Thursday, April 9, 2009

Determining the Capitals' Playoff Opponents

Even with just two games left in the season, there's still a lot of uncertainty about which teams Washington will draw in the first round.

Of the nine other teams still in the playoff picture in the East, the Capitals are only assured of not playing three of them in the first round. Boston, who has sewn up the top seed, New Jersey, who hasn't clinched the Atlantic but can fall no lower than fourth even if Philadelphia catches them, and Buffalo, who can only secure a date with the Bruins if they qualify for the playoffs.

So that leaves the Flyers, Hurricanes, Penguins, Rangers, Canadiens and Panthers as possible opponents, although if the Capitals can sew up second seed in the East tonight (or the Devils lose to the Senators), it does clear up the picture a bit more.

With a clinching, the Hurricanes and Flyers are out of the mix, as those teams can't fall further than sixth. The Penguins still could end up in the seventh spot, but that would require Montreal to beat the Bruins tonight, the Islanders to defeat the Penguins in Pittsburgh, and depending on if the New York win was in overtime, the Habs to beat the Pens in regulation (or overtime, if the Isles get a clean win) Saturday night.

At the other end of the improbability scale is the Florida Panthers, as they would need to beat Atlanta and Washington in their final two games, and also hope the Rangers get swept by the Flyers (with at least one coming in regulation) and the Habs to lose both to the Bruins and Penguins in regulation.

So, the likely pairing for the playoffs is either the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens, two teams that offer some different challenges.

While the Rangers have been struggling offensively this year (they have the fewest goals of any team currently in a playoff spot and also the worst goal differential), they do offer up Henrik Lundqvist, who has demonstrated an ability to carrying New York past a better opponent. Lundquvist almost helped the Rangers knock off top-seeded Buffalo in 2007's playoffs, and also knocked out the higher-seeded Devils in last year's postseason.

With a pair of games against the Flyers, it won't be a given that the Blueshirts pass the hobbled Canadiens for the seventh spot.

The Canadiens are in a tenous hold on the matchup with the Capitals, and now have to deal with some big injury problems heading into the postseason. With Robert Lang already gone for the year, Mathieu Schnider was also lost for the campaign, meaning a reduced potential opponent.

The Habs will face a Boston team with nothing to play for tonight, and then a Pittsburgh team battling for seeding Saturday, so it's tough to forecast if the Habs end up in seventh, eighth... or out of the postseason.

However, it looks like the most likely playoff opponent will be the Rangers, as unless New York is shut down by the Flyers (which isn't out of the question), it'll be the fifth meeting of the old Patrick Division playoff foes, with the last coming en route to the Rangers' Stanley Cup title in 1994, but the overall series knotted at 2-2.

If they do get Montreal, it will be the first-ever meeting between the two clubs in the postseason, with the closest the two teams ever came was 1986 when the Canadiens advanced to the Wales Conference Finals, but the Caps fell to the Rangers in an upset.

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