Although the Washington Capitals are a virtual certainty to make the playoffs, their first round opponent is still unclear, despite only six games remaining in the season. Unlike the Bruins and the Maple Leafs (who have had a near-100% chance of facing each other for months now), the Caps have as many as five teams they could play in the first round. (Note: the Caps could also play the Lightning if they lose basically all of their games in the season. It’s a matchup which has a below 1% chance of happening, and lets pray that we avoid it.)
With the playoffs rapidly approaching, let’s do a bit of advanced scouting and take a look at these five teams to see the various strengths and weaknesses relative to the Capitals. To spark some debate, the potential teams have been ranked from 5 (most preferable for the Caps to play) to 1 (least preferable)*. All stats & probabilities are current as of 3/25.
*Editor’s note: this ranking is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the preferences of the rest of the Japers’ Rink staff... feel free to debate in the comments! :)
(44-25-7; 95 points, 5th in the East)
31.5% chance of playing in the 1st round
Why the Caps should want to face them: Simply put, I’m not entirely convinced the Islanders are that good. Although the Islanders have stubbornly remained near the top of the Metro, their underlying possession numbers aren’t great, and they’ve been getting by on good goaltending and a weirdly-high five-on-five shooting percentage (8.69%, which is both nice and ranked sixth in the League.) This shooting percentage seems likely to ebb given their lack of elite scoring talent (aside from all-world center Mathew Barzal), which would force them to rely on a goalie tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. Although this combination has been performing well so far this year and is stopping pucks at a career-high rate… that may backslide after facing Ovechkin & Co. for 4+ games.
Why the Caps should fear them: Remember what I said about their possession numbers? That doesn’t apply to their percent of high danger chances… where they rank above average in the NHL, after ranking 25th last year (hello there, Barry Trotz). They’ve also got Barzal to account for, who has already blossomed into an elite center (with 17 goals, 42 assists and 59 points) despite being 21 years old, and the Trotz factor, as he’s got an intimate knowledge of this Capitals roster, warts and all. I’m not totally sure how to account for that last factor, but the media just may mention this a bit.
Someone on the Islanders to keep an eye on: We’ve already talked about Barzal a bit…so let’s go with rookie defensemen Devon Toews. Toews has been waiting in the Islanders system for a few years now for his opportunity, and since being called up for good on January 31, he’s become a solid contributor for the team. Toews is one of the few Islanders who has positive possession metrics, and he’s already got 5 goals and 16 points for the Islanders. He’s someone that may not immediately stand out, but he could be the kind of player who makes a difference in a playoff series.
(40-28-8; 88 points, 8th in the East)
2.7% chance of playing in the 1st round
Why the Caps should want to face them: All season long one of the biggest mysteries in the League has been the Canadiens and whether or not they’re actually good; debate has raged on among fans and media types alike (some of whom were declaring the Canadiens effectively dead as recently as two weeks ago). The Canadiens do seem to have righted the ship a bit from last season and put themselves back in the playoff mix, they don’t have a ton of high-end scoring. Their leading scorer is Max Domi with 67 points, putting him 46th in the NHL. Further, their blue line beyond veteran defensemen Shea Weber seems suspect, as they’re currently relying on players like Victor Mete and Brett Kulak to play major minutes for the team.
Why the Caps should fear them: Their suspect roster depth aside, the Canadiens have been playing fun, up-tempo hockey that has corresponded with a pretty dramatic rise in their underlying stats. Surprisingly, the Habs rank as one of the top possession teams in hockey with a 54% Corsi (4th in the NHL), 53.29% scoring chances for (6th) and 52.73% in high danger attempts for (9th in the NHL.) As you also may know, the Habs have this somewhat decent goaltender named Carey Price, who may just be rounding into form. So a young, fast and exciting team backstopped by an elite goalie and playing in one of the best home atmospheres in hockey? Maybe not an ideal team in the first round, irrespective of past history.
Someone on the Canadiens to keep an eye on: At the time, the Canadiens trade for Max Domi was pretty widely panned among the national and Montreal media, but Domi has been great for the Canadiens this year. As mentioned above, he’s their leading point-getter, a positive possession player, and leader in being called “Mr. Cool” by members of the Montreal media. Domi is going to be skating top minutes for the Canadiens in pretty much every matchup, and they are going to depend on him to produce points. Whether he’ll be able to step up in the playoffs is another question, however.
(41-30-4; 86 points, 9th in the East)
4.9% chance of playing in the 1st round
Why the Caps should want to face them: For one, the Blue Jackets don’t have the most illustrious playoff reputation, leading to some national commentators to speculate that GM Jarmo Kekalainen may be on the hot seat after this year if the Blue Jackets don’t make a deep run. The pressure to make some noise in the postseason was then drastically magnified after Kekalainen went all in at the deadline, acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from the Senators, Adam McQuaid from the Rangers, and Keith Kinkaid from the Devils. Although the Jackets now arguably have more talent, they’ve been middling since the deadline, going 6-7-1 and having Torts admit that the team was feeling pressure to perform. Given that the team is likely to lose elite forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (to say nothing of those pricey rental players) this offseason, they’ll be feeling the heat to do something they’ve never done before - like, say, win one (1) playoff series - and that could impact their game.
