With home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs locked up, which teams would the Caps prefer to see in the visitor’s locker room in the first round? Beyond that?
As of Tuesday morning the three most-likely potential opponents for the opening round are the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings. Those three teams are separated by two standings points for two wild-card spots, with New York and Philadelphia the most likely of the three to capture a playoff berth.
Although they have the least likely chance to make the playoffs, the one team the Capitals probably don’t want to see is Detroit. Their main goaltender, Petr Mrazek, started the season with a 10-2-1 record and .951 save percentage but has struggled recently. Still, he still stops high-danger shots at a rate (.853) higher than Washington’s Braden Holtby (.849), who many consider the best goaltender this season. Plus, Detroit is a traditionally strong puck possession team — the Red Wings rank eighth this season at 52.1 percent — and has been getting better while Washington has been on a slight decline. So perhaps it is good for Washington if Detroit’s 24-year playoff run comes to an end.
The Philadelphia Flyers also might be on the “do not want” list. They are getting hot at the right time and have seen their puck possession numbers trend upward.
The Flyers also have several players who can fill up a score sheet, including Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. On defense they have rookie Shayne Gostisbehere, who has produced 16 goals and 26 assists over 57 games.
Philadelphia’s goaltending is not as good without former Capital netminder Michal Neuvirth, who remains sidelined due to a knee injury, but Steve Mason is better at defending against the high-danger chances (.859 save percentage vs. Neuvirth’s .846).
That leaves the Islanders, who, thanks to a late-season tumble, put just 50 percent of shots in their favor.
John Tavares leads the team in points (58) with Kyle Okposo close behind (57), but the Islanders’ best scoring line has been Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck, scoring 21 goals at this point through the season. Washington, by comparison, has two lines that are close to that in production:
- Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie: 26 goals scored
- Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams: 19 goals
Plus, as we saw last season, the Islanders didn’t have an answer for Kuznetsov, who scored three goals and added an assist in seven playoff games against them, including the game-winner in Game 7. You could argue this year Kuznetsov is even better, making this a prime matchup for Washington to exploit.
Since we are tempting the playoff gods by looking ahead early, let’s press our luck and take a look at the second round, where Washington would face the winner of the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the Metropolitan division. The Islanders are three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and six behind the New York Rangers, with one and two games in hand, respectively. While the Caps would likely welcome a Round 2 dual with the Islanders, they only have a 30.2 percent chance to move up from their current spot as a wild card and into the Metropolitan Division’s No. 2 or 3 seed.
Between the Penguins and Rangers, Washington should be rooting for the Broadway Blueshirts.
Pittsburgh, the fourth-best puck possession team, is 8-2-0 over the last 10 games and has the fifth highest adjusted scoring margin in the NHL (.036). Plus, they feature Sidney Crosby, who, after a slow start to the season, ranks third in points scored with 78.
The Rangers, meanwhile, are one of the worst puck possession teams (48 percent, 22nd in league) and have been in a free fall over the past 25 games.
Sure, the Rangers still have goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, but not even the best goaltenders can weather a storm of high-danger chances for very long. And right now, there are only five teams that yield more high-danger scoring chances than New York does at even strength (currently 11.3 per 60 minutes).
Yes, I am aware of the history between Lundqvist and the Capitals, but this year things should turn out differently.