With only five games remaining in the regular season, it is safe to say, though not yet certain, that the Capitals will make the playoffs. As the number of games left for each team begins to dwindle down, the number of potential first round opponents for each team gets increasingly slim. For Washington, however, there are still a number of different potential opponents that they could meet in the first round.
Philadelphia Flyers (3-1-0 vs Washington this season)
Should the standings remain the same as they are now, the Capitals will be squaring off against Philadelphia in the first round. While this is technically the most likely matchup to occur, the Flyers are tied in points with Columbus, meaning some movement is still a possibility. Regardless, this series is one that most Capitals fans should be a bit scared of. The Flyers took the season series fairly handily, outscoring Washington 19-11 in the four games. Philadelphia is one of the younger teams in the Eastern Conference, which could mean one of two things: they will play nervously and be taken advantage of early on, or they will be excited, fast, and ready to score a lot of goals. To me, the second seems much more likely, especially considering the season they’ve had. Since the turn of the calendar year, the Flyers have been one of the league’s better teams, going 22-12-4. The scariest thing about the Flyers for Washington is their ability to explode offensively. In two of the four games against the Caps, the Flyers have been unstoppable offensively, scoring six and eight goals. The one thing that could bite the Flyers – against Washington or any other playoff team – is their goaltending. Should Brian Elliot still be injured come playoff time, it is going to be hard to tell who the best bet will be in net, as Petr Mrazek has been less than stellar since coming over to Philadelphia.
The Result: This would be a fun, fast-paced series, but one that I think would favor Philadelphia. I’m choosing the Flyers to win the series 4-2.
Columbus Blue Jackets (1-3-0 vs Washington this season)
The next likeliest opponent for Washington would be the Columbus Blue Jackets. Should this be the way things unfold, this has the potential to be a fantastic series with star power on either side. On one hand, the Capitals are led by a stellar group of forwards in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, while the Blue Jackets are known for the stellar play of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and young defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Columbus, despite struggling earlier in 2018, has bounced back in a big way, recently winning ten consecutive games before finally losing to St. Louis on Saturday. One of the biggest problems that has faced the Jackets all season, however, has been their scoring. The interesting thing is that during their ten-game win streak, scoring wasn’t an issue at all, and it made them look like a completely different team. The question then becomes, which team shows up to their opening round? The one that struggles to score and is largely carried by the play of their back half, or the team that lightens the load for Bobrovsky and has the potential to make a deep playoff run?
The Result: Another series with great potential. In my eyes, it is hard to see the Caps getting shut down badly enough to lose this series, so I have them winning it 4-3.
New Jersey Devils (1-2-0 vs Washington this season)
These two teams still have a game remaining against each other before the regular season ends, and it is the last one for both of them, meaning that this would seem like an eight-game series between, should they meet in the playoffs in what would likely be a very fun matchup. The Devils are a very up-and-down team that seems to be fairly close to a bottom-dwelling team when they aren’t playing their best, but are truly frightening when they are. The keys to winning this series should be pretty obvious. For the Devils, it is shutting down Alex Ovechkin and getting the puck past Braden Holtby (or Philipp Grubauer – we’ll see what happens there). For Washington, it is slowing down Taylor Hall and getting Cory Schneider off of his game. This one may seem like a somewhat easy series from the standpoint of a team at the top of their divisional standings, but don’t be fooled. The Devils are a team eerily similar to the Vegas Golden Knights in the way that they thrive on being the underdogs (until of course they are no longer the underdogs). They are undoubtedly the team in the East with the least playoff experience, but also the team that will burn you if you take them lightly. If the Capitals can in fact shut down the red hot Taylor Hall and put enough pucks to the back of the net, this is a series that they really should win. However, you only need to look back to last season’s series against the Maple Leafs to see that the Caps didn’t exactly bury a team that they definitely should’ve beaten. If this series is the one that unfolds in the first round, look for the Devils to give Washington a bit of a scare and maybe take a game on the road.
The Result: Despite the speed and skill of the Devils, this is a series that favors Washington pretty heavily. Similar to last year’s first round, I’m taking the Caps to win this series 4-2.
Pittsburgh Penguins (2-1-0 vs Washington this season)
Ah, yes, the dreaded series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Similarly to just about every other season that the Capitals have made the playoffs, Pittsburgh would be a very tough matchup for Washington to overcome. The Penguins lost center Nick Bonino in the offseason, and to make up for that, they grabbed center Derrick Brassard at the trade deadline, meaning that, arguably, they still have the best depth down the middle of the ice of any team in the NHL. The Penguins, another team who struggled early in the season, have also been fantastic in 2018, going 24-9-3. Not much has changed since last season for the Penguins; they are still scary good offensively, a little bit less impressive on defense, and if Matt Murray is on his game, which he seems to always be in the playoffs, then you really don’t want to be in a series against Pittsburgh. So, what makes this year different than all the rest? What is the key piece that’s going to change the history of this seemingly annual playoff matchup between Washington and Pittsburgh? The answer is Kris Letang, and Washington’s task is going to be even more difficult than last year’s. The one thing that the Caps may be able to take advantage of, however, is Pittsburgh’s goaltending. In particular, Matt Murray. The Penguins starting netminder has been injured a few times this season, and when healthy, still hasn’t been the same as he was in the previous season. If this is the matchup Washington draws in the first round, they will need to pepper the Penguins’ net to salvage any hopes of winning the series. Thankfully, there would have to be some big changes in the division standings for this series to happen at all.
The Result: Should this series take place, it could be a quick one. I’m choosing Pittsburgh over Washington 4-1.
As usual, the playoffs will be an exciting time around the NHL, with a number of teams looking like they may be ready for their first deep playoff run in a long time (or ever). For the Capitals, a playoff series is only seven games away, and regardless of the opponent, the first series won’t be an easy one.