- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2019

The Washington Capitals entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs as defending champions, but not as odds-on favorites to win it again.

That distinction belonged to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who finished the regular season with an NHL record-tying 62 wins and the expectation that they’d dominate in the postseason.

But so much can change in six days. While the Capitals took care of their own business with back-to-back home wins to start their series with the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay and other top teams have taken a hit during a wild first round of these playoffs.

As a result, heading into Monday night’s Game 3 in Carolina, the Capitals were suddenly the new favorites to win the Stanley Cup, according to one leading online sportsbook.

BetOnline puts the Capitals’ chance of repeating as champs at 5-to-1. The next best odds belong to the New York Islanders, at 7-1.

Tampa Bay has gone from favorites to fighting for survival. The Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world by jumping out to a 3-0 series lead against the Lightning. If the Lightning are knocked out, the Capitals’ path out of the Eastern Conference to a second straight Cup Final appearance would become much less strenuous.

Assuming the Capitals advance, they will still have to play either the Islanders or the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. The Penguins are also in a 3-0 hole in their first-round series, and if the team that won the 2016 and 2017 title is out of contention, it only stands to benefit Washington further.

While Capitals fans might sigh in relief at the prospect of a postseason without playing Pittsburgh for a change, the Islanders have been no joke.

A series with the Islanders would also mean a rematch with old Capitals coach Barry Trotz, a storyline likely to attract outsize media attention.

The Capitals might not be flying under the radar anymore, but they didn’t mind being in that position while people focused on Tampa Bay’s dominance.

“That’s fine,” coach Todd Reirden told reporters. “That’s something that we’ve been on the opposite side of things on that. In the past (being in the spotlight has) sometimes served as a negative for us. Winning the Presidents’ Trophy and being on top and everyone is expecting you to win. I think that sometimes that comes with some added pressure.”

Elsewhere in the bracket, the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs split the first two games of their series and are likely to beat each other up a bit in a long series.

In the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues were the only team to win the first two games of their series. Their odds of winning the Cup have soared to 8-to-1 according to BetOnline. Only one Western team, the Calgary Flames, finished the regular season with more than 100 standings points, seeming to signal a wide-open playoff field for all eight contenders.

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