The Capitals clinched a playoff berth and the third seed in the Eastern Conference with their 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday but their first-round opponent has yet to be determined.
Toronto, Ottawa, the New York Islanders and New York Rangers are separated by no more than three points in heading into the final games of the NHL’s regular season and all could potentially finish in sixth place. So while the standings might still shift, here’s a look at each of those teams and how they fared against the Capitals this season.
New York Rangers
Record: 25-18-4, 54 points, 21 ROW
Current seed: Seventh
Remaining schedule: Saturday vs. New Jersey
Record vs. Capitals this season: 2-0-1
There may be no opponent more familiar to Capitals players than New York, considering the two teams have met in three of the past four postseasons. While Washington has undergone considerable change – and is on its third coach – in the past four seasons, the Rangers have largely remained the same with the familiar shot-blocking, team-defense approach that they’ve always had under Coach John Tortorella.
As has often been the case for the Rangers, though, finding the offense to complement a self-sacrificing defense and the play of Henrik Lundqvist (23-16-3, .925 save percentage, 2.10 GAA) was a challenge once again this season.
Both Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik were inconsistent throughout much of the season and had recorded just 19 points each leading up to the trade deadline. On April 2, the day before the deadline, the Rangers sat two points out of a playoff spot and had won only two of their past six games prompting a roster shakeup. New York acquired Ryane Clowe from San Jose then sent Gaborik to Columbus for Derick Brassard along with Derek Dorsett and John Moore.
Since they made those deals the Rangers are 8-3-1, including a 4-3 overtime win against Carolina Thursday night that allowed them to clinch a playoff berth.
Against the Caps: Like every other possible opponent they could see in the first round, Washington lost the season series to the Rangers.
Back on Feb. 17, Braden Holtby was spectacular but could only do so much without the assistance of his teammates, stopping 38 shots as the Capitals fell, 2-1, at Madison Square Garden. When the two clubs met again on March 10, Washington was undone by ill-timed penalties by Alex Ovechkin and soft goals (Holtby was pulled after giving up three goals on 19 shots) as the Rangers rolled to a 4-1 win.
But on March 24, at the end of the longest road trip of the season the Capitals claimed a valuable 3-2 shootout win at Madison Square Garden.
The fancy stats take from Neil Greenberg: This New York Rangers team is all about discipline, having been penalized the fewest PIMS/game (9.3) in the league. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t physical or aggressive: the Blueshirts have dished out 1383 hits and stolen 264 pucks. No one on Broadway exemplifies this disciplined aggression better than their captain Ryan Callahan, who has 152 hits and 21 takeaways but just six minor penalties all season.
Video flashback: Nicklas Backstrom’s shootout goal on March 24 clinched a 3-2 win over the Rangers and gave the Capitals six out of a possible eight points on that road trip, and was an important moment as the team worked its way back into playoff contention.