What a difference a week makes.
Last Sunday, the Washington Capitals came out flat after an extended five-day break with a 5-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild, and things looked bleak for the Caps’ future outlook.
The loss seemingly locked them into the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, and may have even put their playoff existence at risk by trailing the third-place Pittsburgh Penguins by eight points in the Metropolitan Division standings. Their lead over the New York Islanders also dropped down to 11 points, all the way from 19.
Unexpectedly, the Capitals reeled off a trio of impressive wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Penguins and Boston Bruins, and now they are virtually assured of a playoff berth, and could even chase down the Penguins for the third spot in the division should they falter down the stretch.
Washington’s win streak has it closing in on its 14th playoff appearance in the last 15 seasons. The Capitals need just a combination of eight points won by them or lost by the Islanders to officially secure a spot in this year’s postseason.
And, as a bonus for the Caps, a Penguins’ slump allowed them to pull within four points of their rivals, with the Capitals holding a pair of games in hand. The win streak and head-to-head wins also allowed them to move within range of both the Bruins and Lightning, trailing the potential other wild card clubs by five and six points respectively and securing the first wild card spot should they pass either Atlantic Division club.
So with 10 games left in the regular season, what are the scenarios left for the Capitals, and what do they need to do if they want to try and avoid a likely crossover to the Atlantic and a matchup with the Florida Panthers in the first round?
Capitals’ Potential Opponents
While there are numerous potential opponents left if you run every possible scenario, three teams are the most likely to be Washington’s first-round opponent.
The most likely remains the Panthers, despite the win streak, which would almost assuredly be the opponent should the Capitals finish in the second wild card spot and cross over into the Atlantic bracket, and if Florida holds off the Carolina Hurricanes for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Washington has performed decently against the Panthers this season, going 1-1-1 during the season series, with all three contests being one-goal games. The Capitals defeated the Cats 4-3 at Capital One Arena in late November, with Alexander Ovechkin getting a hat trick in the win, with Florida going 2-0 against Washington in Sunrise, which included a 5-4 overtime win where the visitors surrendered a 4-1 lead.
Certainly, while the Panthers have been one of the top teams in the East this season, their play as of late has raised some concern in South Florida, and their wide-open playing style isn’t a style that Washington is averse to. Certainly, the Capitals’ goaltending could remain an issue, but they would certainly have the edge in playoff experience over a Florida club looking to get accustomed to its Stanley Cup contender status. And, certainly, with a 22-7-5 record away from home this season thanks to keeping the game simpler on the road, Washington isn’t at a disadvantage by playing up to four games in FLA Live Arena, a venue that normally draws a good amount of Capitals fans – especially in what would be the teams’ first-ever playoff matchup.
Should the Capitals manage to pass the Penguins for third place in the Metro or even pass whoever finishes fourth in the Atlantic Division, it opens the door for a pair of more familiar playoff opponents: the Hurricanes or the New York Rangers.
Carolina is certainly an opponent the Capitals have seen in the playoffs in recent years, with Washington falling in a seven-game series in 2019. While the Hurricanes seemed ready to coast to the Metropolitan Division title a few weeks ago, a recent slump has left them not only falling behind Florida in the East race but also seeing the Rangers challenge them for the Metro lead.
Washington went 3-1 against the Hurricanes this season, only dropping the last game of the four-game set in convincing fashion on March 28. The Hurricanes are another team dealing with Stanley Cup expectations this spring, as while they won the Central Division last year, they fell short of their goal by losing in the second round to the defending champion Lightning. Carolina features a lot of speed in the lineup and also likes to play the heavy style of hockey that helped the Caps win the Cup in 2018 which could make a series victory costly in the long run for Washington.
The Rangers are a bit of a mystery this season, as they have gotten a terrific season from goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who currently sports a .935 save percentage. However, the 26-year-old would be heading into his first playoff action outside the bubble format and raised expectations in New York with what could be the team’s first divisional title since 2014-15. Of course, Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant’s style is familiar to the Capitals, as they faced the coach’s Vegas Golden Knights in what was the team’s last playoff series win during the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
In a pair of games this year, the Capitals and Rangers split one-sided games, with Washington taking the season opener at home in easy fashion, while New York returned the favor in February at MSG with one meeting left in Manhattan at the very end of the regular season. The Rangers present a kind of team that could potentially give the Capitals fits in the playoffs with strong goaltending, but if Shesterkin isn’t dominant, New York’s odds of advancing go down significantly.
The other factor in a crossover to the Atlantic would be the relative difficulty of each bracket, as while even if some fans would rather see the Panthers in the first round, a second-round matchup with the Bruins or Lightning could prove to be difficult, with only the Toronto Maple Leafs being a tough matchup for Washington. A Metro series opening with the Hurricanes or Rangers would likely mean a series against the other in the second round, or even the Penguins or the Atlantic wild card.
All of these potential opponents would not be favored for the Capitals, but none are also a terrible matchup for them either. All have factors that could make life difficult for the Caps as they look to win their first-round series in four years, but also have potential weaknesses they could exploit.
Rest and Getting Ready for the Playoffs
A bigger priority for Washington down the stretch is getting players some rest before the true test begins in May. The Capitals will have a lot of travel in the last few weeks of the regular season, with just three home games left starting with Tuesday’s match-up against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Nicklas Backstrom was out of Sunday’s lineup for a “maintenance day,” and with the league’s oldest roster after the trade deadline, you can expect other mainstays to get nights off as the games come off the schedule. Washington is relatively healthy compared to other points in this season, and they would want to make sure they have a roster that is ready for what they hope is a two-month playoff grind.
Another major issue for coach Peter Laviolette will be which goaltender starts in the playoff opener. While Vitek Vanecek has had the inside track since Ilya Samsonov’s struggles in February, you can expect the tandem to rotate more just to give both goalies some work.
Vanecek most likely will be the starter for the postseason, but it will be important for Samsonov to get work should he slump or get injured, as he did in last year’s playoff opener against Boston. The Capitals opted to not get any insurance for the stretch drive, so Vanecek and Samsonov will be the tandem, with Zach Fucale and Pheonix Copley a callup away if anyone suffers an injury. As a result, the last 10 games may resemble preseason games at times, with some uneven efforts and juggled lines to try and get combinations going for the postseason.
The one player who probably won’t get a rest before reaching a milestone will be Alex Ovechkin, who recorded his 45th goal of the season into an empty net on Sunday to seal the 4-2 decision. The Washington captain is trying to become the oldest player to record a 50-goal season, as well as shave down the deficit to Gordie Howe in the all-time goal-scoring race. Ovechkin now is 26 shy of Howe, and certainly seems like he could move into second place next season should he stay healthy.
Should Ovechkin top the 50-goal mark before the last couple of games in the season, he may get scratched, but until he reaches that mark, you can expect his teammates to try and feed him the puck to help get him to that mark.
Washington’s recent win streak not only virtually assured themselves a playoff berth, but also opened up the door for some intrigue in the last few weeks of the season – something which seemed to be unlikely a year ago. Also, for a team that has struggled for consistency since the calendar flipped to 2022, the three wins against fellow playoff teams gave them a dose of confidence.
“We know how good we’re capable of playing, but then doing it on a consistent basis has been the challenge for us since after Christmas,” Lars Eller told reporters after the game. “This week, we put together three really strong games. … We got a good feeling in the room right now” (from ‘Capitals complete a perfect weekend by taking down the surging Bruins’, Washington Post, 4/10/22).
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.