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Capitals' playoff opponent watch: Battling Brooklyn

Capitals' playoff opponent watch: Battling Brooklyn

In the final stretch of the season, it’s time to start projecting possible first round matchups for the Caps.

As of March 8, Washington holds a five-point lead over Columbus for first place in the Metropolitan Division and an 11-point lead over Montreal for first place in the Eastern Conference. That means we need to look at teams that could finish in the second wild card spot for possible opponents.

As of right now the Caps would be playing: New York Islanders (73 points)

Caps’ record vs. Islanders this season: 2-3-0

The Islanders have been a tough out for the Caps this season and have also been on a roll under interim coach Doug Weight who took over for Jack Capuano in January. Washington has only played New York once since Weight took over, a 3-2 loss on Jan. 31. If you’re worried about the Islanders, however, the good news is that they are not likely to stay in this spot through the rest of the season.  Every game is going to matter down the stretch and  the Islanders have a four-game road trip in April and close out the season with a back-to-back with New Jersey on April 8 and Ottawa 23 hours later on April 9.

RELATED: Capitals ink two college free agents

Other possible playoff opponents

Boston Bruins (74 points)

Caps’ record vs. Bruins this season: 2-0-0 (1 game remaining on April 8)

Boston currently sits in third place in the Atlantic. For them to slide into the second wild card spot, another team from the Atlantic will have to overtake them and bump them out of the top three. Like the Islanders, Boston is thriving after a mid-season coaching change. Former Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy is now the interim coach of the Bruins and they have gone 8-3-0 under his watch thus far. If they can keep that pace up, they will remain in the top three and avoid that matchup with the Caps.

Toronto Maple Leafs (72 points)

Caps’ record vs. Leafs this season: 1-1-0 (1 game remaining on April 4)

This is a team that Washington simply has not played well against this season. The Caps’ one win came on Jan. 3 in a game in which they allowed five goals and Braden Holtby was pulled after the first period. The Leafs are way ahead of schedule with their rebuild and have a very good chance of sneaking into the playoffs in that last wild card spot. Because of their youth and inexperience, a Washington-Toronto series is one the Caps should win, but playoff matchups against a Mike Babcock-coached team are best avoided.

Philadelphia Flyers (70 points)

Caps’ record vs. Flyers this season: 3-0-1

After a 10-game win streak earlier in the season, being three points out of the playoffs is not where Philadelphia expected to be at this point. The Flyers have essentially been swooning ever since that streak and have not come close to that level of play. The only issue a series with Philadelphia would likely pose for the Caps is a risk of injury considering how physical the Flyers play. Otherwise, this would likely be an easily winnable series for Washington.

Tampa Bay Lightning (69 points)

Caps’ record vs. Lighting this season: 1-0-1 (1 game remaining on March 18)

This is a matchup you should hope the Caps avoid. Yes, they are 1-0-1 against Tampa, but this Lightning team has grossly underachieved all season and has only recently begun to heat up. Tampa went to the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, forcing seven games out of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins. But Tampa is without Steven Stamkos, you say? Do you know how many games the Lightning got out of Steven Stamkos in the playoffs last year? Just one and they still came within one game of repeating as Eastern Conference champs. What’s more is Stamkos is skating with the team again and is nearing a return from a knee injury that has kept him out since November. Tampa is far better than a second wild card team and that’s without Stamkos. Add him to the mix and this is a matchup you really don’t want to see for the Caps in the first round.

Florida Panthers (69 points)

Caps’ record vs. Panthers this season: 2-0-0 (1 game remaining on April 9)

The Panthers are another team that elected to make a midseason coaching change, but they did not seem to get the same sort of spark from the move as Boston or New York. Tom Rowe took over behind the bench when Gerard Gallant was unexpectedly fired in November. Since then, Florida hovered around mediocrity until Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov returned to the lineup in February prompting a surge in the standings. After sweeping a five-game road trip, however, Florida has lost six of their last seven and are in danger of soon falling out of the playoff race completely.

MORE CAPITALS: Burakovsky won't travel with Caps, after all

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Braden Holtby critical of his performance Saturday night

Braden Holtby critical of his performance Saturday night

Caps Coach Barry Trotz acknowledged that Braden Holtby wasn’t “as sharp as he can be” in Saturday’s 6-2 loss to the Penguins.  

