The Washington Capitals were the first team to clinch a playoff spot in the 2016-17 season following Saturday night’s 5-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. While this should be reason enough for celebration, it has inevitably turned to anxiety for many Caps fans who have started thinking about possible playoff matchups. Possible opponents for the Caps in the first round include the Islanders, Maple Leafs, Blue Jackets, Penguins or Bruins — some are promising, and some are terrifying. Here is the status report.
If the Capitals can hang on to first place in their division, they will play the team that holds the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Currently, that team is the Toronto Maple Leafs, an organization that has not won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and has qualified for the playoffs once in the past 12 years.
This year, however, Toronto has been an exciting team to watch; with the addition of rookies Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, the Maple Leafs have been an offensively dominant team and a persistent threat in the Atlantic Division. Although they have turned heads with their energetic play, they have also been inconsistent. Reliance on such a young and inexperienced foundation could be dangerous for their playoff chances. For the Caps, this is one of the two best-case scenarios for a first-round matchup.
The New York Islanders have also been hovering around the second wild-card spot, with one point separating them from the Maple Leafs in the standings. Coming back from a disappointing first half of the season, the Islanders have turned a corner after firing Head Coach Jack Capuano and could make a playoff run if they can finish the season strong. However, lack of depth, inconsistent goaltending and low offensive output all point to postseason failure, and as such the Islanders would make excellent opponents for the Capitals in the first round.
The Boston Bruins have a slimmer, yet still existent, chance of playing the Caps in the first round. Currently sitting in the third playoff spot in the Atlantic, the Bruins own a three-point lead on the Maple Leafs. If Boston were to have a lackluster finish to the season and fall behind Toronto, Boston would find itself in the second wild-card spot.
The Bruins have been consistently mediocre this season; originally on track to miss the playoffs for the second year in a row, the Bruins fired Head Coach Claude Julien earlier this year and have since improved. They have the age and experience that the Maple Leafs lack, with notable veterans like Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, in addition to a lethal offensive weapon in Brad Marchand. Despite a weaker regular season, the Bruins are historically fearsome playoff contenders, and a matchup with Boston would prove to be a tougher matchup for Washington.
The other options are even less enticing. The Columbus Blue Jackets were the second team to clinch a playoff spot and are currently tied with the Caps at 100 standings points as of Sunday. What will ensue is a frenzied finish to the season for first place in the Metropolitan Division between Columbus, Washington and Pittsburgh — which trail only by 1 point. If the Capitals cannot hang on to their lead in the division, they will be forced to play either the Blue Jackets or the Pittsburgh Penguins. Columbus has had a breakout year with its 16-game winning streak, earlier this season making national headlines, and remain a strong team with depth scoring and solid goaltending in Sergei Bobrovsky.
Pittsburgh defeated Washington in the second round of the playoffs last season on its way on to win the Cup. Not much has changed since then. Pittsburgh remains the playoff juggernaut it was last year. It is tough to say which would be worse, but if I had to choose, I would rather take the Penguins in the first round than have to face them in the second. The Caps have long struggled with the “second-round curse,” and having to face arguably the toughest team in the Metropolitan during that critical turning point for the Caps would be disastrous.
If the Caps should slip to second or third in their division, our best hope is taking regular season momentum and converting it into an early playoff victory against one of our most bitter rivals. Perhaps that would provide the Caps with the momentum and confidence needed to push through and raise their first Stanley Cup.
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