With just five games left in the regular season, the first-round opponent for the Washington Capitals looks to be one of three familiar foes.
The Capitals (43-23-11 with 97 points) will likely face either the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes or New York Rangers when the first round of the playoffs begins May 2. All three are realistically on the table because of just how tight the NHL standings are.
Need an example? Even after Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the Capitals moved into a tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins (97 points) thanks to a valuable point earned in overtime. The Capitals are now that much closer to jumping out of the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot.
The Capitals, who clinched a postseason spot over the weekend, aren’t the only ones watching the standings. Atop the Metropolitan Division, the Hurricanes and Rangers are tied at 106 points entering Thursday’s slate.
Washington’s final stretch begins Friday in Arizona against the Coyotes. The team then faces the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New York Islanders twice and closes out the season with the Rangers.
But with the playoffs rapidly approaching, here’s a closer look at each potential postseason foe with their regular-season record against the Capitals.
Florida Panthers, 1-1-1 vs. Capitals: If the season ended today, the red-hot Panthers would be the Capitals’ opponent. All three regular-season matchups were closely contested with each contest decided by a margin of one goal, but Florida prevailed twice — once in regulation and once in overtime.
A lot has changed since then, however. Since the teams last played in November — when the Capitals looked like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender — the Panthers have taken the league by storm. This season, Florida is averaging a league-best 4.17 goals per game and has 19 more goals than the next team (Toronto) entering Thursday’s slate.
Florida’s potent offense could result in big problems for the Capitals, who have yet to settle on a No. 1 goaltender. Ilya Samsonov, who has started six of the last eight games, is trending to be Washington’s starting netminder, but can he hold up against a team that has an absurd 101 goal differential?
Carolina Hurricanes, 1-3 vs. Capitals: This might be the most heated playoff matchup for the Capitals if the two teams actually get to face off. Carolina not only bounced Washington from the first round in a seven-game series in 2019, but this season has only reignited the rivalry.
Washington won three of its first four matchups against Carolina, and its 4-0 victory on March 3 might be the team’s most impressive win this season. But the Hurricanes seemed to make a statement last time these teams played, blowing out Washington in a 6-1 win on March 28. That game featured a lengthy scrap between Tom Wilson and Carolina’s Brenden Smith.
The Capitals could face the Hurricanes in a variety of ways. If Carolina wins the Metropolitan Division — as it currently leads thanks to only tiebreakers — then Washington would have to move up a wild-card spot by passing the Boston Bruins, a team currently a game ahead of Washington in the standings. The Capitals and Hurricanes would also meet in a matchup if the Capitals move to third in the division and Carolina falls to second.
New York Rangers, 1-1 vs. Capitals: According to The Athletic’s playoff prediction model, the Rangers are the most likely opponent for Washington. As of Thursday morning, the website gives a 42% chance Washington faces New York, followed by 32% against Florida and 27% against Carolina.
Interestingly, with the Capitals playing the Rangers in the last game of the regular season on April 29, that contest could go a long way in determining Washington’s seeding. Or perhaps the matchup will be locked in — giving the teams a chance to rest key players. In any event, the two prior games between New York and Washington couldn’t have been more different this season. Washington won the first meeting, 5-1, and then got trounced in the second, 4-1.
The Rangers are a young team that has made an impressive leap this season. They even have an unexpected 50-goal scorer in winger Chris Kreider, who hadn’t even topped 30 goals in a season prior to this year. The 10-year veteran’s previous career high was 28 goals.