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Counting Chickens Before They Hatch: A Look at Potential Playoff Opponents

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If the Caps do qualify for the postseason, who should they want to face?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As we near the end of the regular season with the odds of the Capitals making the playoffs looking pretty good (91.6% or 91.8% or 88.6%, depending which of the more popular sources you prefer), one can't help but wonder why Andre Burakovsky is playing in Hershey rather than playing top six minutes in Washington who the Caps are going to play in the first round of the playoffs. Both hockeystats.ca (give Micah Blake-McCurdy at @IneffectiveMath a follow) and Sports Club Stats have the same trio of clear front-runners:

PMP 3-24-15

Six teams currently have a greater than zero percent chance of matching up with Caps in Round 1, so let's take a closer look at some of the base numerical components for how the Caps stack up against each of those half-dozen teams:

The table can be sorted by clicking on the column header. Columns 2-6 are five-on-five numbers from War on Ice, columns 7-8 are from the NHL, and column 8 is from hockeystats.ca (see above). Team stats from 3/23/15

With the Rangers taking control of the Metropolitan Division and the Canadiens and Lightning battling it out in the Atlantic, it's pretty likely that the Wild Card-bound (we think) Caps will face one of those three. So what  (if anything) do the numbers tell us about which teams the Caps should want to face (or avoid) in the first round? Let's dive into the Capitals' three most likely playoff opponents.

Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens are very similar to last year's Colorado Avalanche... as in they are bad. Montreal, again like Colorado, is incredibly reliant upon their goaltender for their success. Their score-adjusted shot attempt percentage of 48.5 ranks 22nd in the League while their save percentage ranks first. It's not unreasonable to think that without Carey Price the Habs would be keeping Toronto and others company in lower half of the Eastern Conference standings.

This season, the Capitals have lost both games to the Canadiens after the end of regulation. Here is a look at the head to head shot attempt chart from our own Muneeb.

MTL h2h

New York Rangers

The Rangers are an above-average hockey team with above-average goaltending... and above-average just-about-everything:

They may not be quite as good as their record would lead you to believe (they do have the League's highest PDO at a whopping 1022), but the Rangers are a dangerous opponent the Caps would be well-served to avoid. Plus... aren't we all a little tired of seeing the Caps play the Rangers?

This season, the Capitals have lost both games to the Rangers by multiple goals, here is a look at the head to head shot attempt chart.

Rangers h2h

Tampa Bay Lightning

Defined by both their youth and their ability to possess the puck the Tampa Bay Lightning are perhaps the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference. Their not-quite-as-good-as-Ovechkin superstar sniper, Steven Stamkos, is the centerpiece of a very deep forward corps, and the Bolts boast the third best score-adjusted shot attempt percentage in the League. If the Lightning do have a weakness, it resides between the pipes - while he hasn't been terrible, Ben Bishop has not played up to the expectations that he established for himself last season.

This season, the Capitals have taken two of three from the Lightning. The head to head chart courtesy of Muneeb:

Lightning H2h

Just for fun here is a look to how the Capitals have played their potential playoff opponents so far this year... not in terms of outcomes but in terms of play. (Obviously these are very small samples and are being used for descriptive, not predictive, purposes. All stats five-on-five)

Caps playoff OPP

And if goals and scoring chances are more your thing....

Goals and Scoring Chances

So Who Should the Capitals Want To Play In The First Round?

In both the first table and the graph above one thing has held true... Montreal hasn't looked very good. Montreal will be the worst (overall) team to qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. While Carey Price is the best goaltender in the world at the moment, the gap between he and Braden Holtby is not large enough to makeup for what should be a substantial advantage for the Caps elsewhere... and when has a hot Montreal goalie ever posed a problem to a better Caps squad in the postseason?