The Washington Capitals’s playoff fate has been determined, as it will face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the 2017 NHL playoffs.
On Sunday, the last day of regulation hockey before the playoffs begin, Toronto needed at least one regulation point over Columbus to secure the third spot in the Atlantic division, knocking the Boston Bruins down into the final wild card spot. Unfortunately for Toronto, a two-goal lead turned in to a 3-2 defeat at home, leaving the Bruins to match up against the Ottawa Senators and putting the Leafs into the Capitals’ line of fire.
Going into the weekend, most Capitals fans were not all that anxious to find out who they would be playing. Considering that Pittsburgh and Columbus were once potential playoff matchups, playing against either Boston or Toronto would be optimal. The general apathy translated into the Capitals’ last regulation home game of the season against the Florida Panthers, who trounced the Capitals 2-0.
This was a highly predictable loss: the Panthers, who will not make it to the playoffs this year, were looking for a high note to finish out their season while the Caps had absolutely no stake in the game, resulting in sloppy, scrimmage-pace play.
But of course the loss didn’t really matter. The Capitals had already won the President’s Trophy for the second year in a row — marking their top regular season record — in addition to the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals against. Now they’re looking toward the playoffs, and I think Caps fans have a lot to be happy about.
The Caps have beaten the Leafs in three out of four regular season matchups, and have won seven out of eight over the past two seasons. This is primarily due to depth and experience. The best thing that hockey fans have been saying about Toronto this season is simultaneously its biggest weakness: youth.
Toronto is shaping up to be a true juggernaut in years to come with a lot of young talent — especially rookie center Auston Matthews who just recently scored his 40th goal— but unfortunately it has just begun its rebuilding process. For a team that has not made the playoffs since 2013, experience will be a key determinant against Washington, who has been to the playoffs many times before and has its eyes fixed on the Cup.
Another weakness for Toronto has been defense. The Maple Leafs boast only one core, top-pairing duo in defensemen Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, and beyond that not much else to speak of. Their second pairing of defensemen in Connor Carrick and Nikita Zaitsev is decent, but that is only provided that Zaitsev recovers from an injury he sustained earlier this month. And even then, only one solid defense pairing will be no match for the Capitals’ offense, which has proven time and time again that it can score no matter which line is on the ice.
With an effective, yet inexperienced offensive core, scant defense and a goaltender who is currently day-to-day from a hit in Toronto’s game against Pittsburgh last week, the Capitals could not have asked for a better matchup. But at the same time, playoff hockey never disappoints, and with coach Mike Babcock behind the bench, things could get interesting. But I sure hope they don’t.
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