As has been noted before (here and basically everywhere else)... this is not going to be a normal postseason. Aside from making the transition from training camp and a mini preseason, the Caps are about to embark on a thoroughly foreign adventure: the round-robin tournament between the four best teams in the East.
The action gets underway for the Caps on Monday when they take on Tampa Bay - but before they hit the ice for the official start of the postseason, the Rink crew weighs in on the tournament ahead:
Q1. Which of the three round-robin teams do you think poses the biggest threat to the Capitals?
Luke: It’s hard to tell because everything is chaos right now but without thinking too much about it, it’s probably the Flyers. The Capitals seem to always play well against Boston and Tampa, while Philly is usually a spanking between the teams, one way or the other. Philly was on an incredibly hot streak going into the pause, so they are probably suffering worse than most teams. But they’ll still be deadly and the Capitals sometimes struggle against them.
Peerless: This is one of those “pick your poison” questions. Boston, Tampa Bay, and Philadelphia were in the top-four in standings points from the All-Star Game to the suspension of the regular season (Boston and Tampa Bay tied for first, the Flyers tied for fourth). Philly had the best scoring offense over that period, Boston had the best scoring defense. Tampa Bay was top-ten in both. I’d have to go with the Flyers, though. They just beat the Caps senseless in the last 40 minutes of games this season, outscoring the boys by a 13-2 margin in four games. But if the Caps play like they did heading into the pause (8-9-3 after the All-Star Game break, one of ten teams failing to win half the standings points available to them, and giving up three and a half goals a game), it won’t matter who they face.
Geoff: Considering Philadelphia went 9-1-0 through the final ten games of their regular season (including a 5-2 victory in Washington) they’re a good choice but the real trouble for Washington would be the Boston Bruins. Last year’s Bruins made it to the end of the second season but fell short of the champion St. Louis Blues in Game 7. This year’s Bruins squad is better than last year’s (no offense Marcus Johansson) and they will be well rested after the pause. Star forward Brad Marchand has 13 points in his last ten games (5G, 8A, with points in ten straight), David Pastrnak split the Rocket Richard Trophy with Ovechkin (enough said), and Tuukka Rask was white hot in his last ten - six wins, two shutouts, and six games with a save percentage greater than .950. As irrelevant as those numbers may be in the month of August, the Bruins are a team whose stars carry them and they are the Capitals’ biggest threat.
Greg: To me, this is a pretty easy call: Tampa Bay. I’m not putting much stock in the Flyers last hot streak, as it’s been 4+ months since anyone has played competitive hockey, and the Bruins might be without some top-line skill. Although the Bolts bowed out of the playoffs last year in ignominious fashion, this is still a team with a comical amount of top-line talent, elite depth, and solid goaltending. In a short series where a lot of things will be random, give me the team with the most talent.
Kevin: Given the wildly irregular circumstances heading into the postseason, I’m liable to throw any sort of measure I might have used to answer this question out the window. Regular season matchups? Whatever. Momentum heading into the regular season’s close? Irrelevant. The team that poses the biggest threat to the Caps is the team with the most talent, and for me, that’s Tampa Bay. Well, technically the team that’s the biggest threat to the Caps is whatever team they’re playing against, but no one likes a pedant.
J.P.: Interestingly enough, the weakest of those teams (by point total) gave the Caps the biggest trouble during the regular season, and that’s the Flyers. I don’t think the Flyers are as good as either Tampa or Boston, but for some reason, the match-up was just not nearly as good for the Caps. Should we expect that to be the case four months later? Who knows. So I’ll cop out and say that the round-robin team that poses the biggest threat to the Caps is… the Caps. Boom.
Rob: I’m with Kevin in that regular season numbers don’t really matter because of the long break. But one thing that hasn’t been limited to just this year is that Metro foes have figured out the Caps—specifically how to forecheck them and kill power plays. I’m skeptical that the coaching staff solved that during the break and even more skeptical that system fixes can be implemented at this time. Flyers.
Becca: I’d also agree with this idea that, in this one instance, the regular-season numbers from four months ago probably don’t matter that much when it comes to this particular tournament. I will say, though, that the Flyers have been a particularly tough matchup for the Caps for a couple of years now - even beyond Todd Reirden’s tenure. In fact, dating back to the start of Barry Trotz’s time at the helm, the Caps are basically .500 - 12-7-5 - against Philadelphia and have given up just about as many goals as they’ve scored over that span.
That matchup did get worse this year, though, with the Caps taking only one of the four games (and losing badly in a couple of those L’s), and even with the break the rosters (and coaches) are still the same. Let’s just say I’m thankful that, at least to start, the Caps’ postseason experience against Philly (in my mind the weakest of the top four otherwise) will be limited to a single non-elimination game.
