The Capitals clinched a playoff berth and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with their 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, but their first-round opponent has yet to be determined.
Toronto, Ottawa, the New York Islanders and New York Rangers, the Eastern Conference’s Nos. 5-8 teams, are separated by three points heading into the final games of the NHL’s regular season, and each could potentially finish in sixth place. So while the standings might still shift, let’s take a look at each of those teams and how they fared against the Capitals this season.
Record: 24-16-6, 54 points, 20 ROW.
Current seed: sixth.
Remaining schedule: Saturday vs. Philadelphia; Sunday at Boston.
Record vs. Capitals this season: 3-0-0.
Few figured the Senators would get this far back in February when injuries befell four of their top players — Jason Spezza (back), Erik Karlsson (lacerated Achilles’ tendon), Milan Michalek (knee) and Craig Anderson (ankle) – and caused them all to miss extended periods of time.
But the Senators kept pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race under the guidance of second-year Coach Paul MacLean, who should be among the top candidates for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. With the playoffs just days away, they’re nearly back to full strength, as only Spezza remains sidelined.
Arguably the most important, steadying element in Ottawa’s season has been its goaltending. Anderson, who has appeared in 23 games, owns the top save percentage (.942) and goals-against average (1.68) in the NHL, and even when the 31-year-old was hurt, Robin Lehner has proved to be a capable backup with a .936 save percentage and 2.22 GAA.
The Senators have a methodical, patient style that is enough to drive an opponent mad. Defenseman Karl Alzner compared Ottawa to the way the Capitals played late last year under Dale Hunter.
“They’re stingy. It is frustrating when you’re not getting many chances,” Alzner said Thursday night. “They got good D, a good goalie. Yeah, it was not the most fun game to play, probably not the most fun to watch. But that’s the way a team like that is, and that’s kind of the way we were at the end of last year.”
Ottawa is content to wait for its opportunities while minimizing those that its goaltenders must handle, and that’s made for a lot of one-goal games (26, to be precise) this season. The Senators have allowed just 100 goals against this season, second lowest in the NHL behind only Chicago (98).
Against the Caps: The Senators were a tough matchup for Washington this season and won all three of the meetings between the two teams. If these two teams meet in the playoffs, it will certainly test the Capitals’ patience and ability to stick with the game plan even if results aren’t immediate in the course of a contest.
The Capitals put together two of their best periods of play early in the season back on Jan. 29 at Scotiabank Place but then coughed up a two-goal lead to ultimately lose 3-2 in gut-wrenching fashion. More than two months passed before the teams met again on April 18, but the result wasn’t any better for the Capitals, who looked out of sorts and played one of their worst games in over a month in a 3-1 loss at Ottawa.
Thursday night they squared off once more and Ottawa clinched a playoff berth with a 2-1 win at Verizon Center. There was little at stake for the Capitals but that didn’t prevent them from getting riled up by Chris Neil and the rest of the Senators.
The fancy stats take from Neil Greenberg: The Senators didn’t put up much offense (fourth worst goals per game) after losing top-line center Jason Spezza and reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson to injury, making netminder Craig Anderson instrumental in helping keep Ottawa’s playoff hopes alive. His .944 even-strength save percentage leads the league (among goaltenders with at least 20 starts) while his .925 is tops during the penalty kill.
Video flashback: Not much has gone well for the Capitals against Ottawa this year, but last week at Scotiabank Place, Martin Erat and Mike Ribeiro showed their veteran savvy as they each swatted the puck out of mid-air and eventually helped it find the back of the net.