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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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The 25 most important players for the Caps: No. 21 Devante Smith-Pelly

The 25 most important players for the Caps: No. 21 Devante Smith-Pelly

Every player on an NHL team plays a role. Some play bigger roles than others.

In the coming weeks, Jill Sorenson, Tarik El-Bashir and JJ Regan will rank the 25 most important players in the Caps’ organization, from least to most important, weighing factors such as past production, future potential and intangibles. 

Today’s player: No. 21 Devante Smith-Pelly.

Will Devante Smith-Pelly manage to ressurect his career this season?

After getting bought out by the Devils on June 30, Smith-Pelly signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Caps a few days later. The deal will pay him $650,000 in Washington and $300,000 in Hershey.

RELATED: WHY THE CAPS NEED TO WATCH OUT FOR THE BLUE JACKETS

It's a significant paycut from the $1.25 million that Smith-Pelly, 25, earned last season, and the contract offers less job security. But he's got another chance, much like the one the Caps gave to Brett Connolly a year ago, to seize a spot in the bottom six and reestablish himself in the league. Connolly, after being cut loose by the Bruins last summer, took full advantage of his opporrunity here, scoring a career-high 15 goals in 66 games and earning a two-year, $3 million extension from GM Brian MacLellan.    

When training camp opens in mid-September, the Caps are going to need a pair of wingers to play with center Jay Beagle on the fourth line. There will be no shortage of competition for those positions, with Smith-Pelly expected to battle Anthony Peluso and forward prospects Nathan Walker, Chandler Stephenson, Riley Barber, Travis Boyd, Liam O’Brien and perhaps others.

Smith-Pelly would seem to have the inside track based on experience alone. He’s played in 266 NHL regular season games and 24 playoff contests. (Peluso, 28, has played in 142 games, while no one else I mentioned has appeared in more than 14.)

Smith-Pelly, a 6-foot, 214-pound righty, has also had some eyebrow raising stretches in his career. In the 2014 playoffs as a member of the Ducks, he amassed five goals in 12 games while averaging 4.4 hits per. In 2016, he was dealt from Montreal to the Devils late in the season and ended up racking up eight goals and five assists in only 18 games.

So, Smith-Pelly has been productive. He just hasn’t been consistent.

Will that change in Washington? That’s yet to be determined. But we can already surmise this much: he's got a pretty good opportunity in front of him and he's probably running out of chances.

Check out the full list of the Caps most important players as it comes out here and check out previous player profiles below.

— No. 25 Aaron Ness
— No. 24 Chandler Stephenson
— No. 23 Riley Barber
— No. 22 Pheonix Copley

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Capitals' 2017-18 Metropolitan Division Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Capitals' 2017-18 Metropolitan Division Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Last season, the Metropolitan Division was the toughest in the NHL, producing the Stanley Cup champ, the regular season champ and three of the top four teams in the overall standings.

How’s the division shaping up for 2017-18 after a summer of change for a few of its eight teams?

This week, CSN is taking a look at each club's offseason moves and predicting how they’ll do this winter.

RELATED: CSN'S 2017-18 CAPITALS PREVIEW

Team: Columbus Blue Jackets

2016-17 Results: 50-24-8 (108 points). Third in division, 3rd in conference. Eliminated in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games.

Notable acquisitions: C Jordan Schroeder, LW Artemi Panarin, C Tyler Motte

Notable departures: C Sam Gagner, LW Scott Hartnell, D Kyle Quincey, RW David Clarkson, LW Brandon Saad, G Anton Forsberg, C William Karlsson

When they will play the Caps: At Washington Dec. 2, at Columbus Feb. 6, at Washington Feb. 9, at Columbus Feb. 26

MORE CAPITALS: WHY IS PHEONIX COPLEY IMPORTANT FOR THE CAPS THIS SEASON?

2017-18 Blue Jackets Analysis:

The Blue Jackets were arguably the biggest surprise of the regular season last year, but they will enter the 2016-17 season with more doubters than you would expect for a young up-and-coming team that finished with the fourth best record in the league.

After a great regular season that included a 16-game win streak, Columbus fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The biggest difference was the play of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy for an incredible regular season that saw him post a .931 save percentage and 2.06 GAA. The playoffs saw a massive regression with a .882 save percentage and 3.88 GAA. It’s hard to win when your goalie is putting up numbers like that, but the fact that the Blue Jackets’ postseason lasted only five games shows just how important he is to his team’s success.

In addition to Bobrovsky, Columbus also returns a strong, young core that is looking to take the next step this season. Cam Atkinson led the team with 62 points last season, Alex Wennberg scored 59 points at the age of 22 and Zach Werenski was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. The one thing this team seemed to lack last season was a dynamic goal scorer. To address that, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen pulled off a big trade with the Chicago Blackhawks to acquire Artemi Panarin.

Playing alongside Patrick Kane, Panarin has scored 61 goals and 90 assists in his first two NHL seasons. The Blue Jackets are betting Panarin can remain as productive in Columbus even without Kane.

The Blue Jackets lose some production with Brandon Saad and Sam Gagner, but they could bolster their ranks with prospect Pierre-Luc Dubois if he is able to make the NHL squad. In the QMJHL, Dubois tallied 55 points in just 48 games.

2017-18 Blue Jackets Season prediction:

The biggest question for Columbus is how will Bobrovsky respond to his postseason performance? Ultimately it may be unreasonable to expect him to play as lights out as he did last season, but the Blue Jackets cannot compete in the toughest division in hockey if he plays like he did in the playoffs.

In addition to Bobrovsky, a lot will be riding on the shoulders of Panarin. He is a good pick up, but ultimately no one knows what he will be without Kane. How will he play when defenses are game planning for him? Even if Panarin disappoints, however, the arrow is still trending up for Columbus.

The Blue Jackets are not going to catch anyone by surprise like they did last season. If they hope to stay among the top teams in the Metropolitan Division, they will have to earn it. To me, this team is absolutely a playoff team and a dangerous one at that, but still likely a year away from winning the division. They may be better than last season, but too much went right for them to not expect some regression. Still, the future looks very bright for Columbus.

More Metro Division previews: