In the span of two-and-a-half months, Caps fans have gone from hopeless despair to playoff-bound optimists, with the biggest question going from "What are their chances of winning the draft lottery?" to "What are their chances of winning..." well, you know. On Valentine’s Day, we’d have thought that a year-end "Who do you want?" roundtable would’ve centered on Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin, Nate McKinnon and Aleksander Barkov, not the Senators, Islanders, Rangers and Maple Leafs.
And yet, here we are, with the Caps awaiting a first-round dance partner. If you could hand-pick that opponent, who’ve you got?
JP: Gimme the Leafs (who, unfortunately, are the least likely of the four to end up as the six seed). Team possession numbers aren’t everything, but theirs are woeful (whereas the other three teams are all top-11), their power-play mediocre and they hemorrhage shots-against (not unlike the Caps).
With due respect for what they’ve accomplished, they’re the most smoke-and-mirrors of the quartet (though James Reimer has "hot goalie" written all over him... then again, with Henrik Lundqvist , Craig Anderson and Evgeni Nabokov as the other options, there are potentially a lot of those), and the media circus in hockey’s Mecca surrounding this first-time-in-the-playoffs-in-forever squad would be wildly entertaining. The Caps easy win over them last week should add a dash of confidence for the boys in red, but any way you slice it, Toronto is probably the choice here.
Kareem: I don’t like a first-round matchup against the Rangers or Islanders. Both of those teams pose matchup problems for the Caps. That leaves the Sens or Leafs. I’m always wary of teams built around goaltenders, like Ottawa is. As we so painfully know here in DC, a hot goalie can always steal one or even two series from better opponents. (And it’s arguable that the Caps are considerably better than the Sens anyway.) I’ll take the Leafs too.
Becca: The goalies don’t necessarily scare me - or should I say they won’t drive my reasoning, because I think all four options pose a valid threat to the Caps - but I still agree that the Leafs are probably the best match-up for this team. It’d be a fun series, it’d be exciting to see Alex Ovechkin play postseason games in Toronto, and the Leafs seem to be backing into the playoffs a bit (playoff-clinching win over the Sens aside).
For whatever reason the Islanders are that team that’s hard for the Caps to beat these days, so I don’t like the idea of facing them in a four- to seven-game series; I think the Caps would be able to beat them, but I worry about the kind of toll it would take on them in the process. The way the Senators were able to dispose of the Caps last week (and take Ovechkin out of the picture in the process) was a little scary - I don’t think that’s sustainable, and neither was the way the Caps played in that game, but they should be getting Erik Karlsson back and that makes an already defensively sound team, with a good goalie, a bit scarier. The Rangers...eh. It’s been done.
Bring on the Leafs.
Rob: The Leafs are the clear favorites, but I’ll operate under the assumption that won’t happen. The Islanders could catch them, but with a point and a game in hand, the Leafs are in the driver seat for the 4/5 match up (with the Montreal Canadiens... and who doesn’t want to see that?). So for the sake of diversity, I’ll argue that the Leafs are not the ideal match up.
After the Leafs there is no clear matchup that favors the Caps. I look at the other three possibilities and whittle the list down by process of elimination. As much as the Senators are sinking, that’s not a match up I’d want any part of. The only team to beat the Caps during this recent hot streak is the Senators. Crappy offense, goalie on top of his game, tight defense? We’ve seen this story before. And the Senators may get back one or both of their injured offensive studs in the playoffs.
That leaves the NY area teams. The Islanders are young and inexperienced, but they have a lot of team speed and are one of the hottest teams in the east right now. They’ve given the Caps fits for most of the season (and, really, even in prior seasons when they weren’t playoff caliber). I wouldn’t say I fear the Islanders, but I think they pose significant matchup problems (e.g. a top-10 PP and the aforementioned speed), especially if the Caps have to play without Joel Ward and Brooks Laich.
The Rangers are familiar. The Rangers aren’t that fast. The Rangers aren’t that good. Throw in the motivation from last year’s playoff loss and I think the Rangers, while the most boring matchup, are also the best one for the Caps. Lundqvist is obviously a great goalie, but the team isn't as a whole . They have talent, for sure, but they don’t have a ton of depth, they have a bottom-half PK (great matchup for the Caps), and in the one area the Caps are really vulnerable right now, the PK, the Rangers will be less likely to exploit with their bottom-third PP. Bring on the Rangers.
Kevin: Anyone but the Rangers. Is something different so much to ask for? Is not having to see Henrik Lundqvist so much to ask for? Is not having to sit through John Tortorella's sandpaper press conferences game after game so much to ask for? Like the Capitals, the Rangers have heated up since the trade deadline, and in an act of reverse psychology manifesting physically, they’ve become the second highest scoring team in the league since dishing supposed high-scorer Marian Gaborik.
I don’t think the matchup is tremendously poor for the Capitals, for the reasons Rob dictated above. But it just doesn’t appeal to me, as a Caps fan, and as a hockey fan. I’ve read this book before, I’ve seen this movie, I’ve eaten, digested, and voided this meal. I just want to see some new damn colors on the ice. I like the idea of playing Toronto, with their Herculean media circus-fueled expectations or the Islanders, with their relative inexperience and sieve-like defense. The Rangers? Ugh.