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Pick 'Em: Capitals First Round Playoff Opponent

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Sorting through the Eastern Conference playoff race to see who the Caps might be taking on in the first round

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As of Tuesday night, the Capitals have officially secured a spot in the playoffs... but it's just about the only thing that has been decided in this year's race. Seven points currently separate the second-place Rangers from ninth-seed Philadelphia, and the fight for the two wild card spots in particular is getting tight. In other words, it's anyone's guess which team will end up drawing a first-round date against the Caps.

There's no harm in trying, though - so here's a look at the field, focusing on the teams with the best chance of finishing eighth:

Philadelphia Flyers

Currently: 34-23-12 (80 points), 13 games remaining; 5th in the Metropolitan, 9th in the Eastern Conference
Season Series vs. the Caps: 1-2-0 (one game remaining, at home)
Chance of First Round Matchup*: 36%

Story of the season: When rookie coach Dave Hakstol was hired last May, he inherited a Flyers team that was going in the wrong direction and had been since their Stanley Cup Final appearance back in 2010. After a couple of rough months to start the season, he's gradually turned things around (aided by better health and the emergence of defensive stud Shayne Gostisbehere) - and the suddenly hot Flyers are starting to make things interesting in the wild card race. Over their last 15 games, the Flyers have lost just five times and have points in 12 of those 15 overall... with three of their recent wins coming against the two teams that competed for the Stanley Cup last year.

Why they're a good match: As good as they've been down the stretch, and as good as Gostisbehere has been for the Flyers this season, their weakness has long been and remains on defense; just consider the fact that Radko Gudas and Mark Streit are tasked with top-pair minutes for the Flyers and that weakness becomes pretty clear. It helps that Steve Mason and former Cap Michal Neuvirth have proven to be an above-average goaltending tandem, but both are prone to inconsistent play and/or injury.

Why they're a bad match: The Flyers do still boast a fairly deep, talented set of forwards, led by Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds - three guys who can not only put the puck in the net on a regular basis but who are also masters at being pests. Any meeting with the Flyers would be a feisty, emotional, and potentially penalty-filled one, and it's hard to tell which team that benefits more.


Pittsburgh Penguins

Currently: 38-24-8 (84 points), 12 games remaining; 4th in the Metropolitan, 7th in the Eastern Conference
Season Series vs. the Caps: 1-2-0 (two games remaining, one home and one away)
Chance of First Round Matchup: 19%

Story of the Season: After committing grand larceny to get Phil Kessel out of Toronto over the summer, many saw the Penguins as one of the teams that could contend for the Metropolitan Division crown. Two lackluster months in, however, and it seemed as if such predictions were premature; the Pens struggled out of the gate (despite some early wins) and soon found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. A coaching change in mid-December brought about better results, from the team as a whole and from their slumping captain, and they've clawed their way back into the race.

Why they're a good match: As always, they've got a top-loaded group of forwards with all-world talent, but lack a bit of the depth that has been the Caps' strength this year - and with Evgeni Malkin likely sitting out the first round with an upper-body injury, even their top six crew isn't as strong as usual. Over the course of a best-of-seven series, that plus a young, inexperienced defense isn't the best recipe for success.

Why they're a bad match: Since making the coaching change, the Pens have seen their possession numbers drastically improve, which isn't great news for a Caps team whose numbers have dipped a bit over that same span. Marc-Andre Fleury has been having another great season and could be enough to overcome the green defense in front of him, just as a rejuvenated Sidney Crosby could overcome the lack of support around him.

Beyond all that there's just... the history. Sure, this team is different than the one that lost to the Penguins in 2009. And 2001. And 2000. And 1996. And... well, we'll just stop there. But those past disappointments (many of which are the soul-crushing variety) weigh on every Caps fan who had the distinct misery of living through them, and like it or not, it will be a cloud that hangs over any series between these two teams.


Detroit Red Wings

Currently: 35-25-11 (81 points), 11 games remaining; 4th in the Atlantic, 8th in the Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-0-2 (no games remaining)
Chance of First Round Matchup: 17%

Story of the season: Yet another team that has spent a good portion of the season adjusting to a new coach, the Red Wings have been consistently inconsistent under Jeff Blashill. Despite the contributions of superb rookie Dylan Larkin, who leads the team with 20 goals, they've struggled to score all year and rank in the bottom third of the League in goals per game with 2.49. Because of that they've had to rely on good goaltending and a steady diet of overtime points - including a stretch of 15 games from mid-November to mid-December in which they went to overtime an insane 11 times (two of those against the Caps).

Why they're a good match: Detroit scoring depth isn't what it once was, in part because Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk aren't the players they once were... at least not offensively. Their bottom six is pretty weak offensively (consider that offseason forward acquisition Brad Richards has same points per 60 minutes at evens as Brooks Laich did with the Capitals). The team overall has struggled with scoring all season long, one of just two teams in playoff position (for now) in the bottom third of the League in goals per game, and they've had to rely on their rookies - first Dylan Larkin, then Andreas Athanasiou, and now potentially Anthony Mantha - for what little scoring they've been able to get. And while it could change, the Wings are playing perhaps the worst hockey of any of the three teams most likely to face the Caps in the first round.

Why they're a bad match: All three games between these two teams have been tight, low-scoring games with very little room for mistakes... in other words, they've basically been playoff games, and coin-flip playoff games at that. The Caps have managed to come out on top in two of the three, but they needed overtime for one of those wins and a shootout for the other. The prospect of facing Larkin for four to seven games isn't exactly appealing, either, as he's definitely a game-changer - and while Petr Mrazek has struggled of late, he has been dominant against Alex Ovechkin this season.


Those are the front-runners, but of course, anything can happen in a playoff race - especially one as tight as the Eastern Conference race right now. So let's take a quick look at some of the teams that may also find themselves in that second wild card spot.

New York Islanders
Currently: 38-22-9 (85 points), 13 games remaining; 3rd in the Metropolitan, 5th in the Eastern Conference
Season Series: 0-3 (one game remaining, away)
Chance of First-Round Matchup: 8%

New York Rangers
Currently: 40-23-7 (87 points), 12 games remaining; 2nd in the Metropolitan, 3rd in the Eastern Conference
Season Series: 2-2-1 (no games remaining)
Chance of First-Round Matchup: 6%

Boston Bruins
Currently: 39-24-8 (86 points), 11 games remaining; 2nd in the Metropolitan, 4th in the Eastern Conference
Season Series: 0-3 (no games remaining)
Chance of First-Round Matchup: 6%

Tampa Bay Lightning

Currently: 40-25-5 (85 points), 12 games remaining; 3rd in the Atlantic, 6th in the Eastern Conference
Season Series: 0-3 (no games remaining)
Chance of First-Round Matchup: 4%

*Odds of first-round meeting per, as of 3/18/16