Bryan: I’m going to zig where you all zag — as much of a threat as the Flyers were down the stretch in the “before times” I think that momentum means next to nothing given the layoff, current format, and the new location. This pains me to say but I’m looking at Boston as the biggest threat because they have (in my estimation) the best talent of the bunch (Caps aside obviously) and when we’re not talking about things like “momentum” and “hot hand” goalies, I think talent is going to win out. The Bruins run two very strong forward lines, and are extremely tough up and down their roster. As much of a loony toon as Tukka Raask can be at times, he knows what it takes to be a part of a team that hoists the cup, and I don’t think that can be understated.
Q2. Hit us with your predictions, bold or otherwise, for the Caps and the round-robin tournament in general.
Peerless: The safest pick I could make is that the Caps beat the Lightning (it’s what they do) and lose to the Flyers and Bruins. Where I would be more concerned about that is if the Caps go 1-2 and get there with leaky defense and goaltending. That was a lot of their problem late in the season, and it would tell me that their problems aren’t solved.
Now here is the off-the-wall prediction. Evgeny Kuznetsov will be playing for his career in DC in this postseason. He hasn’t seemed quite the same since the Stanley Cup win, there seems to be little (or at least inconsistent) spark in his game, but since the All-Star Game break this season he’s been borderline awful, given expectations for a scoring line center on a contender (3-7-10, minus-5, in 17 games). And after last spring’s disappointing playoff performance (1-5-6 in seven games, no points in three road games), I think a bright light is going to be shining on him. As for whether the Caps actually finish their season on the ice (as opposed to the league shutting down the postseason), I think it’s more likely the season ends on the ice because I’m having a hard time seeing this team advancing past a first round the way they played over their last 20 games of the regular season.
Luke: I don’t know how the record will look, but I have a feeling that the Capitals will play well, and that’s what they really need before starting the playoffs. Brendan Dillon and Ilya Kovalchuk have now had proper time and practice to get used to the team and their style. By all accounts, they seem to fit in extremely well. The guys seem excited and ready to bring home another Cup.
Geoff: Braden Holtby’s play will be impressive and it will include a shutout against one of the Eastern Conference’s best. Ovechkin will outscore Pastrnak in the round-robin games to earn eternal bragging rights regarding the 2020 Rocket Richard Trophy.
Greg: I guess I’ll go with the most boring prediction here: all of these round-robin games will happen on schedule. There’s been a lot of focus on the disaster of MLB’s reopening, but I think the NHL was smart in 1. fleeing the United States to Canada (which has done much better in handling COVID) 2. minimizing travel and embracing the bubble, instead of having the players constantly returning to their homes throughout the season 3. essentially eliminating the rest of the regular season and hopping straight to the playoffs.
Whether they’ll make it through the entire tournament? That’s a different, more difficult question.
Becca: I have one prediction that is not at all bold: Alex Ovechkin will be very, very good. Outside of that, this whole thing is so foreign to me that I don’t know what to expect or even how to make predictions. The biggest question in all of this for me is whether the games will match playoff intensity or not - not just because it’s a simple matter of seeding rather than elimination, but because the whole atmosphere is different. Can teams manufacture the hatred and physicality without a crowd and without their season on the line? The exhibition games were a promising sign that perhaps they can, but... we’ll see.
Kevin: My most important prediction for the round-robin is that the Caps will advance from it...beyond that, who really cares? It’s a classic process-matters-more-than-result set of circumstances. If these guys can get the rhythm of competitive hockey back under their belts, that’s going to matter more than anything else, although with performance from these games counting towards the statsheets, I do think we’ll see a reasonably high standard of hockey from either side of any given game. My bold prediction is that we see an injury to a starter on a round-robin team from something unnecessary given the stakes, like blocking a slapshot, a fight, or a dirty hit.
J.P.: My prediction for the round-robin is that it’ll look more like preseason or exhibition hockey than playoff hockey. Yes, the teams are fighting for seeding and “home ice” (whatever that’s gonna be worth…), but my guess is that they’ll be playing at 80%, not 110% (as opposed to the other post-season teams with more on the line). So I don’t know how good a gauge it will be for the games that come after. Hopefully it’s a decent tune-up and everyone stays healthy. To me, that’s more important than where they finish, one-to-four.
Oh, and if Alex Ovechkin scores two or more goals in the three pre-playoff games, good luck convincing me that he didn’t have a 50-goal season…
Bryan: Caps win two out of three narrowly. I agree with J.P. that these games are not going to be super pretty and are going to be far from the playoff intensity that we’re accustomed to seeing. That’s going to lead some to question whether Ilya Samsonov’s absence is a bigger deal than it is (it isn’t.)
Rob: No matter how well or poorly the Caps play, no matter their ultimate record and seeding, they are gonna end up with the shit draw from the play-in teams.