The Washington Capitals’ first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets will start Thursday, with the second game to be played Sunday. Start times for Games 2 and 3 will be set after Sunday’s game between the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers, which will determine whether Boston or Tampa Bay wins the Atlantic Division.
The Capitals were 3-1-0 against the Blue Jackets this season.
The Capitals entered Saturday night’s season finale against visiting New Jersey with nothing to play for after clinching the Metropolitan Division title a week ago, yet as the third period began, suspense hung in the air.
Washington at that point still didn’t know which team it would face in the first round of the playoffs, with three opponents remaining in the mix. It wasn’t until well past an hour after the Capitals had beaten the Devils, 5-3, that they learned they would host Columbus in the first round.
While Washington eliminated a potential first-round matchup with New Jersey by beating the Devils, the Blue Jackets played themselves into a first-round series with the Capitals by losing, 4-2, at Nashville in their finale. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia meet in the only other Eastern Conference first-round matchup that was finalized Saturday; second wild card New Jersey will face the Atlantic Division winner (Tampa Bay or Boston), and Toronto will face the Lightning or Bruins.
Washington won three of four games against Columbus this season but dropped the most recent contest Feb. 26. Here’s a look back at those meetings:
Dec. 2: Washington 4, Columbus 3: Washington had turned a corner at the quarter-point of the season with its first win over the Blue Jackets in December, after which Capitals Coach Barry Trotz called goaltender Braden Holtby “the best player on the ice” after Holtby made 32 saves.
“That was a good team over there that we just beat,” forward Brett Connolly said that night. “It just proves that we can beat anyone.”
Feb. 6: Washington 3, Columbus 2: Holtby was again sensational with 37 saves, and the game-winning goal came from Nicklas Backstrom with 42.9 seconds remaining.
This game was notable in that it was the first time in a stretch of six contests that Trotz reunited Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the team’s top line, and it paid off in one of the Capitals’ best crunch-time wins of the season. But Backstrom’s heroics were a secondary story line to the performance of Holtby.
“At the end of the third there, when we needed him the most, he really stepped up,” Backstrom said of Holtby after the win. “He showed why he’s maybe the best goalie in the league, I think. It’s just the way he is. When you need him the most, that’s when he steps up. You can count on him.”
Feb. 9: Washington 4, Columbus 2: Three days later, Washington’s third win over Columbus featured a goal and an assist from Evgeny Kuznetsov and 35 saves from Holtby. But this win underscored the quality of depth Washington was trying to cultivate as it headed into the second half of the season. On this night, the Capitals received a game-winning goal not from Ovechkin or Backstrom, but rather from fourth-line center Jay Beagle. Lars Eller also chipped in a goal and an assist.
Feb. 26: Columbus 5, Washington 1: This ugly loss was decided within the first 20 minutes and was a lowlight of the most difficult stretch of Holtby’s career. It marked Holtby’s sixth consecutive loss, and Washington would have to work to regain its footing atop the division.
“I’ve had [Holtby] for four years; I have a lot of confidence in Braden,” Trotz said at the time. “He’s been a good goaltender for a long time. Yeah, I have confidence in him.”
Trotz wouldn’t address the playoffs after Saturday night’s win over the Devils — by the time he reached the podium, the contest between Nashville and Columbus had yet to be decided — and he also declined to speak about the competition between his goaltenders: Holtby and Philipp Grubauer. In the dressing room, his players knew the challenge of facing Columbus but were more eager to talk about how they had finished the regular season Saturday night.
“They are a great young team, and they have great goaltending,” Kuznetsov said of the Blue Jackets. “But for me, it doesn’t matter who you play. It’s just a fun time. You prepare all year for this moment, and it doesn’t matter who you play.”
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