Photo: Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images
Now that the Washington Capitals have locked up a spot in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the focus shifts towards seeding. There are three opponents that the Capitals could face in Round 1 starting on the road: the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, and New York Rangers.
Percent chances #ALLCAPS will face Rangers in first round increasing, close to even with Panthers. A win Wednesday over Vegas would increase odds facing Rangers to greater than Florida. Caps one point behind Pens with a game in hand. pic.twitter.com/VdZIDzeLIs
— #ALLCAPS (@JonItBe) April 19, 2022
The Capitals currently own the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. That would almost certainly guarantee a first-round meeting with the conference-leading Panthers, who enter Wednesday eight points ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs for first place in the Atlantic Division and East.
In fact, they just need any combination of two points between winning and the Maple Leafs losing to guarantee it. The Panthers host the Detroit Red Wings, who are 17-28-7 since December 6 and whom they just beat by a score of 6-1, on Thursday (7 PM ET, Hulu, ESPN+) while the Maple Leafs visit the Tampa Bay Lightning the same night (8 PM ET, ESPN).
The Capitals finished the regular season 1-1-1 against the Panthers, who have won nine in a row and are currently averaging an NHL-high 4.17 goals-per-game, with a -1 goal differential during the series. While fighting through Florida would be a daunting task, the Panthers allow 2.84 goals-per-game (the sixth-highest among the eight in the Eastern Conference bracket) and their .9195 five-on-five save percentage is just slightly above the league average. The Panthers may have the most talented team in the NHL on paper but will their system work in the postseason? They also have the least experienced head coach of the three with Andrew Brunette in his first season with just an interim tag.
If the regular season ended today, the Capitals would face the Rangers (though the Capitals trail the Penguins by a point, they have a game in hand and have a better point percentage), who are currently tied on top of the Metropolitan Division with the Hurricanes with each team down to five games left, based on points percentage. The Hurricanes occupy first place due to having more regulation wins (43-42) and more regulation-overtime wins (48-46).
The Rangers had a 45.19% Corsi-for percentage (30th) and 45.47% expected goals-for percentage (28th) at five-on-five before the NHL Trade Deadline but those numbers (56.36% Corsi-for percentage – fifth, 55.2% expected goals-for percentage – sixth) have improved drastically since adding center Andrew Copp, right-wing Frank Vatrano, right-wing Tyler Motte, and defenseman Justin Braun. In addition, the Rangers have arguably the best goaltender of the three teams with Igor Shesterkin (first in NHL with .936 save percentage, 2.01 goals-against average, and third with six shutouts in 51 games).
Who do you prefer the #ALLCAPS face in the first round?
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) April 18, 2022
The Capitals are currently 1-1-0 against the Rangers with a +1 goal differential this season. The two teams meet again at Madison Square Garden on April 29 but that game may not matter much if both teams have their seeding locked up and decide to rest players. The teams would meet in the first round if the Capitals finished as the first wild-card and the Rangers won the Metropolitan Division or the Capitals finish third in the division and the Rangers second.
The least likely of the three for the Capitals appears to be the Hurricanes, who are tied with the Rangers for first in goals-against per game (2.44). The Hurricanes would have to win the division and the Capitals would have to end up as the first wild-card or the Hurricanes would need to finish second and Capitals third to make this possibility a reality.
The Hurricanes arguably have the deepest blueline in the NHL led by shutdown defenseman Jaccob Slavin in front of a goaltender in Frederik Andersen that ranks sixth in the NHL with a .922 save percentage and second with a 2.17 goals-against average in 52 games this season. The Hurricanes lead the league with a 59.33% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage and rank third with a 57.75% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage.
Though, the Capitals have had success against the Hurricanes lately as they won the first three of the season, five straight overall, and nine of their past 11 (9-1-1) in the regular season against Carolina. Of course, the Hurricanes blew the Capitals out 6-1 in their last meeting but that was a game where they had to show everyone that they could beat the Capitals.
The Hurricanes and Rangers will meet at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
By Harrison Brown