With just four weeks remaining in the NHL’s regular season, the Washington Capitals continue to hold on to the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. A massive 5-2 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday improved the Caps record to 41-20-7 on the season. Their 89 points have them even with the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers for the Metro lead, while the Penguins trail in third place five points back.
Washington currently holds the tie-breaker over the Flyers but Philly is the hottest team in the league, having rattled off nine straight wins. While there is still plenty to be decided as far as seeding goes over the next four weeks, a few teams do stand out as the most likely opponents for Washington in the opening round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
New York Islanders
As things stand today, the New York Islanders hold down the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. With Boston putting some distance between themselves and the field for first place in the East, whoever finishes as the one-seed in the Metro will most likely land a date with the top wild card team in round one. That could very well mean a match-up between the Capitals and their old head coach Barry Trotz.
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Trotz’s Islanders spent much of the first half of the season among the NHL’s elite but have struggled mightily in 2020, going just 10-13-6 since the calendar flipped. The Isles have also lost six straight and will need to get things back on track in a hurry if they hope to remain in the playoff mix.
The Capitals and Islanders split their four meetings this season with both teams winning two games on the road. Washington and New York last met in the postseason back in 2015 when the Caps won a hard-fought seven-game series thanks to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game-winner in the decisive contest. The Islanders hold a 5-2 edge over Washington all-time in the playoffs, with most of those battles coming back during the days of the old Patrick Division.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets currently sit tied with the Islanders in points and in control of the second wild card seed in the East. The Blue Jackets have benefited greatly from the overtime point this season, racking up 15 overtime losses to keep themselves in the mix. John Tortorella’s team has also suffered a number of injuries to key players but continue to find ways to stay in the hunt. Columbus has just two wins in their last 14 games but has also managed to rack up six loser points in that stretch.
This season, the Blue Jackets hold a 2-1 edge over the Capitals in the season series with one match-up remaining on Mar. 19 in Columbus. The Metro rivals have met just one time in the postseason, with the Capitals prevailing in six games in the opening round of the 2018 playoffs. Washington famously dropped the first two games of that series at home before rattling off four straight wins en route to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup title.
If Philadelphia is able to pass Washington for the top seed in the Metro then the most likely opponent for the Capitals to start the playoffs will be Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens went out and made some moves at the deadline to bolster their offense but have seen mixed results since. A 5-1-1 stretch to start February was followed by a six-game losing streak and then a pair of wins. After losing to Washington at home on Saturday, the Penguins now sit five points back of the Caps and Flyers and five points ahead of the Islanders and Blue Jackets. The Pens appear destined to finish as the Metro’s number three seed.
Washington has a 2-1 edge in the season series this year, with one game remaining in Pittsburgh on Mar. 22. The Pens lead the rivalry in the playoffs, racking up nine series victories to just two for the Capitals. In the Ovechkin-Crosby era, the teams have met four times in the postseason but each of those battles took place in the second round. Pittsburgh won three of those meetings but it was Washington who prevailed most recently when the teams last met in 2018.
We could also see a rematch of last season’s first-round if the Carolina Hurricanes can move up a few spots in the standings. Carolina is currently the first team on the outside looking in the Eastern Conference. The Canes have 77 points and sit just two back of New York and Columbus in the wild card race. Like the Blue Jackets, Carolina has struggled recently, dropping four straight before defeating the Islanders in OT on Saturday.
Washington took the season series 2-1-1 over Carolina this year. The Caps dropped the first two meetings before rebounding with a pair of victories back in January. Last season’s playoff match-up was the only meeting in postseason history between the two clubs. Washington held series leads of 2-0 and 3-2 but the Canes battled back each time and eventually prevailed in double overtime of Game 7.
New York Rangers
Hockey fans could also be in for another playoff meeting between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers. Throughout the Ovechkin era, the Rangers have been Washington’s most frequent playoff opponent. The Capitals defeated New York in 2009 and 2011 before the Rangers picked up three straight series victories in 2012, 2013, and 2015. Overall, the Rangers hold a 5-4 series lead over the course of nine postseason meetings between the two clubs.
Unlike most of the teams around them, New York is playing its best hockey at the right time. The Rangers are 17-10 over their past 27 games and have pulled within three points of a wild card spot. They hold a 2-1 lead over the Caps in the season series and picked up an epic 6-5 overtime victory last Thursday thanks to a heroic five-goal performance from Mika Zibanejad. The Rangers and Capitals will meet one more time this season on Mar. 26 at Capital One Arena.
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While there is an outside chance that the Caps could have to deal with the Florida Panthers or Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, it is much more likely that they will wind up facing one of these five division rivals. Each potential opponent comes with its own unique set of challenges and none will be an easy out. For Washington, a strong finish to the season will be key as they look to enter the playoffs on a roll and avoid another early exit like the one they suffered last spring.
Capitals contributor for THW. Lifelong sports fan, grew up in various hockey rinks throughout Alberta.