BOSTON — When the Washington Capitals forced overtime against the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was the result of one good period where everything went right for the home team.
Braden Holtby made the stops, goals came from Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky, and the penalty kill unit looked stellar (again). The Penguins had no answer for the offensive onslaught.
Instead of celebrating, I took a hard look at the team I saw. This is not the same team I saw fighting for every point in January and February. This is not the team I saw eager to make history and break records. This team is different.
It doesn’t help that I go to school where everybody who follows hockey mocks me for following my home-town team (even though theirs, Boston, may not make the playoffs at all). I would be a liar if I told you I was wholly confident about the Caps’ chances.
I’m scared for the same reasons that many Caps fans are: team losing to playoff opponents, power play sputtering, leaning on Alex Ovechkin and Holtby too often, among others. Seeing the list of likely opponents for the Caps in the first and second rounds does not help my rising blood pressure levels.
Then again, that third period against Pittsburgh gave a glimpse back to that team from the Winter. If those Caps show up, there is no logical limit on how far they go in the playoffs.
With that in mind, allow me to take you on a very brief look at the potential first round matchups for Washington.
Granted, if the Boston Bruins manage to squeak themselves into the playoffs, they would likely be the second Wild Card. Though they COULD push for the Atlantic 3 spot, that would require a lot of help from the New York Rangers.
The Caps are 3-0 against the B’s this season, with one win coming in overtime, but Boston has a playoff reputation. They know how to get away with every little thing players can get away with in the playoffs and not the regular season. Missing the festivities for the second year in a row will not sit well with them.
Brad Marchand, the biggest pest the Bruins have, has turned into the team’s best goal-scorer with 37. Though the Bruins are weak defensively and Tuukka Rask is beatable, if the offense shows up, they look like a better team than they are.
Loui Eriksson is also playing for a higher salary, probably outside Massachusetts. This year marked his first 30-goal season since 2008-09 on the Dallas Stars. With an expiring contract and a Bruins team not willing to pay very much, the Swede is likely on his way out.
Frank Vatrano could give the Bruins scoring help, if they just let him play. The man scored 33 goals in 33 games with AHL Providence. Why it took 33 games for GM Don Sweeney to call him up is anybody’s guess.
The Philadelphia Flyers may have lost tonight to the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs, but they are still dangerous. Wayne Simmonds (first career 30-goal season), Claude Giroux (four points in four games against Washington), and Jakub Voracek (second-most assists, 42, in his career this season) have turned on their scoring game and likely Calder Trophy candidate Shayne Gostisbehere is having his best season since his junior year at Union College. That year came when they won the NCAA Championship against Minnesota.
Goaltender Steve Mason may have earned himself some Vezina votes with his March: an 8-2-2 record with one shutout, .933 SV%, and 1.88 GAA. The Philly-boys rode Mason every bit of the way back into playoff contention.
It would seem fitting that the Caps face Philadelphia in the first round this year. With the team’s first division title since 2000-01, the Flyers took them to a seven game series and won in overtime in 2008.
DETROIT RED WINGS
Detroit seems to be a safe choice for Washington, provided the chips fall right. After all, the one loss in the season series came back in November when Petr Mrazek played out of his mind in a goalie duel with Braden Hotlby. Only Andreas Athanasiou scored, fluky at best, in the 1-0 loss in Detorit. The Red Wings right now look half the team they were in Noveber. 6-4-0 in their last 10, Hockey Town still has not settled on Mrazek or Jimmy Howard as their starter, with neither being consistently good enough to warrant selection.
More questions than answers are coming from the Motor City. If the “Mrazek or Howard” conundrum can be answered, Detroit can give any team trouble. Mrazek played 20 games through March and February, dropping off in the latter with a 3.72 GAA. Howard, the former US Olympian, wrested the starting job back with a marginally better 3.18 GAA in eight games played last month.
Don’t let Dylan Larkin fool you on this team, Detroit still has the fifth-oldest NHL roster with a mean age of 28. Larkin (19), Athanasiou (21), and Anthony Mantha (21) definetly pull the average down while Pavel Datsyuk (37), Henrik Zetterberg (35), and Niklas Kronwall (35) pull it right back up.
Should Detroit and/or Philadelphia make the playoffs, barring any blow outs in the last few games, they will be the only team in the playoffs with a negative goal-differential.
As for Washington, anyone could tell you the team has looked visibly worse since the Nashville win in the middle of March. The optimists will point to the wins against New Jersey, Columbus, and Colorado as evidence for how this team can play when the time comes. Pessimists, instead, point at the losses to St. Louis, Philadelphia, Arizona, the Islanders, and most recently to Pittsburgh as proof of a sliding team.
I am worried because Washington is vulnerable to each of the teams they could face in the playoffs. I am confident because they are capable of beating the teams on this list. It is now a question of which team shows up for Game 1.