Re-evaluating potential first round opponents for the Capitals

The 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs are well under way, as the 24-team field navigates through the best-of-five qualifying series and round robin seeding games to set up the normal 16-team field for the rest of the playoffs.

Before the playoffs even started, I broke down which teams the Capitals were likely to face depending on which seed they earned in the round robin games. Given all the possibilities, it was impossible to gauge, but now that the Caps have two round robin games in the books and three Eastern Conference teams have been eliminated with one more series going to five games, there’s a much clearer look at what the First Round will look like in the East.

After losing to the Philadelphia Flyers two days ago, the Caps won’t have any chance to claim either of the top two seeds. They will be playing for the third seed against the Boston Bruins on Aug. 9.

The No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins were upset in four games by the No. 12 Montreal Canadiens. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins have just one win in their past 10 playoff games. They now have a one-in-eight chance of receiving the first overall pick in the 2020 Entry Draft, a nightmare scenario for anyone in the league, as the franchise has already lucked out with Mario Lemieux and Crosby as first overall picks.

With Pittsburgh out, the two best remaining teams are the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes, who swept the No. 11 New York Rangers, and No. 7 New York Islanders, who just wrapped up their series against the No. 10 Florida Panthers. The winner of the No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs/No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets series won’t have any effect on the first round matchups; they are pretty much entirely decided.

The No. 1 seed (the winner of Tampa Bay/Philadelphia) will play Montreal, while the loser will play the winner of the Toronto/Columbus series as the No. 2 seed. Meanwhile, the winner of the Capitals/Bruins game will earn the No. 3 seed and face the Islanders, leaving the loser as the No. 4 seed to play the Hurricanes.

From the Capitals’ perspective, the Islanders and Hurricanes are the two teams to focus on.

No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes

The Caps defeated the Hurricanes 3-2 in the exhibition game prior to the start of the actual playoff qualifiers, but the Canes made quick work of the Rangers, sweeping them in the best-of-five series. Carolina and Washington met in the first round of last year’s playoffs, where the Canes took out the defending Stanley Cup champions in seven games despite the fact that Washington opened the series with a 2-0 lead.

Had the playoffs gone on a normal schedule, the Canes would be missing several key players due to injury, but with the delay allowing more time for recovery, they’re pretty much at full strength. Even defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who had surgery on his broken leg in January and was ruled out for the season, just returned to practice yesterday.

The Carolina top line is one of the scariest in the playoffs, made up of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. All three are 25 years old or younger, making them a great core Carolina can build around for the long term. Aho already has eight points (3g, 5a) and is shooting at 30 percent(!) in just three playoff games, while Svechnikov scored a hat trick in Game 2, giving him a total of five points (3g, 2a). Teravainen has a goal and an assist after three games.

Outside of the top line, Carolina went crazy during the trade deadline to bolster their lineup for a playoff run. With Vincent Trocheck coming in to play the 2C, Jordan Staal and Justin Williams are two high-caliber veteran presences that accompany 24-year-old Warren Foegele on the third line. Foegele doubled his point production from 15 last year to 30 this season (13g, 17a).

Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei were brought in to bolster Jaccob Slavin, Hamilton and the rest of the defensive unit. This lineup is good, in fact better than last year’s team that made the Eastern Conference Finals.

The biggest question marks coming in for Carolina was the goaltending, but so far it’s been sharp. Petr Mrazek started the first two games, allowing a total of three goals on 50 shots. James Reimer started the third game and allowed just one goal on 38 shots. The Caps and Bruins have much stronger offenses than the Rangers, but the goalies starting out hot is a great sign for Carolina.

The Caps may have gotten the best of this group in a single-game exhibition, but with a talented core getting more cohesive with every game, the Canes will prove a tough first matchup if the Caps can’t beat the Bruins tomorrow.

No. 7 New York Islanders

If the Caps can beat the Bruins tomorrow, then they will end up meeting the team led by the coach who took them to the promised land just two years ago. Barry Trotz has the Islanders looking ready to compete, and while many overlook the orange and blue, they should not be taken lightly.

Headlined by All-Star Mathew Barzal, the Islanders have had multiple players step up in big ways in the Qualifying Round. Jordan Eberle scored twice to lift the Isles to a 2-0 series lead in Game 2, while second line forward Anthony Beauvillier scored twice in the series-clinching Game 4 to give himself a team-leading five points (3g, 2a).

Trade deadline acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored in Games 1, 3 and 4 to elevate bottom six production, while Ryan Pulock (1g, 3a) and Devon Toews (0g, 4a) are doing damage from the blue line.

Trotz is known to have his teams lock down on opponents defensively and the Islanders have done just that. While Florida isn’t exactly a powerhouse, the Islanders held the Panthers to just one goal in two games and two goals in a third. In fact, the only loss of the series was when they allowed three goals (and even then it was a close 3-2 score line).

It helps that Seymon Varlamov, the former Capitals’ first-round pick, has been holding down the fort in the crease. The Russian netminder started all four games of the Qualifying Series and allowed seven goals on 103 shots, which makes for a .932 save percentage and a 1.77 goals against average.

It will be strange going against Trotz in a playoff series, but it will be the reality if the Caps land the No. 3 seed.

Outlook

The Caps should not be scared of either team; they have the talent and depth to beat either one. However, with John Carlson still working his way back from injury and Lars Eller exiting the bubble for the birth of his child, the team may not be at full strength to begin the series.

Add to the situation that they will be facing a team that won their Qualifying Series convincingly, while the Caps lost two (possibly all three) round robin games, the momentum could rest with the opponent. In these playoffs, the hottest teams go the distance, so the Caps will need to get hot quick.

Neither the Islanders nor Hurricanes should be feared, but they definitely shouldn’t be overlooked, and the Caps will need to bring their A-game no matter who they face. For now, it’s about beating the Bruins to get at least one victory under their belt prior to the first round, but looking ahead, it will be a long and bumpy road to the Stanley Cup. We can only wait and see if the 2020 Capitals are up for the challenge.

Cover Photo Credit: L – The Athletic; R – Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

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