Thanks to their win over the Pens Sunday night, the Caps have officially locked up their third-straight Metropolitan Division title, and ensured that they can finish no lower (or higher) than second in the conference.
As for who they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs, well... that’s much less clear. With four teams battling it out for second, third, and fourth in the Metro (and Florida not going away quietly), it’s likely that the Caps won’t know who their opponent will be to open the postseason until the final day of the regular season.
So who’s in the mix? Let’s take a quick and dirty look at the potential matchups, from least likely to most likely (as of 4/4, probability via Sports Club Stats):
(41-30-8, 90 points; 9th in the East)
Why the Caps should want to face them: There’s a reason that the Panthers are currently on the outside looking in, and it’s because they’re just not as strong a team as the ones in front of them. They started to heat up at the end of January and had to go on a serious run to even put themselves back in playoff contention... and even that’s tapered off of late. Add in the fact that the pressure of facing a rival goes away, and that they’re the only team currently playoff-adjacent with a negative goal differential, and they could be a good draw for the Caps (which is why it’s highly unlikely to happen).
Why the Caps should not want to face them: All that aside, there’s always something scary about facing a team that’s had to claw its way into the postseason; should the Panthers make it into the show and get that first Wild Card spot, they’d be riding a serious wave of emotion and momentum. They also take a ton of shots (which isn’t ideal given that the Caps are known to give up a ton) and have Roberto Luongo in net at the other end - who is quietly having an excellent season. Oh, and that lack of a rivalry? It’s got negative implications, as well; no pressure, but no real emotion, either.
(45-29-6, 96 points; second in the Metropolitan Division)
Why the Caps should want to face them: The Penguins haven’t been the best team in terms of defense this year, and their goaltending hasn’t bailed them out as often as it once did (in part because they’ve lost Murray to injury for extended periods this year, but even with him they’ve struggled). Their 3.05 GA/GP is the highest among any playoff-bound team this year, and they’ve had even more penalty-killing issues than the Caps with a lackluster 79.8% rate.
And let’s be honest, the Caps and Pens meeting in the playoffs seems somewhat inevitable. Might as well get it out of the way early, right?
Why the Caps should not want to face them: ...if you’re asking this question, you must be new around here. Welcome, and please enjoy this introductory reading.
(44-29-6, 94 points; third in the Metropolitan Division)
Why the Caps should want to face them: In the playoffs, special teams are used less frequently but sometimes become a huge factor - and the Blue Jackets’ special teams have fallen off a cliff this season, with their power play hovering at an abysmal 17% (27th in the League) and their PK not much better at a 25th-ranked 77.2%. The Caps feasted on both this year, as well, scoring four goals on ten power plays and killing off all but one of the ten earned by the Jackets - part of an overall successful season series that saw the Caps take three of four. That can be in the back of a team’s mind, as can the fact that the Jackets have yet to win a single playoff series in their franchise history.
Why the Caps should not want to face them: Sergei Bobrovsky is a legitimately excellent goalie, and while he’s never really seemed to have the Caps’ number, that can change overnight once we’re talking playoffs. The Jackets are also red-hot right now, with a 13-3-1 record since the beginning of March that’s been fueled by at times explosive offense and much-improved special teams. Beyond all that, the Caps may have won the season series but they certainly didn’t do so easily - and we all know that John Tortorella-coached teams are, if nothing else, pains in the butt to play against in general.
Also... four to seven games of John Tortorella himself. Ugh.
(43-28-9, 95 points; Wild Card)
Why the Caps should want to face them: The Devils are one of the few teams headed to the playoffs sporting a worse SACF% than the Caps; more surprisingly, they haven’t gotten a ton of help from their goaltending overall, with Schneider looking downright human this year (and struggling with injuries) while Kinkaid has been inconsistent at best (although hot of late). And if you’re looking to the season series, it’s all good news for the Caps, as they’ve earned five of a possible six points against the Devils this year... with one potentially crucial matchup ahead this weekend.
Why the Caps should not want to face them: After starting the season atop the standings, the Devils fell way off their established pace and have struggled at times to stay in the playoff mix. But they’ve gotten hot at the right time, and that’s always dangerous. Also always dangerous? Taylor Hall, who is having a stellar MVP-type season en route to what he hopes will be his first-ever playoff appearance.
(40-25-14, 94 points; first Wild Card)
Why the Caps should want to face them: The Flyers have some young up-and-coming talent in their ranks, but they don’t have a ton of depth on their current roster and are something of a top-heavy team. In the past that has at least helped them have a superior power play, but even that’s fallen off for them this year at a middling 20.5%... and their penalty kill isn’t doing them any favors, with the third-worst rate in the League. Bringing in Brian Elliott hasn’t been the fix they were hoping for their goaltending, and both goalies have been inconsistent and injury-prone this season.
Why the Caps should not want to face them: On paper the Caps should have been able to handle this Flyers team with at least some amount of ease this year (although the Flyers are never an easy opponent), but the reality has been the complete opposite. In their two regulation losses to the Flyers this season, the Caps were outscored 14-5 - with both lopsided losses coming against the current hot hand, Philipp Grubauer, and all but one of those Flyer goals scored at even strength.
Predicting the ideal playoff matchup is a tricky endeavor, and no one needs to tell this team (or this town) that what happened in the regular season - good or bad - goes by the wayside once the postseason gets underway.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t give it a shot! So (keeping in mind that when the gods want to punish us, they give us what we want)... who do you want?
Who do you want the Caps to face in the first round?
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