Trotz also said he hasn’t given any thought to his Game 3 starter.

“Way too early to talk about that,” Trotz said, asked if he planned to return to Holtby on Monday night. “I haven’t really thought about it at all.”

Holtby allowed three goals on nine second period shots in Game 2 and was pulled at the intermission. Saturday's performance followed a Game 1 effort in which he allowed three goals on 21 shots and a first round series that saw him surrender 14 goals in the first four games.

RELATED: 3 observations: Missed opportunity leads to tough questions

Philipp Grubauer entered Saturday’s game at the start of the third period and promptly allowed two goals on the first four shots he faced.    

“I thought we just had to chance the mojo in that situation,” Trotz said of pulling Holtby. “He’ll tell you he could be better…and he will be.”

Pressed on what he thought of Holtby’s night, Trotz added: “I thought some of the goals, he wasn’t as sharp as he can be for us. He’s a game-changer for us. And when he didn’t change the game, I just looked to change the mojo a little bit, that’s all.”

“Braden is our backbone and he has been all year,”Trotz continued. “We got to find some goals for him, too. We can’t just put it on Braden Holtby. We got to find some goals in our room right now, and we haven’t found enough.”

Holtby said he didn’t like the Penguins’ third goal, scored by Jake Guentzel, who finished a 2-on-1, sniping a shot over his left pad and under his glove.

“The playoffs are made of big moments and on that third goal, that’s a big moment,” Holtby said. “That’s where your goalie needs to come up with a save and I just didn’t. Obviously, I was frustrated that I didn’t do that.”

Through eight playoff games, Holtby has a .911 save percentage—13th out of the 14 goalies who’ve played at least 5 postseason games. Holtby entered the playoffs with the best postseason save percentage in league history at .938.

So, yeah, it’s fair to say that none of this was expected...getting pulled as the Caps fight for their postseason lives or being asked by a reporter whether he thinks he'll be in net for the next game. 

“I expect to start every game until I’m told otherwise,” an exasperated Holtby said.

MORE CAPITALS: Hot start turns into disastrous finish as Caps fall 6-2

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3 key observations from Game 2: Missed opportunity leads to questions for Caps

3 key observations from Game 2: Missed opportunity leads to questions for Caps

A devastating Game 2 loss has the Caps facing a massive 2-0 hole in the series. Here are three key observations from Saturday’s game.

1. This game was lost in the first period

The Caps dominated Pittsburgh through the first 20 minutes in every statistical category save the most important one, the score. Despite leading in shot attempts 30 to 8, shots on goal 16 to 5 and scoring chances 12 to 5 through the first, the score was still knotted at zero. The biggest difference in this series is that every time the Caps give Pittsburgh an opening, the puck ends up in the back of the net. The first period was Washington’s chance to take control and they couldn’t.

RELATED: Penguins fans take over near Verizon Center

2. Was making the switch in net the right move?

Braden Holtby has now allowed six goals on 35 shots this series for a save percentage of .829. Obviously, that’s not very good. Barry Trotz made the switch to Philipp Grubauer to start the third period, but that didn’t seem to work out too well either as he allowed two goals on just eight shots finishing whatever hopes the Caps had of a comeback. Whether Trotz made the right call in taking out Holtby was a hotly debated topic among the media after the game. Look, with all due respect to Grubauer who has been great this year, the Caps cannot win the Stanley Cup if Holtby is not the backbone of the team. So what do you do? Let him try to play his way out of the slump or make the change to Grubauer and  open the door for speculation as to who will start Game 3?

3. You’ve got to give it to him

Caps fans don’t want to hear this, but Sidney Crosby put on a show, declaring himself to still be the best player in the NHL. With the score tied 1-1, it was Crosby’s two assists that made the difference turning a tight game in which the Caps had dominated into a 3-1 lead for the Penguins. On the first goal, he took a pass that was a bit behind him, tapped it through his own legs to gain possession, and then fed Phil Kessel as the Caps collapsed on him. The next goal was set up by a shot-block from Crosby which he then fed to Jake Guentzel with a diving play to set up the 2-on-1 on the goal. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the guy. This was one of those games.

MORE CAPITALS: Hot start turns into disastrous finish as Caps fall 6-2