By Christopher Johnson
We’ve come to the home stretch. Only 8 games remain before the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in April and the Capitals are in great shape. They clinched not only the Metropolitan Division but the top seed in the Eastern Conference and will get home ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
Canada is in jeopardy of being shut out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the NHL-WHA merger in 1979 gave the NHL six Canadian teams. The rapid decline of the Montreal Canadiens, after goaltender Carey Price went down to injury, has led to this scenario.
But who will the Capitals face? Here’s a look at the possible Stanley Cup Playoff matchups (seedings can change) for the Caps and around the league.
(1) Washington Capitals Vs. (8) Philadelphia Flyers/Detroit Red Wings
The Washington Capitals wrapped up the top spot in the Eastern Conference and division with their 4-2 win over Ottawa Tuesday. With 8 games remaining, the Caps can now start giving rest to whoever needs it as the President’s Trophy (best team in the NHL during the regular season) is all that is left to achieve in the regular season. As of Sunday, March 27, the Caps (111 points) have a 12 point lead on St. Louis and Dallas (99 points) with two games in hand.
Either the Flyers or the Red Wings would be a good change in the first round. The Caps tend to draw teams from New York but this year a new opponent will likely be matched up in round one.
The Flyers are playing inspired hockey after losing starting goaltender Michael Neuvirth for the remainder of the regular season with a meniscus tear in his knee. With 8 games (20 possible points) remaining, including a matchup with the Red Wings, points will matter. The question is can goalie Steve Mason survive his lack of defense and do enough to get the Flyers into the playoffs?
The Red Wings are in jeopardy of ending their NHL-record 24 years straight post-season appearance streak. With nine games remaining (18 possible points), I tend to like the Red Wings chances at extending the streak to 25 but they have to win games. The question is…which goalie do they stick with? All season it has been split between Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek, with both putting up decent numbers.
(2) Florida Panthers/Tampa Bay Lightning Vs. (7) New York Islanders
The surprise Florida Panthers have been injected with new life as 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr is playing some of his best hockey. He leads the team with 24 goals and looks to keep the Panthers fired up going into the post season. Goaltender Roberto Luongo is putting up solid numbers with a 30-18-6 record and 2.37 GAA.
The Islanders better wake up and right the sinking ship. Losing their last 4, they are within striking distance of both Detroit and Philly who want to steal their spot. With 11 games remaining (22 possible points), they have enough time and games. Losing Halak for six weeks means Thomas Greiss needs to shine in net.
(3) Florida Panthers/Tampa Bay Lightning Vs. (6) Boston Bruins
The defending Eastern Conference Champs have done what they did in 2015: go through the season under the radar while being one of the best in the conference. Stamkos leads the team with 36 goals but the teams power play is a dismal 24th in the league (16.7%.) Ben Bishop has been stellar in goal with a 32-19-4 record and 2.05 GAA. The Lightning could once again go on a playoff run.
The Bruins have played pretty well this season with Tuukka Rask in net. Plus if there is any opponent they would prefer to play in the opening round, its’s Florida. The Bruins have won 3 of the 4 games played against them with one remaining.
(4) New York Rangers Vs. (5) Pittsburgh Penguins
When it comes to the playoffs for the Rangers, look no further than Henrik Lundqvist. The man comes to play when the post-season arrives and he’s looking true to form with nine games remaining. They are always a tough out.
The Penguins are playing outstanding hockey as of late, even without Evgeny Malkin. Without him the Pens have rattled off five wins in a row and Crosby is getting back to form with 31 goals and 45 assists. The coaching change part way through the season is looking pretty genius right now. Fleury continues to rack up the wins thanks to great defense in front of him. A series with the Rangers would be hard fought.
(1) Dallas Stars Vs. (8) Minnesota Wild/Colorado Avalanche
The Dallas Stars, behind goaltender Kari Lehtonen, are scary good. Case in point, the 6-2 drubbing of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. The number one scoring team in the NHL is looking for a deep run but the Western Conference is full of talent. It won’t be easy.
The Wild and Avalanche are battling for the final playoff spot. Both have been playing well as of late with three straight wins each. A Saturday matchup had Minnesota dominate in a 4-0 win, putting them in the drivers seat of the final playoff spot.
(2) Los Angeles Kings Vs. (7) Nashville Predators
If we go in the order of the last four Stanley Cup champions, this is the Kings year right? The last four Stanley Cup champions have been Los Angeles or Chicago but this year it’s not a given. The Kings behind Jonathan Quick have a four point lead with nine games remaining in the Pacific Division. They are on pace to match the past few seasons of 100 and 95 point finishes.
The Nashville Predators with head coach Peter Laviolette continue to thrive after Barry Trotz departure to the Capitals at the start of last season. Their win over the Kings 5-2 is a warning to the Kings and the rest of the league to not sleep on them or you will pay the price. Former Capital Filip Forsberg has hit 30 goals and is showing why the Predators got the better end of the deal that sent Martin Erat and Michael Latta to the Caps.
(3) St. Louis Blues Vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks
The Blues are the Tampa Bay Lightning of the Western Conference. They play great hockey but are quiet, not garnering as much attention. Head Coach Ken Hitchcock has been rotating goaltenders Brian Elliot and Jake Allen all season. The last four games, Elliot has recorded three shutouts and is looking like a goaltender primed for a playoff run. Right winger Vladimir Tarasenko has notched 34 goals and 29 assists to lead the team in his third season. On Saturday, the Blues recorded their 4th straight shutout behind Allen.
The Blackhawks have won two of the last four Stanley Cups and are the defending champs. You can’t count them out but you also have the right to be concerned. The Hawks have dropped seven of their last 11 and look to have some injury issues. Center Marcus Kruger and goaltender Corey Crawford have been listed day-to-day with injuries. With eight games left, Chicago just needs to weather the storm and get in the playoffs.
(4) Anaheim Ducks Vs. (5) San Jose Sharks
The Ducks, led by former Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, have cooled off as of late. Certainly the hottest team since the break, Anaheim is second in goals against (2.3), have the top power play (23.7%) and penalty kill in the league (86.6%) but sit 19th in goals per game (2.6). Goalies Frederick Andersen and John Gibson have shared duties throughout the season with both posting decent numbers. The Ducks look to gain some ground in the standings as they play six of their last 10 games against Canadian teams.
The Sharks behind goaltender Martin Jones are in good position to better their seeding if they can get some points and have some help in their last nine games. Joe Thornton (17 goals, 55 assists) and Joe Pavelski (35 goals, 36 assists) lead a good hockey club that when motivated can make a run in the playoffs.
Which matchup are you looking forward to? Would you be fine with the Flyers or Red Wings? Let us know!
Rock the Red and Go Caps!