While the Capitals have secured their third trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals in the past four years, it’s still uncertain whom they will face in their second-round series.
Washington will face either the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers or New Jersey Devils in the second round depending on the outcomes of two Game 7s that will be played Thursday night. The Rangers face the Ottawa Senators at 7 p.m. while the Florida Panthers host the Devils at 8:30 p.m.
Here are the various scenarios:
— If the Rangers beat Ottawa, the Capitals will play New York.
— If the Rangers lose and Florida wins, the Capitals will play Philadelphia.
— If the Rangers lose and New Jersey wins, the Capitals will play New Jersey.
Now that you know the scenarios, who would you rather see the Capitals take on in the second round? If you need some help deciding which matchup to root for, here’s a breakdown of each possible opponent...
Regular season series: Split 2-2
If the Capitals see New York it will mark the third time in the past four years that the two teams have met in the postseason. Washington won both of the previous meetings – a five-game victory in 2011 and a seven-game triumph in 2009.
The recent playoff history has caused animosity to bubble up between the two clubs, but despite the familiarity both squads have changed since those series. The Capitals have evolved into a defense-first mindset under Dale Hunter while New York managed to become more well-rounded, with a consistent scoring presence en route to the top seed in the East.
The Rangers offense hasn’t been nearly as reliable in the first round against Ottawa, though, scoring just 12 goals through six games. So if they do advance look for the Capitals to try to frustrate New York the way they did Boston’s top forwards.
■ The Capitals just took down one of the league’s elite netminders in round one but a matchup against the Rangers would pit them against another – Henrik Lundqvist. The Swedish netminder is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and through the first six games of New York’s series against the Senators Lundqvist boasts a .942 save percentage and 1.82 goals-against average; both rank in the top-10 among playoff goaltenders.
For all his accolades and game-changing ability, though, Lundqvist hasn’t found success in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Capitals seem to have had Lundqvist’s number over the course of his career, too. ‘King’ Henrik has a .901 save percentage and 2.78 goals-against average against Washington all-time.
■ It’d be a team-defense, shot-blocking palooza. Washington demonstrated its ability to sacrifice the body and absorb shots from the Bruins, finishing with 139 blocks through seven games. New York is second in the playoffs with 132 blocks through six games against the Senators.
If you thought the series with the Bruins was a tight matchup, a meeting with New York might be even more so given the way that both teams can rely on a stingy style to support their netminders.
■ The Rangers are a little banged up. Heading into Game 7 against Ottawa they’re without Brian Boyle (concussion) and while he’s expected to play Thursday night, captain Ryan Callahan injured a finger when blocking a shot in Game 6.
Regular season series: Capitals went 1-2-1
The Flyers knocked off their fiercest rival Pittsburgh in a circus-like first-round series with offensive firepower laced with gruesome hits. Despite the various side-show aspects to that matchup, it was clear the Flyers were the more composed team en route to their first round victory.
While there’s no doubt the Flyers, who racked up 30 goals against Pittsburgh, can unleash the offensive hounds with the best of them, the Capitals already frustrated one of the league’s top offenses from the regular season and would relish the challenge of doing it again.
■ Philadelphia is arguably least desirable matchup of the three possibilities for the Capitals but it depends, of course, on what form of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov you believe will show up.
Defense and goaltending appeared to be optional most of the time in the Flyers’ first round series, but playing that run-and-gun style throughout the postseason is unsustainable. If Bryzgalov – the Flyers’ $51 million man — can’t be better than his .871 save percentage and 3.89 goals-against average from those six games against the Penguins, Philadelphia will have a tough time advancing past any opponent.
■ Claude Giroux emerged from a pack of young talented players this season to take his place among the elite in the NHL. He recorded 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in six games against Pittsburgh and even called his stunning first shift in the decisive Game 6. For those unaware of the story, Giroux asked Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette to start the game. When Laviolette obliged, Giroux proceeded to lay a heavy hit on Sidney Crosby and score just seconds into the contest.
To cope with the Flyers means coping with Giroux and their other offensive stars, like playoff-performer Danny Briere, pesky Scott Hartnell, young agitator Brayden Schenn and the Capitals’ old friend Jaromir Jagr.
■ Momentum could be on the Capitals’ side if they draw Philadelphia. The Flyers wrapped up their first-round win on April 22 and have been waiting around to start up again ever since. While time off gives players a chance to heal it can also rob a team of a rhythm in the postseason – see the Capitals after a long layoff between the first and second rounds in 2011.
Regular season series: Capitals went 1-1-2
These Devils aren’t the pure trap-artists of their past. While New Jersey can play a solid defensive game and Martin Brodeur can still steal games, this squad is one that can be surprisingly aggressive offensively, thrives off the forecheck and has enough scoring threats up front to challenge any system.
That said, Brodeur is now 39 years old and is closer to the end of his career than his prime. The future Hall of Fame netminder has shown weakness but continues his career-long trend to responding well to any single struggle – he was pulled in Game 3 against Florida after allowing three goals on 12 shots only to then record a 26-save shutout in Game 4.
■ If the Devils and Washington meet in the second round, seeing coaches Dale Hunter and Peter DeBoer face off again could be an interesting subplot. The two clashed multiple times during their days coaching in the OHL, when Hunter led the London Knights and DeBoer guided the rival Kitchener Rangers.
Both men are familiar with the styles of play the other likes to institute and their tendencies, which could make for an interesting chess match.
■ New Jersey is certainly glad to have Zajac back in the mix. The center appeared in only 15 games during the regular season because of a tear in his left Achilles tendon, but he’s taken charge in the postseason.
On a line with Parise and Kovalchuk, Zajac has a team-high six points (3 goals, 3 assists) and recorded the overtime game-winner in Game 6 to force a final contest against the Panthers.
■ Heading into Game 7 against Florida, the Devils have gone 28 postseason games without winning two in a row (s/t Tom Gulitti, Fire and Ice). That’s an impressive streak of inconsistency.
So, who do you want the Caps to draw in Round 2?