Washington Capitals: Potential first round playoff scenarios

Dec 21, 2015; Raleigh, NC, USA; Washington Capitals forward Jason Chimera (25) celebrates with forward Tom Wilson (43) and forward Jay Beagle (83) after scoring a goal in the second period against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

In just the middle of February, it would seem downright bizarre for any team to be looking at anything other than the next game at hand. While the Washington Capitals will be doing the latter, a luxury of being a fan is that you get to look a bit farther into the future than the players do.

Speaking of bizarre, that is the most accurate word for the position that the Capitals find themselves in on February 18th. There are just under two full months of the regular season remaining, but with the Caps sitting pretty at 86 points, it is all but a certainty that the team will be a top seed in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In fact, this has been the likely scenario for a long time at this point.

The 86 points that the Washington Capitals have earned thus far puts them 16 points ahead of the second place team in the Metropolitan Division. They also have a 14 point cushion over the second place team in the entire conference.

The past two games for the Capitals both came against potential Stanley Cup Finals opponents, should they make it that far. The fell to the Dallas Stars 4-3, but not without a furious comeback bid after finding themselves down 4-0 entering the final frame. The Caps followed that up with a grind-it-out 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. Both the Stars and the Kings lead their respective divisions, so these were a pair of measuring stick games that certainly looked the part of playoff games at times.

At this point, while the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff picture takes shape, we would like to take a very early look at who the Washington Capitals could be facing in round one of the postseason.

matchups-team-WSH

(Prediction/Image via Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) at hockeyviz.com)

Looking at the top-five teams in terms of probability, it appears that the Capitals are more likely than not to face one of several very familiar opponents. The most likely opponent, as of February 17, is not one that many would expect.

While the Carolina Hurricanes currently find themselves out of the playoff picture, they have hung in there all season despite having an anemic offense. Though they may turn out to be sellers at this year’s trade deadline, they could be a scoring forward or two away from really asserting themselves.

Much like the New Jersey Devils, who hold the third highest probability of a first round matchup with the Capitals, the Canes shouldn’t be giving up young assets or draft picks trying to win now. Their time will come in the future. You can throw the Philadelphia Flyers in this group too. Without making big time acquisitions, do these three teams really have the firepower to keep up with the other teams grouped around them for the stretch run?

The two teams to really keep on eye on, however, should be the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders. After the Pens canned Mike Johnston, the team has seen quite a resurgence under new coach Mike Sullivan. Sidney Crosby is being Sidney Crosby again, and if the team can upgrade their defense at the trade deadline, would be a scary team to go up against in the first round.

A matchup with the Islanders would make it two consecutive first round battles between the two clubs. The seven game series last postseason was a joy to watch, though the Washington Capitals are arguably much better than they were last season. The Islanders have struggled with inconsistency this year, but possess the talent to be make a run nonetheless.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are also a very possible matchup for the Capitals in round one. The Bolts are another team plagued by inconsistency this season. They have hovered around the bubble just about all season long, and have no shortage of distractions surrounding the team. The biggest distraction, of course, involves whether these will be the last few months of Steven Stamkos in Tampa, though the organization vowed that they would not trade him at this year’s trade deadline.

Basically, the Lightning will be on that bubble until the end it appears. My guess is that they overtake the Devils for the final Eastern Conference wild card spot. They just have too much talent not to make the playoffs.

My bet is on the Washington Capitals facing either the Penguins or the Lightning in round one. There are still a lot of things that will happen between now and mid-April, and it could all come down until the very last day of the season.