Capitals’ First-Round Matchup Will Be Tough No Matter What

After Saturday’s win against the Montreal Canadians, Washington remains three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division. With only seven games remaining in the 2021-22 regular season, the Capitals are very close to clinching a playoff berth.

Though it had been assumed the Eastern Conference postseason picture had been set for a while, seeding still needs to be determined. Washington will fall into one of three lower-seed spots. All include very tough matchups, some more primed for an upset than others.

Capitals Potential First-Round Matchups

The Capitals have had an up and down season to say the least. Back in October, they were playing as if they were a contender. Then in January, they were playing as one, or perhaps the worst team in the league. With age and health to be considered, the question of whether or not Washington has enough confidence to win four of seven games to clinch a series is unresolved.

To break it down mathematically, teams are in their 11th seven-game stretch of the season. Because there are no overtime participation points in the postseason, a standard win-loss record for each span will suffice.

Dates (7 Games)RecordGames vs. Playoff Teams
Oct. 13-274-34
Oct. 29-Nov. 124-32
Nov. 14-265-23
Nov. 28-Dec. 114-33
Dec. 15-Jan. 73-44
Jan. 8-223-43
Jan. 24-Feb. 103-44
Feb. 13-March 33-44
March 5-186-13
March 20-April 63-45
April 9-14*4-13
Capitals in 7-games stretches this season (*5 Games Played)

Though there were times when the fan base and certain journalists were tinkering on the edge of panic, Washington has surprisingly been fairly average in seven-game spans. They’ve won five of those “playoff series” stretches and lost five. They won at least three games during each span.

The magic number is four, however. Three wins doesn’t mean anything in the playoffs when four losses are attached. How the team has fared head-to-head in the regular season against their potential first-round opponent also matters a little more. There are three teams they will possibly square off with at the start of the postseason: the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, or Florida Panthers.

Capitals vs. Rangers

If the Capitals can jump Pittsburgh for third place in the Metro, they will likely meet the Rangers. The two will face each other in the season finale on April 29, and the teams split the prior two games which have been very spread apart (Oct. 13 and Feb. 24).

Related: Previewing Potential Rangers’ Atlantic Division Postseason Opponents

Each squad dominated in their respective wins. Washington won the season opener 5-1 and New York returned the favor in February, winning 4-1. Another similarity is that the current versions of both these teams are much different than the ones that were on the losing end of those games.

Like any series between rivals, there is nothing guaranteed. This one will come down to goaltending. Igor Shesterkin has a .935 save percentage (SV%), the best among goalies who have played over 50 games. In fact, he has the best SV% of goalies who have played over five games. The same can be said for his 2.00 goals-against average (GAA). In comparison, Vitek Vanecek, who will likely start for Washington, posts a .910 SV% and a 2.63 GAA.

Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That will be a major climb for the Capitals to overcome. However, the Rangers are tied with the Hurricanes for the division lead right now, so this series may not even happen.

Capitals vs. Hurricanes

Strangely enough, as good as Carolina is, this may be the best-case first-round scenario for Washington. All that means is the Eastern Conference is very good at hockey.

Yes, the Capitals were dismantled by the Hurricanes in their last meeting. Carolina won 6-1. That, however, was the Hurricanes’ only win against Washington this season. The Capitals are 3-1 versus Carolina in 2021-22, and before the bludgeoning they suffered on March 28, they averaged 4.00 goals per game and just 1.67 goals against during the prior three head-to-head contests.

Offense will be the key to this series. Carolina is arguable the best defense in the league. They rank first in goals-against average (2.37), shots-against average (28.2), and penalty-kill percentage (88.6%). In their four regular-season matchups, the Capitals average 3.25 goals-for, 31 shots-for, and are successful 22% of the time on the power play.

They may not get a chance to face either New York or Carolina, though.

Capitals vs. Panthers

That brings up the worst-case scenario for Washington. Florida is a monster. The only opponent a team wouldn’t rather face is the Colorado Avalanche. Florida and Colorado could very likely meet in the Stanley Cup Final, a rematch 26 years in the making.

Washington is 1-1-1 versus Florida this season. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. The Capitals have been able to score against the Panthers, averaging 4.00 goals per game, but they haven’t been able to stop them, giving up 4.33 a game.

That isn’t the worst factor, though. No one really fairs well against Florida. They lead the NHL in goals per game (4.16) and shots per game (37.7). The way to beat them is by keeping up, which is quite a task. The most difficult aspect of meeting the Panthers in the first round is having to play them first. They are a team on a mission and they’re going to come out firing.

Two things the Capitals have going for them is that they can also score, holding the third-best goals-per-game average in the Eastern Conference at 3.41. They have the best road record in the league and could possibly steal one or two in Sunrise.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Don’t count Washington out of this series, but they would be better off facing someone else in the first round. That way, they can gain a little momentum moving forward, which they would need a ton of if they were to meet Florida later on.

A Tough Draw No Matter What

The Capitals are in the midst of a tough five-game road trip. April has fared better than expected which is promising. The team is 5-2 so far this month.

Next up is the Avalanche, and then they face a Vegas Golden Knights team fighting hard for a wild card spot in the Western Conference. Washington also has games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Rangers remaining.

The good news in trying to avoid playing the Panthers in the first round is that Washington has played two fewer games than Pittsburgh. The Metro still can get very interesting over the next week and a half.

Related: Capitals’ John Carlson Has Been Key to Post-January Playoff Push

In the end, though each team they may match up against is very good, Carolina may be their best chance of advancing, as crazy as that sounds. Also, through their 10 seven-game stretches this season, they’ve won at least three games during each span. That’s one game away from winning a series.