With 95 points in 68 games, the Capitals currently sit atop the Metropolitan Division and the entire league. They are on a four-game losing streak, while the Metro division rival Pittsburgh Penguins have won five of their last six (with a shootout loss last night), tying the Caps in points with exactly the same number of games played.
Regular season success for the Caps has become a punchline. It’s hard to get excited about this final 14-game stretch when all that we really care about is what the team does come April, May, and hopefully June. Which is entirely fair.
But there is a lot left to play for right now, and the stakes are high. The Caps have snuck back into a dogfight for what is a genuinely important number one seed in the Metro. Forget the Presidents’ Trophy, they need to take this division — for the reasons you’ll see below.
This isn’t doom-and-gloom. There is good reason to believe that the bye week did not “break” the Capitals. A rare four-game losing streak does not mean the sky is falling, and the team hasn’t even been all that bad over the stretch, which coincided with the toughest road trip of the year.
And if you have been listening to us and other analysts yell about unsustainable shooting percentages, you’d know this was likely coming, as the Caps have been both very good and very lucky.
The Caps’ Sh% and Sv% were always going to come back to earth. You knew that. Better to run cold now than in April/May. pic.twitter.com/E4jJpY2z7b
— Japers’ Rink (@JapersRink) March 13, 2017
But that doesn’t mean this slump hasn’t gotten them into a bit of a pickle. Yes, if the Caps are going to make the finals they will have to go through some good teams, in the second round in particular. But it would be much better if those good teams pummel each other first, while the Caps (hopefully) breeze through a comparatively easy matchup of their own.
Here are the key stats for each of the Caps’ most likely first-round opponents, score and venue adjusted. For now, we are assuming the Lightning and the Flyers are out of it. (They aren’t).
There are a few ways this could play out. If the Caps stay put and nothing else changes, they get the Maple Leafs. The Islanders are just one point back on the Leafs’ heels, and they could surpass them to become the Caps’ foe. It’s also not unrealistic that Boston could fall into that seed and match up against the Caps in the first round.
Those are good matchups. As you can see in the table above, the Leafs and Islanders are flawed teams. They have worse goaltending, worse possession, and much worse goal percentages. Boston is a bit odd and could be a dark horse, but they have been generally unconvincing as well.
The nightmare situation is that the Caps are surpassed by the Penguins, or the Blue Jackets surpass them both, taking the top spot. In these scenarios, the Caps would play the much deadlier Pens or Jackets, both of whom are truly formidable opponents. Not only that, but the Jackets play a physical, shot-blocking brand of Tortorella hockey that we are far too familiar with. That would not be a fun first round matchup. Even worse, they could end up having to play both Columbus and Pittsburgh in rounds one and two.
We can envision scenarios where either the speedy young Leafs or surging Islanders beat the Caps. In fact, the Isles are tied for second in the NHL with 33 points in 26 games since they fired coach Jack Capuano in mid-January. But those scenarios are more of the paranoid “worst-case” Halak’d variety. The Caps should beat those teams.
The Pens and Jackets, however, are much more dangerous, and it’s clear that it’s important for the Caps to play well down the stretch and hold their lead in the Metro. This is a call to arms for the Caps to use this as motivation and get hot right as the playoffs approach. Buckle up for the stretch, because the hockey that the Caps have yet to play matters, a lot.
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