While the Washington Capitals will be facing the Boston Bruins (No. 1 seed), Tampa Bay Lightning (No. 2), and Philadelphia Flyers (No. 4) in a three-game round-robin to determine Stanley Cup Playoff seeding when the 2019-20 NHL season resumes, eight teams in the Eastern Conference will participate in a qualifying round series to determine who makes the tournament. Since the Capitals can move up as high as first in the conference or end up as low as fourth, the team’s first-round opponent possibilities are wide open. So, who would the Capitals match up best against, and who would they be better off avoiding? NoVa Caps ranks the possibilities.
Note: The rankings go from the most favorable matchups to the least favorable for the Capitals.
1. Florida Panthers
The Capitals may have gone 4-6-2 in the previous four seasons against the Panthers, but they found success against them this season, going 2-0-0 despite being outshot 76-51 in those two games. Captain Alex Ovechkin has also had success against the Panthers as he has record 39 goals and 82 points in 65 games against Florida. Center Nicklas Backstrom has 13 goals and 50 points in 52 games against the Panthers and defenseman John Carlson has six goals and 22 points in 36 games against them.
While Florida has an experienced head coach in Joel Quenneville, who led the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup championships in six seasons (2010-15), he was unable to get the Panthers to tighten up their defensive game even with the addition of a strong shutdown defenseman in Anton Stralman last summer. Florida’s average of 3.25 goals-against per game was the most of any of the 24 teams still playing and the fourth-most in the NHL. The Panthers offense, on the other hand, is among the league’s best as they were sixth with an average of 3.30 goals-per-game this year and had three players with at least 55 points (F Jonathan Huberdeau: 78, C Aleksander Barkov: 62, and F Mike Hoffman: 59). The rest of their team isn’t very experienced as the Panthers have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs once (2016) since 2012 and they have not advanced past the first round since 1996 when they went to the Stanley Cup Final.
In addition, signing goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract that carries a cap hit of $10 million is looking like a major mistake after the 31-year-old went 23-19-6 with a .900 save percentage and a 3.23 goals-against average. In addition, he has not been good against the Capitals in his NHL career, going 9-12-5 with an .898 save percentage and a 3.02 goals-against average. Bobrovsky has also not been strong in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in his career, going 11-18 with a .902 save percentage and a 3.14 goals-against average in 34 career games. Though, he was better last season as he went 6-4 with a .925 save percentage and a 2.41 goals-against average while helping the Blue Jackets sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning, who tied a league-record 62 wins during the regular season, in the first round last year.
2. New York Rangers
No team in the NHL is younger than the Rangers, and they could have a rookie goaltender as their starter in Igor Shesterkin, who was impressive in 12 regular-season games, going 10-2-0 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against average. Only 11 Rangers have appeared in a Stanley Cup Playoff game.
Even though the Rangers ranked fifth in the NHL with an average of 3.33 goals-per-game this season, their average of 3.14 goals-against per game was tied for the third-worst among the 24 teams returning to play, while their average of 34 shots-against per game was better than only the Chicago Blackhawks (35.1) this season. Head coach David Quinn has never coached a Stanley Cup Playoff game.
Even though the Capitals went 1-1-1 against the Rangers this season, they went 10-0-1 before dropping their last two games against them. In their lone regulation loss to the Rangers this season, they were without center Nicklas Backstrom, forward Carl Hagelin, and forward Garnet Hathaway.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs had an inconsistent season even though they went 27-15-5 after replacing head coach Mike Babcock with Sheldon Keefe, one of the few NHL coaches who has less head-coaching experience than Todd Reirden of the Capitals. Only the Florida Panthers gave up more goals (an average of 3.25 per game) than the Maple Leafs (3.17) among the 24 teams that are resuming the season. In addition, their 133.48 expected goals-against during the regular season was the 11th-most in the NHL while their 77.7% penalty-killing efficiency was also the 11th-worst.
The Capitals have also had a fair share of success against the Maple Leafs recently as they won the last three meetings between the two teams. All of those games were determined by just one goal, the last one going to overtime.
An experienced team like the Capitals going up against a Maple Leafs team with a head coach in the midst of his first NHL season and only five players on their roster having won a Stanley Cup Playoff series also puts the Capitals at a big advantage. With the Capitals having an edge in experience and defense over an inconsistent Maple Leafs team, this could be a good matchup for Washington.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
Even though the Penguins have given the Capitals fits come tournament time in the past, the Capitals seemed to bring their best game whenever their archrivals were up on the schedule this season, going 2-1-0 and outscoring them 13-9 in three regular-season games. In addition, the Capitals won the last Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Penguins after losing eight straight, giving them confidence that they can beat the team that ended their season time-and-time again.
The Penguins had an admirable regular-season despite a number of injuries, but almost everyone will be healthy when the season resumes. Even with a full lineup, the majority of the Penguins’ core are over the age of 30.
