Quick Links

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

Quick Links

Barry Trotz explains why he believes this year's Capitals team is different

Barry Trotz explains why he believes this year's Capitals team is different

If you walked away from Washington’s Game 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins thinking to yourself, “same ol’ Caps, same ol’ story,” it’s not hard to understand why. This team has not made it past the second round of the playoffs since 1998 and have beaten the rival Penguins only once in nine postseason meetings.
 
Last year’s dream season in which the Capitals were virtually uncontested through the entire season as the top team in the NHL was brought to an abrupt end in the second round at the hands of the Penguins in six games. After another Presidents’ Trophy winning season, seeing the Caps lose Game 1 to Pittsburgh at home has already left many fans feeling despondent.
 
But that’s not how the Caps feel.
 
“We're in a different place,” head coach Barry Trotz said after Friday’s practice when comparing this team to last year’s. “I think we feel that we still can build on our game.”
 
In many ways, the Capitals were actually the better team in Game 1. Washington held a large advantage in terms of shot attempts (72-32) and scoring chances (41-15) and still walked away with the loss. And yet, despite dominating on paper, Trotz still felt his team had more to give.
 
“I think last year, we came at them real hard and go, what else can we do?” Trotz said. “I don't have that feeling this year. I know we can do more, we know we can do more. That's a great thing to have is we know we can be better, we know we can do more.”
 
“I could lie to you and say that, but I’m not,” Trotz added as he stressed to the media that his confident rhetoric was not simply coach-speak.
 
Despite what happened on paper, the game appeared to be very even as it played out. The big difference seemed to be that every mistake the Caps made ended up in the back of their net.
 
Trotz’s confidence was likely not simply a brave face to wear before the media, but necessary for his players as well. If there was a feeling from last season of “What more can we do?” it would be hard to shake that feeling considering the picture the numbers paint of a dominant Caps’ performance in Game 1. The fact is, if they continue playing the way they did, they will come out on the winning end more often than not. The difference will be cleaning up those mistakes that a championship caliber teams like Pittsburgh always take advantage of.
 
All three of the goals Washington gave up in Game 1 were preventable. The first came when Matt Niskanen pinched too far into the neutral zone off the opening faceoff in the second period. A turnover led to a 2-on-1 in the wrong direction. Pittsburgh’s second goal was the result of Braden Holtby getting a glove on a slap shot from Olli Maatta but not holding onto it, leading to a rebound opportunity that Sidney Crosby finished. The third came with Brooks Orpik high in the neutral zone. A stretch pass left the defense exposed and Kevin Shattenkirk went after Scott Wilson as opposed to staying more center to account for the trailing Orpik and a wide-open Nick Bonino.
 
In terms of overall play, there’s not much more you can do if you dominate the defending Cup champs. What they can do, however, is cut out those mistakes, prevent those preventable goals and not dwell on them as they go forward in the series.
 
“I think we've learned to go forward, I think we've learned to park things and that's what the change is, that's where we wanted to get to,” Trotz said. “I don't know if we're fully there or not, but we're going in that right direction so I'm excited about the rest of the series for sure.”

MORE CAPITALS: Holtby's history suggests he'll bounce back in Game 2

Quick Links

Braden Holtby's history suggests he'll bounce back in Game 2

Braden Holtby's history suggests he'll bounce back in Game 2

Caps Coach Barry Trotz says he’s confident Braden Holtby will rebound from a Game 1 performance that the goalie found to be lacking.

“I thought he was fine but he didn’t think he played as good as he could,” Trotz said. “But I do know this—and I’ve told you this—he is a guy that responds.”

On Friday morning, Holtby was among the first players on the ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex—and he quickly got to work with goalie coach Mitch Korn.

In Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Penguins, Holtby allowed three goals on 21 shots, including a pair on the first seven shots he faced.

RELATED: Caps-Penguins rivalry tests Shattenkirk-Bonino friendship

Why is Trotz so confident that Holtby will rebound? Because history says he will.

Holtby has generally responded with a strong individual performance after losses in the playoffs. In fact, he’s posted a .933 save percentage, 1.92 goals against and two shutouts in postseason games following a loss.  

“He’s going to be better tomorrow, and that’s good for us,” Trotz said.

Holtby’s Game 1 performance comes on the heels of an uneven first round for the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Against Toronto, he yielded 14 goals in the first four games before locking down the Leafs in Games 5 and 6, stopping 61 of 63 shots to lead the Caps to the second round.

On Thursday night, Holtby got off to a strong start, turning back an early blitz by the Pens, including a point blank pad stop on Patric Hornqvist to keep the game scoreless. Holtby also made a critical breakaway stop on Phil Kessel–and the ensuing rebound attempt by Bryan Rust—as the Caps scrambled just after falling behind 2-0.

Overall, though, Holtby felt he could have been sharper. In particular, he said he did not like Sidney Crosby’s first goal or his execution on Nick Bonino’s third period shot that slipped between his blocker and side.

After the game, Holtby vowed that both he and the Caps would be ready for Game 2 on Saturday night.

“I don’t think we’re frustrated,” Holtby said. “We realize that we played a really strong game. I know I need to be better if we’re going to have success, and that’s basically the bottom line.”

MORE CAPITALS: Caps not pleased with officiating in Game 1