- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan knows how this time of year works.

There are going to be inevitable articles about the Capitals‘, um, troubled playoff history. There’s the failure to get out of the second round, the pressure, yadda, yadda.

“The same cut and paste stuff,” MacLellan said. “It’s going to be there (until) we win.”

Look, the writers get tired of writing the same story, too.

So, will this year be any different? MacLellan said last week he views the Eastern Conference as wide open, saying there’s not a juggernaut team like in past years.

The NHL playoffs start Wednesday, and the Capitals are set to play Thursday against the Columbus Blue Jackets at 7:30 p.m. at Capital One Arena.

Here’s a look at each series — and possible opponents, if the Capitals advance.

Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Washington Capitals

Let’s start here. The Blue Jackets were just as hot down the stretch as the Capitals. They finished the season 13-2-2, and have their own set of Russians that could give the Capitals trouble. Winger Artemi Panarin has a dangerous one-timer, and — by far — led his team in points with 82. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, but uncharacteristically struggles against the Capitals. We’ll see if that continues into the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

When they could meet the Capitals: Round 2

The Penguins begin their quest for a third straight title, and they’ve met the Capitals over the last two years. Call it a post-championship hangover, or whatever, but the Penguins took their time finding a rhythm this season. Pittsburgh, though, is filled again with talent, and made a series of moves at the trade deadline to fortify their center depth. If there’s hope for the Capitals, goaltender Matt Murray hasn’t been as lights out — finishing the year with a career-worst .907 save percentage.

The Flyers, meanwhile, were a team of ups and downs. They once lost 10 in a row, and then followed it up with six straight wins. Captain Claude Giroux had his best season with 102 points.

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

When they could meet the Capitals: Round 3

Because of the NHL’s wacky playoff format, two of the league’s best teams are going to meet in the first round. Boston finished with the second-best record in the East, while Toronto had the fourth.

The Capitals got to know the Maple Leafs well last year, getting pushed to six games against a scrappy, up-and-coming team. Toronto took a leap forward, thanks to stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marnier.

Boston, on the other hand, has the looks of a contender. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are elite-level players. They even added electric rookie Ryan Donato late in the season to give them another scoring threat. This team is stacked.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils

When they could meet the Capitals: Round 3

The Tampa Bay Lightning have the best odds to win the Stanley Cup from any team based in the East at 5/1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are a large reason why. Kucherov is a candidate for the Hart Trophy, the NHL’s MVP, and had 100 points (39 goals, 61 assists). If there’s concern, Stamkos hasn’t been fully healthy and told the team’s website “my body will never be 100 percent again.” Yikes.

Still, there’s enough talent for the Lightning to make a playoff push. New Jersey making the playoffs is a nice story, and Taylor Hall might be the favorite for the Hart Trophy. But they’re young and inexperienced. Interestingly enough, New Jersey was 3-0 in the regular season against Tampa.

Western Conference at a glance

Since the Capitals would need to make the finals to face any of these teams, here’s a short look at the series happening out west.

Nashville Predators-Colorado Avalanche: The Predators hold the Presidents’ Trophy and face Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche. Nashville is trying to get back to the finals.

Winnipeg Jets-Minnesota Wild: Let’s see if Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine’s scoring carries over to the playoffs after he finished second behind Alex Ovechkin for the Richard Rocket Trophy, awarded to those with the most goals.

Vegas Golden Knights-Los Angeles Kings: Vegas’ inaugural season was fun, and it will be interesting to see if they can carry over the “magic” into the playoffs. Standing in their way is a tough Kings team.

Anaheim Ducks-San Jose Sharks: Both teams have a great track record with deep playoff runs, with the Ducks getting to the conference finals in 2015 and 2017, while San Jose made the finals in 2016.


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