Adam Oates still has a game to prepare for, so it's not yet time to worry about whether his Washington Capitals will face the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs or New York Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs that begin next week.
It's one more game that has no bearing on the Caps' seed, and in the meantime the Caps are left to wonder who their Eastern Conference quarterfinal opponent will be.
“They’re all good hockey teams,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “They’re all difficult in their own sense to play against, so there isn’t going to be any easy matchup, it doesn’t matter what seed they are. We may have a few teams that we’d maybe prefer to play because of the success that we’ve had against them but once it gets to the playoffs, there are no easy games.”
Judging from the regular season, none of the four possible matchups are easy or favorable for the Caps. They went 0-2-1 against the team they're most likely to face, the Senators, 1-2 with a shootout victory against the Rangers and Islanders and 1-2 against the Maple Leafs.
“It doesn’t matter,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “What we’ve done at the end of the year is the team that we are right now. We’ve beaten everyone that we’ve played, I think. So it’s not really at the back of our heads, we’re not too worried about it. Other than Ottawa I think.”
The Senators have handed the Caps their only two losses in the past 12 games, one in regulation in Ottawa last week and one in overtime at Verizon Center on Thursday night. Ottawa has two games left (home against the Philadelphia Flyers and at the Boston Bruins) and appears to be the most likely visitor when the playoffs open in Washington either Tuesday or Wednesday.
The Caps' regular-season finale is Saturday night against Boston, but meanwhile the Senators, Maple Leafs, Rangers and Islanders play several games that will determine who will get the No. 6 seed.
“Obviously you’re looking at the standings, but it’s not in our control,” Hendricks said. “So it doesn’t really matter; nothing really matters until everything is done and over and we know who we’re playing.”
Because the Senators' game at the Bruins had to be rescheduled until Sunday night because of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Caps might have to wait that long to figure out which team they'll face.
“It is kind of different, but it just shows how tight things are at the back end of the conference for the playoffs,” Hendricks said.
Players insist they're not worried about things that they cannot change.
“There's not really a team that it's a glaring difference,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “They all have their strengths, they all have their weaknesses, so whoever it is, we'll be fine with.”
It figures to reason that the Senators and Islanders would present the most difficult matchups, based not just on results but how those teams played the Caps during this shortened regular season. It's worth noting that while they're 3-8-1 against possible first-round opponents, three of those losses came as part of a 2-8-1 start.
Washington is 24-10-2 overall since then, and Oates likes to say that his team is much different than it was even a couple of months ago.
The Senators, Rangers, Maple Leafs and Islanders are, too, though when Oates and his staff begin preparing for the playoffs they already know plenty.
“I think it's more just being organized for the guys, that we can condense it and prepare them and keep their minds fresh,” Oates said.
Sunday, Oates said he and his assistants will prepare for two teams, as it's likely the possibilities will be narrowed by then. Oates is used to that, from when he pre-scouted the Caps and Rangers for the East finals while on staff with the New Jersey Devils last season.
The timing is more of a challenge this time around.
“If Ottawa loses [Sunday] night, we could play Tuesday, right?” Oates said. “That gives us one day. One practice, one meeting.”
A lot of studying and preparation to cram into not a whole lot of time, similar to how the NHL lockout and condensed schedule made for a difficult start for a team with a rookie head coach.
“It's just part of this season, isn't it?” Oates said. “We'll wait and see.”
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