the first round by the fourth-place Philadelphia Flyers in six games. The following season, they finished third in the Patrick Division, but ousted the second-place New Jersey Devils in six games in the opening round, then upset the regular-season division champion Rangers in five games to win what proved to be their only Patrick Division playoff title.

Vitek Vanecek Washington Capitals
Neither Vitek Vanecek or Ilya Samsonov have playoff experience, so getting them ready is a key aspect of their final 10 regular-season games. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

With the tightness of this year’s MassMutual East Division, there really is no better match for the Capitals in the first round, and whatever benefits of winning the top seed would probably be limited, particularly if a team like Boston ends up in that fourth seed. And, with a team looking to make a deep run after two straight years of winning the Metropolitan Division title and then being eliminated in the first round, the priority will be tuning up their game before the playoffs begin, regardless of where they finish.

Playing well down the stretch and staying healthy should be the primary goal, and if that doesn’t deliver a first-place finish, that isn’t going to make or break the Capitals.

For the team, they are focused on preparing for the playoffs and hoping to finish on a strong note, with six of 10 games against likely playoff opponents.

“I feel we’re down the road of a season where everybody understands what we’re doing now, and there shouldn’t be any excuses with regard to not understanding that or how we move about our business,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette told reporters this week. “I think that the stretch and the teams that we have to play in the stretch are games where we’ll have to play the right way. And by doing that, you prepare yourself for the playoffs.”

Newly-acquired Anthony Mantha, who is set to skate in his first Stanley Cup playoff games this spring, also knows the importance of getting your game right down the stretch.

“It’s the first time obviously for me to be in that position so it is pretty exciting,” Mantha said Wednesday. “I know we have 10 games left so we need to perform really well if we want to finish up top. We need to bring it every night and have three huge games against New York coming up. It starts here and then keeps going down the stretch.”

The more successful finish to the regular season for the Caps would be staying healthy and getting the two goaltenders with zero playoff experience into their first postseason foray. After a pair of division titles — and first-round playoff exits — that is a bigger key than trying to wrest away first place.

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