Predicting the likeliest first round opponents for Capitals

On this day two years ago, the Capitals ended a 26-year championship drought that had plagued the city of Washington, winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The team met a disappointing end in the first round of their title defense last year, and with the pandemic shutting down the NHL season nearly three months ago, the Caps will soon have their chance to win a second Cup once the season starts up again.

The NHL recently announced a return-to-play plan. Unlike the NBA, which plans to continue with eight regular season games per team before starting the playoffs, the NHL 2019-20 regular season is officially over.

In a 24-team postseason format, the top four teams in each conference get a de facto bye, while seeds five through 12 will face-off in a best-of-five series to narrow the field down to the traditional 16. The fifth seed will play the 12th, the sixth will play the 11th, and so on. The top four teams with the bye will play a round robin to determine the seedings for the next round.

The Capitals are currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference, sharing the bye with the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers. No matter where the Caps are seeded, they will be facing one of the eight teams that’s playing in the preliminary round.

Now in a vacuum, they have an equal chance of facing any of the eight teams. There are 16 possible outcomes for the slate of first round winners in the East, and with the top four seeds up grabs, there are 64 total outcomes for whom the Capitals face in the second round.

After the preliminary round, the lowest-seeded team that advances will face whatever team earns the top seed in the East, while the highest-seeded winner facing the four seed, and the middle teams will be matched accordingly.

However, hockey is not played in a vacuum, so some outcomes are more likely than others. For example, the only way the Capitals would face the No. 12 Montreal Canadiens is if the Capitals earned the top seed in the East and the Canadiens beat the fifth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in their preliminary series. Likewise the only way the Caps could face the Penguins in the next round is if the Caps finish as the fourth seed and the Penguins beat the Canadiens.

With every team coming in from such a long lay-off, it’ll be difficult to predict how the top four teams will stack up after the round robin, and it may be even more difficult to predict the winners of the five-game play-in series.

As difficult as it will be to map out, by breaking down every possible outcome of the round robin and preliminary series, we can try to determine the likeliest first round opponents for the Caps.

If the Capitals earn the first seed…

… by finishing ahead of the top teams in the conference, there would theoretically be a 50 percent chance that they would face the Canadiens. However, Montreal has the slimmest odds of advancing in the Eastern Conference, so by eliminating all outcomes in which the Canadiens beat the Penguins, it becomes less obvious.

In the remaining eight outcomes, the Caps would face the No. 11 New York Rangers four times. The No. 10 Florida Panthers come up twice, and then the No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets and No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs each claim one of the other two outcomes.

There are bound to be upsets in this preliminary round, and the only way the No. 1 Capitals would face either Toronto or Columbus is if all the other higher-seeded teams won their series. It’s safe to assume that won’t happen, so we can eliminate Toronto and Columbus as well.

With that, only Florida and New York remain, with the Rangers being the likelier opponent. Both the Rangers (+120) and Panthers (+100) are relatively slim underdogs in their respective series. The Panthers will face the No. 7 New York Islanders, led by former Capitals coach Barry Trotz. The Rangers take on the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes, which will be boosted by the return of Sami Vatanen and likely Dougie Hamilton to the lineup.

The Rangers have dark horse MVP candidate Artemi Panarin leading the scoring output, and have a favorable playoff history against the Capitals in recent years. Do they have enough to get past the same Canes team that added several significant pieces at this year’s trade deadline, including the Rangers’ own Brady Skjei, who was sent to Carolina in exchange for a 2020 first-round pick?

Florida, meanwhile, has a three-time Stanley Cup champion at head coach in Joel Quenneville, the former Chicago Blackhawks boss. They also have a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in net with Sergei Bobrovsky. Former Capital Brett Connolly also holds a decent stake in the Panthers’ offense.

Both teams have their strengths, but neither seem like major title contenders. If the Caps draw either team, they should be able to get past them without too much trouble, but after such a long layoff, who knows what to expect from any team.

