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Capitals' playoff opponent watch: A suddenly open Metro race changes Washington's playoff scenario

Capitals' playoff opponent watch: A suddenly open Metro race changes Washington's playoff scenario

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

As of March 15, Washington sits just two points ahead of Pittsburgh and three points ahead of Columbus for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. They also lead Montreal by 11 points for first place in the Eastern Conference.

As of right now the Caps would be playing: New York Islanders (77 points)

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

Many expected the Islanders to drop out of the race with a nine-game road trip, but the Islanders managed a 5-3-1 record to keep their head above water. Still, New York may struggle to stay in this position because of the streaking Tampa Bay Lightning (more on them later). What also hurts them is how well the Boston Bruins are playing. That means even if the Lightning stay hot and catch the Bruins, Boston will be in a good position to slide into the wild card spot over the Islanders.

RELATED: Burakovsky rejoins teammates, eyes return to game action

Other possible playoff opponents

Pittsburgh Penguins (95 points)

Caps record vs. Penguins this season: 2-0-2

If you hated the NHL’s current playoff format before, just wait if we see a Washington-Pittsburgh series in the first round. Washington’s recent slide has left the door open for Pittsburgh and Columbus to take the top spot in the division. If that happens, the Caps will play the second or third place team in the Metropolitan, depending on where they finish. In my opinion, this matchup is unlikely to happen in the first round because the Blue Jackets would have to pass both Washington and Pittsburgh to win the division. I think if anyone passes the Caps, it will be the Penguins. While the Caps have earned at least a point in each game against the Penguins this season, you can go ahead and throw the record out when it comes to these two teams. Just about everyone believes if the Caps win the Stanley Cup, they will have to go through Pittsburgh, but not many thought this could happen in the very first round.

Columbus Blue Jackets (94 points)

Caps record vs. Blue Jackets this season: 1-1-1 (2 games remaining on March 23 and April 2)

If the Penguins do win the Metropolitan Division, Washington will face a John Tortorella-led Blue Jackets team. Columbus is not as good as they looked when they won 16 straight games earlier in the season, a win streak that was broken by the Caps in a 5-0 blowout, but to their credit they have kept pace with Washington and Pittsburgh to stay within striking distance of the top spot in the Metro. The biggest concern is goalie Sergei Bobrovsky who is having his best season with a .929 save percentage, 2.08 GAA and a career-high 37 wins. Caps fans all know just how much a hot goalie can change a series.

Boston Bruins (80 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, but Tampa Bay is red-hot and trails the Bruins by only three points. Boston may not fall into the wild card, they may be forced there. This isn’t a case of a team falling off at the end of the season, the Bruins are playing well. They are 11-3-0 since former Capitals head coach Bruce Cassidy took over as interim coach and Brad Marchand sits tied for the NHL lead in goals with 35.

Tampa Bay Lightning (77 points)

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

A Lightning team that has grossly underachieved all season long is suddenly surging and making a serious push to reach the postseason. Even as the injuries continue to mount, it seems like there’s no slowing down Tampa. This is not a matchup you want to see in the first round. 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 and they did it with Steven Stamkos playing in only one postseason game. Stamkos is skating with the team again and is nearing a return from a knee injury that has kept him out since November. Adding a superstar player to a team that is already on a hot streak makes the Lightning very dangerous.

Toronto Maple Leafs (76 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.

Florida Panthers (71 points)

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

Philadelphia Flyers (70 points)

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

Neither the Panthers nor the Flyers will go away, doing just enough to stay alive in the playoff race, but only just. I don’t anticipate either team doing enough to reach the postseason.

MORE CAPITALS: Prediction recap: Caps find their offense in win over Wild

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Who still needs a goalie? Possible trade destinations for Philipp Grubauer

Who still needs a goalie? Possible trade destinations for Philipp Grubauer

Heading into the expansion draft, the Caps knew they would most likely lose either defenseman Nate Schmidt or goalie Philipp Grubauer. They lost Schmidt and, in order to find a replacement,trading Grubauer may be the most viable option. But if that is the option the team decides to take, the clock is ticking.

The list of teams in need of a goalie continues to get shorter and shorter while free agency is just around the corner. This year is a buyer's market for goalies. With pending free agents like Ryan Miller, Jonathan Bernier, Steve Mason and Brian Elliott among others available, those few teams looking to upgrade their starting goalie will have plenty of options.

If Washington is hoping to address their hole on defense by trading away Grubauer or at least building a trade package with him as the centerpiece, it would benefit the Caps to make a deal before July 1 when free agency opens or they may be forced to hold onto him longer until a favorable deal presents itself.

RELATED: Connolly reportedly re-signs with the Capitals

But who would be interested?

Most teams in the league would love to get a 25-year-old budding starter. To maximize what general manager Brian MacLellan could get for the young netminder, he should focus more on teams in need of a starter now. Teams like these.

