Ever since the NHL changed its playoff format from deciding division champions in the first two rounds of the playoffs to just using overall conference seedings 15 years ago, the road to the Stanley Cup has become more of a question for favorable matchups rather than overall ability, as Washington Capitals fans are acutely aware.
For years, the Pittsburgh Penguins matched up well against the Capitals and were able to use their scoring punch and just enough defense and goaltending to win all but one of the playoff series played between the two rivals.
So now, with the second seed in hand, the possible roads for the Capitals to the Stanley Cup are clear, and it certainly is more promising for Washington to make a serious run in their current slot rather than had they finished in the third slot.
The Capitals' first-round opponent, the New York Rangers, are a team Washington had good success against in the regular season, grabbing seven of eight points against the Blueshirts, with their only setback being in a shootout back in February at Madison Square Garden. Washington also had one of their most memorable regular-season games in recent memory this year in New York, erasing a 4-0 deficit two days before Christmas to record a wild 5-4 victory that helped really propel the Caps to a streak that allowed them to roll to the Southeast Division title.
However, the Rangers are a bit different than the ones the Caps last saw, having made some deadline deals to bring Nik Antropov and Derek Morris to Manhattan, as well as having agitator Sean Avery back in the lineup. New York was able to hang on to one of the last playoff spots in the East thanks to the tinkering, and now will be gunning for an upset with a talented - but underachieving - team.
The Rangers' playoff hopes will likely rest between the pipes, as Henrik Lundqvist has shown flashes of brilliance this season - although he also has been mediocre at times. Lundqvist introduced himself to the hockey world two years ago by helping the Rangers sweep out the Southeast Division champion Thrashers and then narrowly missing a chance to upset the heavily-favored Sabres in six games in large part thanks to his strong play.
Lundqvist also earned a first-round victory last year, ousting the Devils before the Rangers struggled against the Penguins in a second-round loss.
Despite having the second-highest scoring team in the East, the Capitals have had their issues with hot netminders, as they tend to overpass and pass up scoring chances once a goalie has gotten himself in their heads.
But one strength they have over the Rangers is New York's offensive punch - or lack of it - as unlike some of the teams of the past on Broadway, they have to rely on a defensive system to keep games close and pop in timely goals. Washington's strength isn't its defense or goaltending, but facing a team that has had trouble scoring goals, that issue is somewhat negated facing New York's limited offense.
There's no question New York has some talent, and one player the Caps will have to watch for is Chris Drury, who is one of the best playoff players around, having scored 16 game-winning goals in 124 postseason contests, along with 87 points. While Drury hasn't quite been what Ranger fans had hoped for when they lured him from Buffalo with a free-agent deal, he still can be the player to watch during a tight game or overtime.
Overall though, the Rangers are a much more favorable matchup for Washington than the Hurricanes, Flyers and Penguins, having had good success against them this season and also matching up against their strength well, and their weakness is also paired against New York's primary weakness.
Perhaps the biggest factor for Washington will be if the team finally sheds some of the lackluster play that creeped into its game during the last quarter of the season that was dominated with some sub-par performances against non-playoff teams. As longtime Caps fans remember, the Penguins were famous for being able to take their games to the next level once the postseason started, and while the Caps certainly found the switch after Game 4 of last year's series, it isn't always an easy thing to do to elevate your game as your opponent does.
But, with heightened expectations - and with several Capitals stars including Ovechkin and Fedorov elevating their games on the big stage of playing in New York - it should bode well for the team.
Now, should Washington be able to advance to the next round, its most likely opponent would be the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh winner. The Caps cannot play Boston until the Eastern finals, and also will not play Southeastern rival Carolina in the second round either, since if the Bruins lose to Montreal, the Caps automatically take the highest seed in the second round and would draw the eighth-seed Canadiens, while if Boston wins, the B's would draw the 'Canes, who would be the lowest seed left standing if the top two seeds advance.
The Capitals would draw the Devils only if all three top seeds advance, but all other scenarios would lead to a matchup with that all-Pennsylvania series winner.
One advantage the Caps would have is whomever that winner will be likely will have survived a grueling series, as while the Flyers are effective at playing a physical game, their effectiveness diminishes as the grinding style takes its toll on the team. As for the Penguins, they have been improved since making some deadline deals for Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, but Philadelphia provides a punishing matchup for the Pens.
Both would be tough matchups for the Caps, but having had those two locked in a grueling first-round series likely wouldn't hurt Washington's chances and probably is better for the Caps than meeting them in this round.
New Jersey has Martin Brodeur back, but it'll be interesting to see how they do, as since the lockout, the Devils haven't been able to advance past the second round and will have a tough matchup with the 'Canes.
As for the Habs, they certainly would be riding a wave if they can take out the top-seeded Bruins, but it's tough to imagine Montreal being able to sustain an extended playoff run with their injuries in the unlikely event the Caps would draw them.
So, if the Caps can reach the East final for the first time since 1998, they would draw the Bruins, Hurricanes, or if the road to the Stanley Cup leads through Newark, the Penguins or Flyers winner from the first round.
Washington has played a tight series with Boston all year long, as the Bruins would have the edge in netminding, but the Caps have had good success - and it's proven to be a very entertaining matchup. It certainly would depend on the relative health of the two clubs, but in any case, it likely would be a tossup.
Same probably goes for the 'Canes, as while they're not as loaded up front as the Caps, as they definitely have an edge if Cam Ward is capable of playing as he has down the stretch in net, but Washington also has more scoring punch than Carolina.
While the Stanley Cup playoffs is as unpredictable a professional sports tournament as they come, the road to the team's second Stanley Cup Finals berth certainly isn't quite as forboding as it could be, as they will likely avoid some teams that could give them problems until further down the road - and that's provided those teams survive their own first-round matchups.
So overall, this Capitals team looks like it's certainly capable of getting into at least the second round, although the Eastern Finals will be a tougher task for this club, but not quite as tough a road as it could have been had they not beaten out New Jersey for the third seed. It is probably a longer shot for this team to represent the East this year, but if the team stays healthy and can get decent goaltending along the way, it's certainly not out of the question.