A Look At The Capitals’ Three Possible First Round Matchups

Patrick Smith:Getty ImagesPhoto: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

By falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in their second round-robin tournament game by a score of 3-1 on Thursday, the Washington Capitals guaranteed that they can no longer finish higher than the third seed in the Eastern Conference. They will finish in third with a win of any kind against the Boston Bruins in their final round-robin game on Sunday but fourth with a loss of any kind. As the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin on Monday, NoVa Caps looks at the Capitals’ three possible first-round opponents.

Pittsburgh Penguins

What Would Need To Happen: Penguins win final two games of qualifying round series vs. Montreal Canadiens AND Capitals lose to Bruins

Capitals’ 2019-20 Record vs. Penguins: 2-1-0, +4 goal differential

The Capitals matched up well against the Penguins when they played this season as they lost the first game between the two by a one-goal margin but won the last two by a combined score of 10-5. Also, while the Capitals do not seem to get up for games against anyone else since mid-February except the Penguins, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad matchup for the Capitals.

Though, it is worth taking note of the fact that they have not seen these Penguins at full strength yet. Forward Jake Guentzel did not play in any of their three games against the Capitals this season and forward Zach Aston-Reese and center Nick Bjugstad did not play in two.

The Capitals match up pretty well to the Penguins’ offense as both teams have depth and plenty of firepower upfront. In terms of defense, the Capitals’ might have the slight edge on paper after acquiring defenseman Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks at the NHL Trade Deadline, but head coach Mike Sullivan got their blueline corps to buy-in as they allowed an average of 2.84 goals-per-game this season, 11th in the NHL. Though, the Capitals have had their defensive issues dating back to since before Christmas as their average of 3.32 goals-against per game since December 9 is the worst among the 22 teams left in the tournament. On the power-play, the Penguins have a slight edge as their 19.9% power-play efficiency just barely tops the Capitals’ 19.4% power-play scoring rate. However, the Capitals 82.6% penalty-killing rate (sixth) bests the Penguins’ 82.1% (tied for eighth).

In goal, the Capitals get the slight edge on paper even though Braden Holtby, who went 25-14-6 with an .897 save percentage and a 3.11 goals-against average this season, just fell short of Matt Murray’s numbers as he went 20-11-5 with an .899 save percentage and a 2.87 goals-against average.

Of course, the Penguins would have to win the final two games against the Canadiens even to make this a possibility. With the way the Canadiens have played, the fact that the Penguins are the better team on paper does not mean anything.

Carolina Hurricanes

What Would Need To Happen: Penguins lose to Canadiens OR if Capitals beat Bruins in regulation AND Penguins beat Canadiens

Capitals’ 2019-20 Record vs. Hurricanes: 2-1-1, -1 goal differential

The Hurricanes gave the Capitals fits to start the season as they outscored them by a combined total of 9-5 in the first two games between the two teams, but the Capitals responded by winning the last two by a combined score of 6-3. The Capitals also beat them in an exhibition game before the Stanley Cup Qualifiers began by a score of 3-2.

The Capitals clearly have the edge in offense as their average of 3.42 goals-per-game trailed only the Tampa Bay Lightning (3.47) this season. While the Hurricanes have plenty of dangerous forwards such as Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Teuvo Teravainen, they cannot quite match the Capitals’ scoring firepower. However, very few teams can match Carolina’s blueline if any, as the additions defensemen Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen at the trade deadline only improved it. They could also get Dougie Hamilton, who was being discussed as a Norris Trophy candidate before his regular season ended on January 17 due to surgery on a broken left fibula. The Hurricanes’ 22.3% power-play efficiency was eighth while their 84% penalty-killing rate was fourth, slightly topping the Capitals.

In goal, the Capitals have the edge as their .9125 save percentage (22nd) slightly topped the Hurricanes’ .9122 (25th) and Petr Mrazek, who went 21-16-2 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.69 goals-against average, and three shutouts, is anything but consistent.

New York Islanders

What Would Need To Happen: Penguins lose to Canadiens, Capitals beat Bruins

Capitals’ 2019-20 Record vs. Islanders: 2-2-0, even goal differential

The Islanders are not the most skilled team, but they are arguably the best-coached team in the league and are hard-working. After losing the first game in the season series, they gave the Capitals a run for their money in the other three, winning two and leading 4-1 in the third period before the Capitals came back and shocked them in one.

Since losing center John Tavares in free agency in 2018, the Islanders have not been a high-octane offensive team as their average of 2.78 goals-per-game was 22nd in the NHL this season. They do have some nice pieces up front with center Mathew Barzal, forward Anthony Beauvillier, and forward Anders Lee. They also do have arguably the league’s best fourth-line with Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck, which could give the Capitals’ top-six fits. The Islanders’ blueline isn’t perfect in the eye test, but former Capitals head coach Barry Trotz has done a fantastic job with them as they were ninth in the NHL with an average of 2.79 goals-against per game this season, ninth. Ryan Pulock had a solid season with ten goals, 35 points, a 44.03% Corsi-for percentage, and a 48.38% expected goals-for percentage. The Islanders were worse than the Capitals in both power-play (17.3% – tied 24th) and penalty-killing (80.7% – 15th) percentage.

In net, the Islanders appear to have the advantage as they posted a .9233 save percentage ranked 10th in the NHL this season and Semyon Varlamov had a solid season. He went 19-14-6 with a .914 save percentage, a 2.62 goals-against average, and two shutouts this season and has been solid against the Panthers so far with a .923 save percentage and a 2.03 goals-against average.

By Harrison Brown

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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