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.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Record: 26-16-5, 57 points, 26 ROW
Current seed: Fifth
Remaining schedule: Saturday vs. Montreal
Record vs. Capitals this season: 2-1-0
Toronto returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04 with the youngest team in the NHL, but a group that has proven it can surprise naysayers.
After inconsistent showings in his first two years, James Reimer has stepped up as a true No. 1 goaltender for the Maple Leafs. He’s 19-7-5 this season with a 2.38 goals-against average and ranks fourth among goaltending leaders with a .926 save percentage.
The Maple Leafs have found balance offensively with the reliability of Phil Kessel (19 goals, 51 points) and the long-awaited emergence of Nazem Kadri (18 goals, 44 points). In addition to Kessel and Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Cody Franson, Dion Phaneuf and Nikolai Kulemin all have at least 23 points as Toronto has balanced its offense to average 3.06 goals per game in the regular season.
For all of Toronto’s offensive capabilities, though, its power play is ordinary at 18.9 percent (14th in the league). On the other side of the special-teams coin, however, the Maple Leafs shine. Toronto’s penalty kill is ranked third in the NHL with an 87.4 percent success rate and has allowed just 19 power-play goals against all season, four of which have been scored by the Capitals.
Against the Caps: Washington saw the Maple Leafs twice during its dreadful 2-8-1 start, so it’s tough to truly evaluate those early losses given the adjustments the team has made since then. But both defeats offered examples of the Capitals’ self-inflicted woes at that stage.
On Jan. 31, Washington racked up penalties and sabotaged its own efforts en route to a 3-2 loss. Then on Feb. 5 several miscues, including one between goaltender Michal Neuvirth and Tom Poti that led to a goal and derailed them once again as Toronto claimed another 3-2 win.
The Capitals finally managed to snag a win against Toronto on April 16. Washington pounced on the Maple Leafs, who were playing in the second of back-to-back games and started backup netminder Ben Scrivens, for a 5-1 rout. More notable than the score of that game, though, was how the Capitals rallied around each other after Jay McClement hit Nicklas Backstrom from behind.
The fancy stats take from Neil Greenberg: The Maple Leafs are the only potential playoff opponent with worse puck-possession metrics than the Capitals. Overall, Toronto has been outshot 27-33 per game and is the first team since the 2001-02 Montreal Canadiens to qualify for the postseason with an average shot differential worse than minus-5. Not one skater on Toronto has been on the ice for more even-strength shots for than against this season, with Clark MacArthur leading the team by seeing slightly less than 48 percent of the shots in their favor when he skates.
Video flashback: The way the Capitals, led by Alex Ovechkin, responded to McClement’s hit on Backstrom on April 18 was the most overt statement of team unity in recent seasons. When the team’s best player, leading scorer and captain is the first to confront an opponent, the rest of the group can’t help but follow.