For the last three seasons, it hasn’t been outside the realm of possibility to say that it was the Capitals’ year to win the Stanley Cup. After being brutalized by the salary cap, the 2017-18 team, unfortunately, is not what it used to be by any stretch of the imagination. Despite this, they should still be a playoff team, and a fairly strong one at that. With that in mind, what path (yes, I know we are only 25 games in, but this is a fun conversation to have anyway) would be the best for the Capitals in order to fulfill their desires of winning their first Stanley Cup this season?
For the purpose of this article, I am not going to create a complete playoff bracket. Instead, I will make up matchups that I believe will give the Capitals the best chance at a Stanley Cup.
First Round, New Jersey Devils
In this hypothetical playoffs, there will not be a single series that is easy to win for Washington. Their best bet for a first round victory, as of now, seems to be the New Jersey Devils. Assuming the Devils can ride their immensely hot start all the way to the playoffs, they will be a team lacking veteran leaders with playoff experience. In fact, the last time the Devils made the playoffs was all the way back in 2012, when they made a somewhat miraculous run to the Cup Final, only to be bested by Los Angeles. Of that 2011-12 Devils team, only Travis Zajac and Andy Greene are still on the team today. Other players with a bit of playoff experience are Brian Boyle, Marcus Johansson, Kyle Palmieri, John Moore, and Ben Lovejoy. The Capitals could take advantage of this inexperienced group over a long playoff series, especially if they can make the games high-scoring and keep Cory Schneider off his game.
Second Round, Columbus Blue Jackets
Why on Earth would you want the Capitals to play the Blue Jackets in the playoffs? Just hear me out. If you’re thinking that they’re a team right near the top of the Eastern Conference with a lineup full of studs, you would be correct, but they aren’t invincible. The Jackets have the lowest goals for of any playoff team in the East, and the second lowest goals for when you look at all the teams currently in a playoff spot in the league. What does this mean? They are riding the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, big time. Despite being a fantastic regular season goaltender over the past few years, Bob has never been the greatest goalie when it comes to the postseason. This gives the Caps a great chance to use their offensive firepower to get past the defensively tough Blue Jackets, while also avoiding having to pit some of their younger defensemen against an offensive juggernaut.
Conference Finals, Toronto Maple Leafs
If the Caps make it this far, there isn’t going to be an easy matchup. Sure, there are teams in the Atlantic Division that they’d have a better chance against than Toronto, but some of those matchups just aren’t realistic. For this round, I chose only between Toronto and Tampa Bay, as those are the two teams I believe will meet in the Atlantic Finals. Of these two teams, the Leafs are definitely the more favorable matchup for Washington. As of now, they aren’t quite as strong in goal as Tampa Bay, nor as strong offensively or defensively. The problem is, however, that they’re still pretty good in all three of those categories. Frederik Andersen is one of those goalies that only gets better as the season progresses, their defensive woes should evaporate as the season rolls along, and they still – and will for a long time – have one of the best offensive groups in the league. What does all of this mean? A tough, hard fought, long series that will take some of the Caps’ best games of the season in order to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Stanley Cup Final, Winnipeg Jets
If the Capitals manage to make their way to the Stanley Cup Final, their best chance of winning it all (against a legitimate Cup contender from the West, of course) would be pitting them against the Winnipeg Jets. Since their return to the Western Conference, the Jets are 2-6 against the Caps. This would be an extremely tight matchup, and even still might not favor the Capitals. It is hard to deny that Winnipeg has one of the most explosive offenses in the league. With this in mind, however, their defense can be hit or miss. Right now, it is the only part of their game that can be seriously questioned. The reason they give the Capitals the best chance to win comes from their lack of experience, average defensive depth, and the inexperience of Connor Hellebuyck in the playoffs. I would be surprised to see this hypothetical series last any shorter than six games, and it would be one that is extremely entertaining.
The level of parity in the NHL is at the highest it has been in a long time, with lots of teams winning games against very strong teams, and young players making a huge impact. This means that the Cup could really be up for grabs for just about anybody. With this in mind, could it once again be the Caps’ year to win the Stanley Cup?