Why the Caps should fear them: If Columbus can figure things out, they are still a team that can present the Caps with some major matchup issues. The Jackets have scoring up and down the roster, with 13 players with 20 or more points this year (if you count Duchene and Dzingel’s stats from Ottawa). They also have an elite top pairing of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, who will likely play almost half of the game if the Jackets need them to. And finally, they’ve got the game-breaking talent you like with Artemi Panarin, who is (again) scoring at a point per game pace. Maybe that’s why one stupid person picked them to win the division this year...
Someone on the Blue Jackets to keep an eye on: Did you know that Cam Atkinson has scored 38 goals this year? Yeah, neither did we, but he has, establishing a new career-high in goals while also driving play at a decently effective clip. Atkinson seems unlikely to maintain his 14% shooting percentage (his career average is 11.8%), but he’s already fired a career high in shots, so he’s an undoubtedly dangerous player on a roster full of dangerous players.
(42-24-11; 95 points, 6th in the East)
27.8% chance of playing in the 1st round
Why the Caps should want to face them: The Penguins haven’t iced an elite defensive core in quite a while (and it didn’t stop them from winning a couple of Cups)… but this year seems to test that to the breaking point. After a strange deadline trade to acquire Erik Gudbranson (who is not good at hockey), the Penguins are now relying on Gudbranson and Jack Johnson (who is also not good at hockey) to play major minutes when Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang are off the ice. The Penguins also are particularly beat up right now, as Evgeni Malkin, Letang, Olli Maatta, Zach Aston-Reese and Chad Ruhwedel are all on the injured list.
On a totally unrelated note, the last time these two teams played, it ended pretty well for the Caps:
(Sorry, I am contractually required to post this clip every time the Penguins come up.)
Why the Caps should fear them: As much as the Penguins are beat up, any roster with Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel and Letang is capable of winning it all. Ultimately, the Penguins are 9-1 in their last 10 playoff series, and have the high-end talent to keep any series close. Further, despite the injuries and that lackluster defense, the Penguins have been playing well lately, and are 9-2-3 since the calendar flipped to March.
Someone on the Penguins to keep an eye on: We all know this roster backwards and forwards, so I’m going to cheat and list two players: the Penguins top defensive pair of Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang. When Letang and Dumoulin are on the ice together, the Penguins own 54.53% of shot attempts, 56.27% of scoring chances, and 54.76% of high danger chances. When those two are off the ice, those numbers drop to 47.23%, 49.81% and 52.57%, respectively. If the Caps want to win again in the playoffs against the Pens, it’ll require mitigating the damage those two can do.
(42-26-7; 91 points, 7th in the East)
32.0% chance of playing in the 1st round
Why the Caps should want to face them: If the ‘Canes manage to hang on to a playoff spot, they will be making the postseason for the first time since 2009 - snapping the longest current playoff drought in the League. Because of that, their roster is rife with players who have never played in the postseason, and might not be ready for prime time quite yet. And while their goaltending duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney has been a slight upgrade over what have been years of substandard goaltending, they’re still just a middle-of-the-pack pair (neither of whom has had to carry much of a playoff load for a team yet).
Why the Caps should fear them: The Canes (finally!) getting competent goaltending has allowed a roster that is loaded in almost every capacity to finally shine. The Canes have again been a dominant team from a possession standpoint, as they rank 2nd in shot attempts percent, 3rd in scoring chances percent, and 4th in high danger chances percent. This high shot volume results in the Hurricanes frequently cashing in on rebounds, and generating an astonishing amount of chances from up close. From a roster standpoint, they’ve got a strong top pair of Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin, and their midseason acquisition of Nino Niederreiter added even more scoring depth to a roster replete with it. Despite the positive result last night, this is a team that is a sleeping giant, and a team that the Caps should be terrified of playing in the first round.
Someone on the Hurricanes to keep an eye on: Sebastian Aho has continued to gain more and more trust from the Canes, and it’s not hard to see why. Aho has already set a personal record in points (with 80), he’s seen his possession stats get stronger each year, and he’s now the leading Canes forward in TOI per game. Aho really just might be “getting started,” which is a terrifying thought for the rest of the league.
Predicting the ideal matchup is tricky...but let us know what you think below. Who would you prefer that the Caps play?
Who do you want the Caps to face in the first round?
This poll is closed
Greg is wrong... give me the Hurricanes!
I’m not sick of Trotz storylines, I’ll take the Islanders.
I’ve forgotten 2010 entirely, so I’ll go with the Canadiens.
The Penguins are old and slow and surely can’t make another playoff run, right??
My hatred of the Blue Jackets is only eclipsed by watching Torts lose.