Likeliest opponent: No. 11 New York Rangers

If the Capitals earn the second seed…

… and just can’t quite snatch up the top spot, the prospective pool of first round opponent becomes much fuzzier. While there is no chance the team would face Montreal or Pittsburgh, or even Carolina, every other team has a fairly decent shot to be the opponent.

In this case, the only chance the Rangers would have to face the Caps is if both Montreal and the Rangers win their play-in series, which seems fairly unlikely relative to the other outcomes. Similarly, the only way Florida would be the team the Caps face as the No. 2 is if the Rangers also win (and Montreal loses).

That leaves the Islanders, Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets. The Islanders managed to sweep the Penguins in the first round last year, and with Mathew Barzal leading the way, could surprise many teams if they get hot. If both Pittsburgh and Carolina win their respective series, and the Isles beat Florida, then the Caps would face the Islanders regardless of the Columbus-Toronto series.

Toronto and Columbus are both interesting teams. Toronto has a bevy of individual talent, but has underperformed in recent years. Toronto was also turning in inconsistent results by the time the season was canceled.

Columbus lost their star netminder (Bobrovsky) and best skater (Panarin) in free agency after winning their first postseason series in franchise history. Their current goalie tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins did better than expected. This preliminary series could be the most interesting.

For the talent and depth the Capitals boast, neither Toronto nor Columbus should pose as a major threat to upset, but with the annual volatility that comes with the Stanley Cup playoffs, the biggest threats will be whoever gets hot.

Likeliest opponent: Winner of No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs/No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets

If the Capitals earn the third seed…

… and remain in the same spot in which they entered the restart, then perhaps they’ll get what they deserve. Much like the second seed, there are plenty of opponents with a fair shot at facing the Caps first. Theoretically, the Islanders and Hurricanes are the most likely teams, but looking closer, Carolina is far more likely.

The Hurricanes dragged the Capitals to a seven-game first round series, finally winning in double overtime of Game 7 after the Caps had led the series 2-0. As mentioned, Carolina will be fully healthy after their players had been piling up on the injury list prior to the shutdown, so if they can get past New York, the Hurricanes could be a major threat.

Should the Rangers overcome Carolina, the Islanders would be the best bet. The Caps never had the chance to face their former coach last year, but there are several plausible outcomes in which New York will be their opponent in the first round.

There is a situation in which the winner of the Toronto-Columbus series would face the No. 3 Caps, but that would require both Carolina AND the Islanders to lose the preliminary series (and Pittsburgh to win, of course).

Likeliest opponent: No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes

If the Capitals earn the fourth seed…

… and just can’t manage to top the other three teams, then all signs would point to a first round meeting with Pittsburgh. In any situation in which the Penguins beat Montreal, the Pens would be the Capitals’ opponent.

This would mean a rematch from the 2018 Second Round and their fourth postseason meeting in five years. Both teams fell in the first round last year, ending a three-year streak of playoff meetings. Though Washington got the series win in their last meeting, Pittsburgh has the overwhelming lead all-time, losing just one series to Washington prior to 2018.

Facing a fully-rested Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is a tall task, but would make for an enticing first round series nonetheless.

If Montreal were to get the upset, however, then Carolina would be most likely, followed by the Islanders. Of course, the highest-seeded team that remains after the preliminary round will face the No. 4 seed, so no matter how crazy the opening series gets, the presumed strongest team left will come to Washington.

Likeliest opponent: No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins

There is a real possibility that the Capitals won’t face any of these teams I labeled as likely opponents. While the Panthers and Islanders aren’t the most likely for any situation, they are the second- or third-most likely in multiple scenarios, so they are both definitely teams to look out for.

If Montreal upsets Pittsburgh, that would change the odds for most of the situations entirely. It will be impossible to make a solid prediction until the top four seedings are sorted out, but looking at the likely outcomes, plus the fact that teams will be re-seeded after each round, it would be a major advantage if the Caps can snag one of the top two seeds.

This has the potential to be the craziest Stanley Cup playoffs in history, so I cannot wait until it gets underway.

(Cover Photo Credit: Getty Images)

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