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Pick 'Em: Capitals' First-Round Opponent

With a playoff spot assured, all that remains to be seen is who the Caps draw in the first round...

Potential first-round foes Crosby and Tavares
Potential first-round foes Crosby and Tavares
Getty Images - G Fiume (Crosby) / Jim McIsaac (Tavares)

The drama of clinching a postseason berth finally behind us, the focus now shifts to the next bit of drama, discovering who the Caps will face in the first round.

Thanks to their win over Boston on Wednesday, the Caps are guaranteed to finish no lower than third in the division, thus escaping the craziness that awaits in the wild card battle. That also means they will face either the New York Islanders or the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the playoffs next week.

What happens tonight, when the Islanders take on the Penguins, will go a long way towards determining which it will be (and may actually make it official, although home-ice advantage will remain unknown until Saturday's games are complete). The Islanders currently sit in third place with 98 points; the Penguins are embroiled in the wild card melee and have 96 points.

Here are the potential scenarios:

  • If the Islanders beat the Penguins, they will lock in at least the third seed and guarantee a first-round date with the Caps
  • If the Penguins win, it'll come down to Saturday night's final games, with Pittsburgh in Buffalo to play the Sabres and the Islanders hosting the Blue Jackets

And as a reminder, should the two teams end up tied at the end of the season, the tiebreaker is regulation/overtime wins. With two games remaining for each, the Islanders are at 39 and the Penguins at 38.

There's a lot still up in the air, and a lot we likely won't know until the final horn on Saturday night. What we do know is that it will be one of these two teams, so here's a quick snapshot of the two potential first-round opponents and how they've stacked up against the Caps this year:

New York Islanders

Caps 2-0-2 in the season series
November 26 @ NYI - Islanders 3, Capitals 2 (OT)
November 28 vs NYI - Capitals 5, Islanders 2
December 29 @ NYI - Islanders 4, Capitals 3 (OT)
February 21 vs NYI - Capitals 3, Islanders 2 (SO)

Islanders 11 12 13 4 30.8 0 9 3 66.7 1

Players of note:

John Tavares - The Islanders' captain is in the mix for his first Art Ross trophy, and has boosted his point totals against the Caps, with five points in their four head-to-head meetings (including the overtime winner in the first game of the season series). In his career? Just a roughly point-per-game player (10-10-20 in 21 GP), no big deal.
Kyle Okposo - Okposo may have had his season shortened with a bizarre eye injury, but he still managed to creep close to the 20-goal plateau in 58 games played.
Jaroslav Halak - Yeah. Him. You remember him.
Johnny Boychuk - Like the Caps, the Islanders' blue line underwent a massive upgrade this year. Boychuk has played a big part in that new-look defense, all while setting career high in goals, assists and points.

Top-Performing Caps vs the Isles: Nicklas Backstrom (1-5-6), Matt Niskanen (1-4-5), Alex Ovechkin (4-1-5)


Pittsburgh Penguins

Caps 3-1 in the season series
December 27 @ PIT - Capitals 3, Penguins 0
January 28 vs PIT - Capitals 4, Penguins 0
February 17 @ PIT - Capitals 3, Penguins 1
February 25 vs PIT - Penguins 4, Capitals 3

Penguins 4 13 17 1 5.8 1 19 4 78.9 1

Players of note:
Sidney Crosby - That guy who is having an "off year" also happens to have the top point-per-game producer in the League this season. Any time he and Alex Ovechkin go head to head it raises the game of both, and that is only good for all of us as hockey fans... as long as Ovechkin comes out on top, of course.
Marc-Andre Fleury - The Pens' much-maligned goaltender has put together a very strong regular season this year, but everyone knows that for Fleury, the story begins and ends in the playoffs. After a couple of rough postseason runs, he was actually pretty good for the Pens last spring, and might have his head in a better place after getting a vote of confidence from management back in November. 
Evgeni Malkin - Malkin missed one of the four games against the Caps (and was held off the scoresheet in two of the three), but he wrapped up the season series with three assists and has historically been dominant against Washington... to the tune of 42 points (9 goals, 33 assists) in 29 games.
Kris Letang - After a stroke cost him the bulk of the 2013-14 season, Letang has rebounded nicely, topping his career highs in assists and points (and doing so in 13 fewer games). That said, it remains to be seen whether he's able to return from a recent concussion suffered against the Coyotes - his absence leaves a big void on the Pens' blueline.

Top-Performing Caps vs the Pens: Alex Ovechkin (4-1-5), Braden Holtby (.957 sv%, 2 shutouts), Eric Fehr (3-1-4)

So... who do you want?