All the Washington Capitals know for certain is that early next week, they will kick off an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Who the opponent will be or when that series will start, though, remains to be determined in the final few games of the NHL regular season.
There’s little the Capitals can do but wait to see how things play out for their four potential opponents – the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers, New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs – and find out who they will draw in the first round. But if the matchups aren’t set until late Sunday night after Ottawa plays its finale against the Boston Bruins, it gives the coaching staff and team less time to prepare for a series that will start either Tuesday or Wednesday.
With so many teams still in the running, and the Caps’ own regular season finale not until Saturday night against the Bruins, Coach Adam Oates said he won’t begin working on playoff game plans until Sunday, when the field hopefully will narrow to two possibilities.
“You’ve got to prepare for two teams,” Oates said, recalling the prep work he did as a New Jersey Devils assistant coach last season. “I know last year in the conference final when the Caps were playing the Rangers, Game 7, we spent two days [focusing] on both teams. It was grinding.”
Oates acknowledged that if the Capitals should open the playoffs on Tuesday, that would give him and the rest of the coaching staff just one day to truly prepare players – enough time for one solid practice and one main meeting. While there’s not necessarily much more to learn about a team at this stage of the year, for Oates the challenges are more about being able to convey a concise game plan.
“It’s more just being organized for the guys,” Oates said. “That we can condense it and prepare them and keep their minds fresh. [It’s] probably more on us” as coaches.
The Capitals are 3-8-1 against the four teams they could face in the first round, and lost the season series against each one.
At this stage, based on games remaining and scenarios that would allow teams to land as the sixth seed in the East, the Senators and Rangers are the more likely opponents out of the four potential options. But the players insist they aren’t getting caught up in scoreboard watching.
“It’s not in our control, so it doesn’t really matter,” Matt Hendricks said. “There are all different aspects of a team that you’re going to go up against in the playoffs, so it’s hard for us to sit here and worry about that.”
Washington hasn’t faced the Rangers since late March, but the two teams are quite familiar given that they’ve faced each other in the postseason in three of the past four springs. Meanwhile, Ottawa was the only team of the possible first-round foes to sweep the Capitals this year. In the past 10 days, the Senators handed Washington a pair of losses and held them to just two goals in those games combined.
With the first-round matchup completely out of their control, the Capitals are simply trying to focus on using their final regular season game as a tuneup. The Bruins sit second in the East but are vying for the Northeast Division title and thus still have something to play for, so they should bring a solid test for Washington as it looks to set a positive tone heading into the playoffs.
“Hopefully we can have a good effort and gain some momentum,” Troy Brouwer said, “because you never want to go into the playoffs dropping two in a row.”
Oates said Friday he expects to stick with the same lineup – veteran wing Joel Ward likely won’t be ready to return from a left knee contusion – and he’ll go back to usual starter Braden Holtby in net.
At this point, all the Capitals can do is work to refine their game and wait to see what the future holds.
“We’re not trying to take any steps back; we’re trying to work hard through everything, practice and games,” said Holtby, who added that he doesn’t care who Washington faces. “They’re all very good teams, so we’re going to have to prepare as best we can no matter who it is.”
Capitals notes: The team will hold the second Baltimore Hockey Classic on Sept. 17 against the Boston Bruins at 1st Mariner Arena. Season ticket holders will have the opportunity to purchase tickets beginning on May 1, while tickets will go on sale to the general public on May 3.