Here are the teams who definitely need a starting goalie, the teams who might be in the market and the teams who need a new starter but who are unlikely to deal with Washington.

Teams who definitely need a starting goalie

Vancouver Canucks: Ryan Miller is set to become a free agent on July 1. There has been talk for months about potentially re-signing him to a short-term deal, but less than a week away from July 1, there is still no deal in place. Vancouver seems to think Jacob Markstrom will one day be able to be the team’s top starter, but I do not know what they have seen from him to make them believe that. At 27 years old, Markstrom has a career 2.91 GAA and .906 save percentage. What am I missing? Grubauer would be an instant upgrade for a team that continually refuses to rebuild.

Winnipeg Jets: Mercifully, Ondrej Pavelec will finally be leaving as a free agent. Connor Hellebuyck was given every chance to cement himself as the starter, but managed only a 2.89 GAA and .907 save percentage in 56 games last season. At only 24, it is too early to give up on him completely, but Grubauer is only 25 and has shown just as much if not more potential. While a tandem of two potential starters is never ideal (see the Philadelphia Flyers), Grubauer-Hellebuyck would certainly be an upgrade over what they had last year. Think they wouldn’t turn the reins over to two young goalies? Well, the only other goalie under contract in Winnipeg is currently the 27-year-old Michael Hutchinson who has appeared in only 99 games in his NHL career. Vancouver has to do something to address that.

Teams who might be in the market for a starting goalie

Buffalo Sabres: Just as the Canucks seem to be the only team that sees Markstrom as a starter, the Sabres may be the only team that views Robin Lehner as a No. 1. He has shown potential with a .924 and .920 save percentage in each of the last two seasons suggesting the Sabres' problems have more to do with their defense than their goaltending, but Buffalo has cleaned house this offseason with a new general manager and coach. Perhaps they could also be in the market for a new goalie as well.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche raised some eyebrows by protecting Semyon Varlamov over Calvin Pickard in the expansion draft and paid the price for it as Pickard is now a Golden Knight. Colorado needs another goalie and Grubauer presents a younger, more durable option than the inconsistent Varlamov.

Detroit Red Wings: Speaking of raising eyebrows, Petr Mrazek was one of the most surprising players left exposed to Vegas. Golden Knights general manager George Mcphee, however, didn’t bite and now the Red Wings have a problem. Clearly, there’s an issue with Mrazek and Jimmy Howard is 33 years old making the team's future in net uncertain.

Teams who need a goalie but are unlikely partners

New York Islanders: The Islanders’ goalie situation was a disaster last season which resulted in Jaroslav Halak playing in the AHL. J.F. Berube is now with Vegas which means New York is down to two goalies again, but that may not solve the issue. The real problem last year wasn’t that the Islanders had too many goalies, it’s that they didn’t have enough. If one goalie had emerged as the clear No. 1, it would have made life a heck of a lot easier. Having only two goalies may help, but it is hard to imagine the Islanders having much faith in either netminder.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Steve Mason-Michal Neuvirth tandem has not brought much success to the Philadelphia and it is time to move on. Everyone knows it and general manager Ron Hextall has reportedly been in the market for a new goalie.

The problem with both the Islanders and Flyers is that they are both Metropolitan Division teams along with the Caps. Trades within the division are not unheard of, but they can make things more complicated. Would Washington really want to trade the Islanders their franchise goalie? Is either team willing to trade what it would take to get him? The answer may well be "no" which will make life difficult for the Caps considering just how small the list of teams who need a goalie is otherwise.

MORE CAPITALS: Development Camp: 5 players to watch

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Brett Connolly reportedly agrees to terms on a new deal with Caps

Brett Connolly reportedly agrees to terms on a new deal with Caps

Capitals winger Brett Connolly has agreed to terms on a two-year contract extension, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported Monday night.

Connolly earned $850,000 in 2016-17 on a one-year deal.

RELATED: Caps issue qualifying offers, Connolly not tendered

The 25-year-old finished the season as a healthy scratch for the final six games of the Pittsburgh series. During the regular season, however, the former first rounder enjoyed a breakout, scoring a career-high 15 goals in 66 games, despite averaging just 10:41 per game—the lowest ice time total among Washington’s full-time forwards.

On Monday afternoon, the Caps announced that they had tendered qualifying offers to seven restricted free agents—Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Andre Burakovsky, Philipp Grubauer, Chandler Stephenson, Liam O’Brien and Travis Boyd. Connolly did not receive an offer, but it was believed at the time that the sides were closing in on a deal.

Although the season ended under less than ideal circumstances for Connolly, both the player and the team had remained hopeful of reaching an agreement.

“I'd like to have him back; he's a young guy who still has some upside,” GM Brian MacLellan said last month. “I thought he had a very good year this year.”

MORE CAPITALS: Development Camp: 5 players to watch