The Washington Capitals may have been skidding just prior to the stoppage in play, but since they had done well enough earlier on in the season, they earned themselves their fifth-straight Metropolitan Division title. Because of this, and the NHL’s unique, 24-team return-to-play format, the Capitals have a “bye” to the first round and need not take part in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Instead, they will take part in the round-robin tournament to determine their seeding, which comprises the top-four teams in the Eastern Conference — the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins.
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While the Capitals battle it out with the other top teams of the Eastern Conference, eight other teams in the conference will fight for their playoff lives in four best-of-five series to determine who moves onto the first round of the official Stanley Cup Playoffs. The series that will take place will be:
- #8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets
- #5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens
- #7 New York Islanders vs. #10 Florida Panthers
- #6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #11 New York Rangers
Depending on how the Capitals do in their round-robin tournament, they could play any of these teams in the first round of the playoffs. This got me thinking, as a fan, who would I want them to play in the first round? So, not only will this article attempt to inform other Capitals fans about possible opponents, similar to what was done on this site prior to the stoppage, it will also give me the chance to layout and compare the eight teams the Caps might face in the opening round of the postseason.
Without further ado, let us look at who the Capitals might play in Round 1.
Toronto Maple Leafs
This would be a difficult series for me, personally, living in a town in Ontario where most people are fans of the Maple Leafs. However, objectively, this wouldn’t be a bad matchup for the guys in red. The Capitals played the Maple Leafs twice this season, with both games resulting in a 4-3 win for the Capitals. One of these wins was on the back of Alex Ovechkin, who had four points, with one of those points being the overtime game-winner after making some controversial comments to the media.
These two teams have played against each other in the playoffs recently, when the Capitals won a six-game series where five of the games went to overtime. So, with this recent series fresh in our minds and both of their games this year only being one-goal games, we know that this would be an incredibly close series that would guarantee heart attacks for fans.
Columbus Blue Jackets
When fans think of Washington playing Columbus in the playoffs, it is probably with a sense of fondness. This being because the last time they met in the postseason, the Capitals went on to win the Stanley Cup after defeating the Blue Jackets in six. However, the Blue Jackets did have a 2-0 series lead to start that series off. As for this season, the Capitals may not want to run into the Blue Jackets come Round 1.
These divisional rivals have met three times this past season, with the Blue Jackets stealing two of three games. The Capitals were able to secure an overtime win in their most recent tilt. However, with the way the Blue Jackets have played when facing off against Washington this season and also their reputation for tenacious, playoff-style hockey, this is a team the Caps might not want to see after coming out of a best-of-five playoff series.
Dear Lord, if a Washington/Toronto first-round matchup would give Capitals fans a heart attack, I think they might just drop dead if this came to be. These two teams are no strangers to each other in the regular season, or the postseason. The Penguins can usually dust away the Capitals, but the last time they met in the playoffs, the Capitals did the unthinkable and wiped out the Penguins in six contests on a classic Evgeny Kuznetsov overtime goal.
This season, these teams played each other three times with the Capitals winning two games and losing one. Despite their playoff history (Pittsburgh having won 9 of 11 series between the two clubs), I don’t think this would necessarily be a bad matchup for Washington. They played them well this year and were able to put up 13 goals against them in their three games. However, Pittsburgh battled a ton of injuries this season, so having a full lineup would definitely make this a hard-fought series, as anyone would expect. Who knows if the Penguins are actually healthy, though.
This series would be sure to make Caps fans nervous. The last and only time the Capitals played the Canadiens in the playoffs, the Canadiens, but mostly Jaroslav Halak, stole a first-round, seven-game series from the 2010 Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals. In this series, the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead.
This regular season’s series was fairly even, but the Canadiens won two of their three matchups with one coming in overtime. Although Montreal is the last-place playoff team in the Eastern Conference, there is this energy about them that makes them seem like they could do damage in the postseason. It has also been confirmed they will have Max Domi, who is a crucial piece of their offense.
