Capitals Could Benefit From Staying in Wild-Card Spot

The NHL trade deadline has come and gone, and though it appeared the Washington Capitals were set to have a quiet day, they made two moves. They acquired Johan Larsson from the Arizona Coyotes and welcomed back Marcus Johansson in a deal with the Seattle Kraken.

Related: Washington Capitals Acquire Forward Marcus Johansson from Kraken

Getting the two forwards came as a surprise of sorts, considering the return of Anthony Mantha has helped tremendously. The team has also been hot because Vitek Vanecek is proving he can be the primary starter moving forward, and Ilya Samsonov has done enough to prove that he was statistically in line with the veterans on the goalie market for management to avoid a move.

With these additions and Daniel Sprong’s exit, it’s still uncertain whether or not this roster can sustain a long playoff run.

Capitals Playing Good Spring Hockey

Since March began, the team is 7-1-1 and started the month on an eight-game point streak, the lone regulation loss coming on Sunday to the Dallas Stars. Their 15 points are good for second in the league during that span, and they are averaging four goals per game — which ranks fourth — and holding their opponents to just 2.67 goals per game, which is eighth in the NHL. Finally, their 1.33 goal differential is good for third.

Anthony Mantha Washington Capitals
Anthony Mantha, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Washington remains comfortably slotted in the second wild-card spot, separated from the Columbus Blue Jackets by 13 points. The leaders in the Metropolitan Division are on equal pace, so making up five to eight points is a task at the moment. Depending on the matchup, perhaps it’s a good thing to fly under the radar and stay where they are, especially considering the Capitals have the second-best road record in the NHL.

Facing the Hurricanes

The Carolina Hurricanes are atop the Metro with 88 points, and the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers sit behind them with 85 each. All three boast a .500 point percentage or above in their last 10 contests. As of today, the Hurricanes are just two points behind the Florida Panthers as the two vie for the top seed in the Eastern Conference; however, the Penguins and Rangers are still in striking distance, as are the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs.

If Carolina matches up against Washington, either as the 1 versus 8 or 2 versus 7 series, the Capitals have the upper hand based on the season’s results. They are 3-0 against the Hurricanes with a goal differential of 2.33, and they’ve averaged four goals per game even though Carolina posts the best goals-against average in the league at 2.37.

Facing the Panthers

If Washington ends up in a series against Florida, they will likely have more trouble. The Capitals are 1-1-1 versus the Panthers this season, and though they are also averaging four goals a game in those contests, they are giving up 4.33 to the most potent offense in the NHL with their 4.06 goals per game. It gets tougher, as the Panthers added Claude Giroux. The ex-Philadelphia center had three points (1 goal, 2 assists) in three games versus Washington this season before he was traded.

Related: Panthers Acquire Claude Giroux from Flyers

The head-to-head numbers suggest the series could go seven games with a lot of scoring. However, if it comes down to which goalie needs to stop just one more puck, Vanecek appears to have the edge over Sergei Bobrovsky. The Panthers’ netminder has 30 wins, a save percentage of .917,  and a 2.57 goals-against average in 41 games this season. Vanecek has 16 wins in 32 games with a .918 save percentage and 2.37 goals-against. Yet, the smaller sample size skews that theory a tad. Vanecek also has one more shutout (3) than Bobrovsky.

Facing the Rest

If the Capitals stay in the wild-card slot, there’s the likely chance of a first-round matchup between the Penguins and Rangers when only one of their rivals can survive. This season, Washington is 1-1 against New York and 2-1 against Pittsburgh.

Eastern OpponentGamesRecordGF/GPGA/GP
Florida Panthers31-1-14.004.33
Carolina Hurricanes33-0-04.001.67
New York Rangers21-1-03.002.50
Pittsburgh Penguins32-1-04.002.67
Tampa Bay Lightning20-1-11.502.50
Toronto Maple Leafs10-1-03.005.00
Boston Bruins20-2-03.005.50
Capitals versus other Eastern Conference playoff teams in 2021-22

The other three Eastern Conference playoff squads might be Washington’s biggest obstacle, though they’ve only played a collective five games versus the Boston Bruins, Lightning, and Maple Leafs. Yet, they are 0-4-1 in those contests, the lone point coming against the Lightning. The Bruins and Maple Leafs each have a two-plus goal differential against the Capitals in head-to-head games. Overall, the Capitals are 7-7-2 versus the other seven potential playoff teams in the East.

Eastern Conference Appears to be Set

Unlike the Western Conference, which has 12 teams that could make the playoffs, the Eastern Conference’s postseason seems to be set, with only seeding left to be determined with a quarter of the regular season remaining. The Capitals, who were on the verge of full panic mode just a month ago, don’t necessarily need to fret about the potential matchup, and along with their impressive record away from Capital One Arena, they should have confidence moving forward.

The important thing is that they’re finding a groove on offense, and Vanecek is becoming more comfortable in net. Mantha has five points in nine games since returning from shoulder surgery, which also coincides with the team’s surge in production. Considering Daniel Sprong only recorded one point in his last 10 games (14 overall this season), Washington presumingly got better on offense by adding Larsson and Johansson. The two have 15 and 23 points, respectively.

Related: Capitals Used Canadian Road Trip to Spark Their Offense

In net, Vanecek is 6-1-0 in March with a .924 save percentage, a 2.41 goals-against average, and one shutout. His wins are the most in the NHL this month. There is still a lot of season left, but the Capitals are showing what they can do when the roster is healthy. If they can sustain this pace and Larsson and Johansson find their groove, the team will become a difficult matchup for any of their Eastern Conference foes come playoff time.

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