Wednesday’s high-energy, overtime game between the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning, which the Lightning took 5-4 in overtime, had fans of both teams breathlessly talking playoffs.
The Capitals lead the Metropolitan Division with eight games left. And while nothing is clinched, they expect to make the playoffs. Due to the NHL’s playoff format, the earliest they could see Tampa Bay would be in the Eastern Conference Finals — a rematch of last year’s seven-game series that Washington won.
But hold that thought. The Capitals aren’t there yet, and the East is stacked with several teams besides the Lightning that could give them trouble one way or another.
What needs to be said? For years, the Penguins meant Washington’s automatic elimination from the playoffs — until the Capitals finally vanquished their rivals in last year’s second round. Rather than run into each other in round two for the fourth year in a row, the Capitals and Penguins very well could meet in the first round if neither team wins the Metro.
Pittsburgh hasn’t had its best season, or its most consistent. But the Penguins are sixth in the NHL in goals scored (Washington is fifth) and they rank fifth in power play percentage. Thanks to their ultra-familiarity with one another, anything can happen when the Penguins and Capitals play a series.
New York Islanders
You know who else is familiar with the Capitals? Their former coach, Barry Trotz. His Islanders exceeded all expectations in his first year in town, and they’re even more of a challenger to Washington than Pittsburgh. The Islanders’ visit to Capital One Arena on the final day of the regular season, April 6, very well could decide the division winner.
New York has succeeded with a grind-it-out pace and surprisingly good goaltending. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss are the reasons the Isles lead the league at 2.37 goals allowed per game. Could all of this stymie the Capitals, or would they hold the advantage in facing their old coach in a seven-game series?
This is the dark horse in the Eastern Conference’s playoff race. If the season ended Thursday, the Capitals would win the Metro and draw the Hurricanes, the No. 1 wild card, in the first round.
Carolina has been led by former Capital Justin Williams as its captain and Sebastian Aho as its leading scorer. What the Hurricanes don’t have is much playoff experience — outside Williams, who went through that ringer with the Capitals a couple times. Washington beat Carolina twice in December and will have two more regular season games next week to size the Canes up.
There is no guarantee Tampa Bay’s regular-season dominance will provide a pass into the conference finals. The Lightning play in the most top-heavy division in the league, the Atlantic, with rival Boston (44-20-9) owning the third-best record in hockey.
If the Bruins knock out the Lightning and meet the Capitals in the conference finals, look for them to want revenge for the 7-0 walloping Washington gave them on opening night. The Capitals used to own the Bruins — they won 13 straight regular season matchups by a combined score of 48-19, until Boston finally put an end to that streak in January. This could be just as fun of a matchup as Washington-Tampa Bay.
Toronto Maple Leafs
There’s also the outside chance that Toronto can make a run out of the Atlantic. The Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, so why not now? They are tied with the Bruins with 12-to-1 odds to win the Cup, according to VegasInsider.com.
The Capitals beat the Maple Leafs in six games in a first-round playoff series two years ago, but now the Leafs have a core of talented young forwards in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. They’ve also added John Tavares to that group this year, of course. Put it all together and they’re second in the NHL in goals.