Still, the way they played the Capitals this season and the fact that they still have Carey Price in net, this series would remind me a bit too much of their one and only prior playoff matchup where Montreal was the underdog. I don’t think I need to remind you again, but that did not bode well for the Caps by any means.
New York Islanders
This series would carry with it some emotional baggage, despite the outcome. This is due to the fact that Barry Trotz is the Islanders’ bench boss. This is the man who coached the Capitals to the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup. In their most recent playoff series with the Islanders back in 2015, it was Kuznetsov’s coming-out party as the Capitals defeated the Islanders in seven and temporarily shut down Nassau Coliseum.
The Capitals split their season series with the Islanders 2-2, so this series seems like it would also be a close one. I believe that, if these teams play, it will go to seven because the Capitals may have the higher-skilled roster, but the Islanders have Trotz behind the bench and some talent of their own. Not to mention the fact that they essentially have two starting goalies.
This series would be all about breaking down that defensive wall Trotz has helped construct over on Long Island.
This would be an interesting series because the Capitals have never played the Florida Panthers from game 83 and onward. This would be the first time these two would meet in the postseason, so there is no traumatic or successful history between these two teams like there is with many of the others on this list.
This also may be the team that fans want the Capitals to play in the first round. Not only because of the history, or lack thereof, but because the Capitals went 2-0 against the Panthers this season in their two contests. That is a very small sample size, and one of those games was an OT victory, but the Panthers have a fairly inexperienced roster, which the Caps could exploit in a postseason series. They also have a goaltending decision to make, as Sergei Bobrovsky did not exactly live up to his seven-year, $10 million contract.
There is no dumping on the Panthers for being inexperienced, but the Carolina Hurricanes came into last year’s playoffs inexperienced and showed the defending-Cup-champ Capitals that experience doesn’t necessarily mean much. Speaking of which…
I believe if these two teams meet in the first round for a second-straight season, it will be the development of a full-fledged rivalry. Last year’s playoffs made many Capitals fans hate the Hurricanes, and vice versa. Especially with the injury to T.J. Oshie at the hands of Warren Foegele going unpunished, as well as the Twitter beef the Hurricanes official Twitter account likes to start up to try to antagonize the Capitals.
The Caps and Canes split their season series 2-2, showing us that these teams are still just as close as last year when they went to double overtime of Game 7. I believe this series may be the most intense potential series for the Capitals. If hockey fans really want to see playoff hockey, then the Hockey Gods will make this series happen in the first round.
New York Rangers
Finally, we have the New York Rangers. The last time these teams met was in 2015, when the Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead in the second round of the playoffs. It seems like the Caps have a heartbreaking playoff history with almost all of these teams, unfortunately. The Rangers are a rebuilding team in hyper speed, as they already look like a team who could do damage in the playoffs with players such as Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad running their offense. Not to mention they have three potential starting goalies, most likely led by Igor Shestyorkin.
The Rangers won two of their three games against the Capitals this season, with one of those being an overtime game in which Zibanejad scored five goals, including the OT winner. I don’t love this matchup for the Capitals, even though the Rangers have little recent playoff experience much like the Panthers. However, we have seen how Panarin can play in the playoffs against the Capitals. It’s hard to believe Zibanejad and the rest of them would go down quietly as well.
If you are expecting me to choose which team the Capitals should want to face in the playoffs, I am sorry. Obviously, the Panthers seem like the team the Caps would have the best chance against, but this is an insane postseason the likes of which we have never seen before. All of these teams are coming in cold, so it is impossible to say how they will play. What we do know is that whoever the Capitals face will already be battle-tested, and they need to be ready for that.
Regardless of who they’re playing, the team that wins the Stanley Cup never has a simple route. They go whatever way is laid out for them. For now, the Capitals just need to wait for that road to be paved and try to navigate it during these wild and unfamiliar times. One of these teams will be the first speed bump on their journey.