It is also unclear who is going to be the Penguins’ starting goaltender for the Stanley Cup Playoffs as Tristan Jarry had a breakout season, going 20-12-1 with a .921 save percentage and a 2.43 goals-against average. He has never started a Stanley Cup Playoff game. Meanwhile, Matt Murray went 20-11-5 with an .899 save percentage and a 2.87 goals-against average this season, losing the starting job. In addition, the Capitals have had success against Murray as he has posted just an .883 save percentage and a 3.68 goals-against average in 14 career games against them.
5. New York Islanders
The Islanders are not deep offensively even with weapons like center Mathew Barzal, forward Anders Lee, and forward Brock Nelson. Only Barzal (60) and Nelson (54) topped 50 points during the regular season. Their average of 2.78 goals-per-game ranked 22nd in the NHL this season. The Islanders are also 20-23-8 when you take out a franchise-record 17-game point streak (15-0-2) in October and November.
The Islanders were not a strong puck-possession team as their 46.45% Corsi-for percentage was the worst of the 24-teams left standing while their 46.67% Fenwick-for percentage was better than only the league-worst Detroit Red Wings and their 48.84% expected goals-for percentage was 20th.
The Capitals may have a big advantage over New York on offense but the Islanders have allowed an average of just 2.54 goals-per-game over the past two seasons, which ranks third in the NHL. Islanders head coach Barry Trotz, associate Lane Lambert, and director of goaltending Mitch Korn know the Capitals all too well having been with them from 2014-18 and winning the Stanley Cup with them in 2018. The two teams have played tight games before they combined for 25 goals in their last three meetings after only 17 goals were scored in the previous five.
6. Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens were the last team to make the qualifying round as they were just two points away from not making the cut. However, they were second in the NHL with a 54.43% Corsi-for percentage, a 53.74% Fenwick-for percentage, and a 54.01% expected goals-for percentage, indicating that they were a top possession team throughout the regular season. Their average of 34.1 shots-per-game was second in the NHL this season.
In addition, the Canadiens played the Capitals hard this season as they went 2-1-0 while outscoring Washington 11-9. The two teams had an even goal-differential in the 2018-19 regular season series.
While Carey Price had a down year as he posted a .909 save percentage and a 2.79 goals-against average, and he has gone 9-15-5 with an .894 save percentage and a 3.27 goals-against average in his career against the Capitals. Still, he is one of the NHL’s best goalies and is capable of stealing a series for the Canadiens. Montreal does not have such a deep blue line, and forward Max Domi (type-1 diabetes) could sit out the tournament, but they are well-coached with Claude Julien behind the bench and will be playing with all the house money as the No. 12 seed.
7. Carolina Hurricanes
The Capitals won the last two games of the season series and have won 17 of the last 24 games against the Hurricanes but lost in the first round against Carolina when it counted last year. In addition, the Hurricanes have always played Washington hard as six of the Capitals’ last 11 regular-season wins against them have come by one goal.
The Hurricanes have been one of the NHL’s best possession teams for years as their 54.30% Corsi-for percentage and 53.59 Fenwick-for percentage this season were third while their 52.41 expected goals-for percentage was sixth. They also loaded up at the trade deadline when they acquired defenseman Brady Skeij, center Vincent Trocheck, and defenseman Sami Vatanen.
The Hurricanes allowed an average of 29.3 shots-per-game this season, the second-lowest in the NHL, while averaging 33.3 shots-per-game, third. They arguably have the deepest blueline, which allowed an average of 2.84 goals-per-game, in the NHL with the additions of Vatanen and Skeij. Their .9122 team save percentage was the sixth-worst this season but after seeing Mrazek step up during last year’s playoff run there is hope in Carolina that he could do it again.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
Since the Capitals won four straight games to close out their 2018 first-round series against the Blue Jackets, the tables have turned as the Blue Jackets have gone 5-1-1 against the Capitals, including 3-0-1 in their last four. It was the Blue Jackets who got the Capitals off their game in December when they beat them by a combined score of 8-2 in two games. Before facing the Blue Jackets for the first time this season, the Capitals were a league-leading 26-6-5. Afterwards, they were 19-16-3.
While the Blue Jackets cannot match the Capitals’ firepower up front, their average of 2.61 goals-against per game was tied for third in the NHL this season and their goaltending tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins combined for an impressive .928 save percentage, fifth. Korpisalo has given the Capitals fits in his career as he has gone 3-0-1 with a .961 save percentage, a 1.26 goals-against average, and one shutout against Washington.
While Columbus would have been out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a normal year, the expanded playoff format gives them a chance to make a run. When the NHL season paused, the Blue Jackets ranked ninth with a 51.92% expected goals-for percentage, eighth with an average of 32.5 shots-per-game, and seventh with an average of 29.9 shots-against per game, indicating they played much better than their record indicated. In addition, head coach John Tortorella knows the Capitals all too well as he has played them in the postseason five times in his coaching career, winning two of those series.
By Harrison Brown