Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Playoff Carousel

When the buzzer sounds on the third period of tonight's bout, the Capitals will have played 72 games of 82 regular season games. With 10 scheduled games left, the Caps have already locked themselves in for a slot in the postseason.

Boston and New Jersey have already locked in their playoff slots as well, and barring any disastrous meltdowns or slumps the Caps are pretty much playing for second place right now. It's possible the Caps could go on a 10-0 run to take first, but considering the Devils have 93 points and three games in hand on both the Bruins and Caps, it's not likely.

For the teams ranked fourth to eighth, who they will play will come down to the last game of the season, which might put the top slotted teams at a disadvantage as they may not get the matchup they were hoping for.

So exactly who should we be rooting for as the season winds down? And which matchup would be the most advantageous for the Capitals? Let's take a look at current seeds four through nine to break it down.

Currently #4: Philadelphia Flyers (84 points)
Season series: 2-2
Why we want them: Revenge. The Capitals would likely be motivated by the first round exit the Flyers handed them last year, and in both 2-1 wins the Capitals matched the Flyers' muscle and controlled those games.
Why we don't want them: While the Capitals did have two impressive 2-1 victories, their 7-1 loss and 4-2 loss make it hard to recommend the Flyers are a first round foe. The Caps have had a Jekyll and Hyde season against the Flyers, and if the wrong Caps team shows up to play it could be another early exit.
CK's Take: We're rooting for the Pens and Flyers to stay put in the fourth and fifth slots. We'd love nothing more than to see the two evils kill each other off a rematch of last year's Conference Championship in the first round.

Currently #5: Pittsburgh Penguins (82 points)
Season Series: 3-1 (SO loss)
Why we want them: The Capitals have downright dominated the Pens this season, and even in their only loss they managed to steal a point.
Why we don't want them: History. The Pens have downright dominated the Caps in postseason play, even when the series is in the Caps favor. The Pens are hotter than they've been all season thanks to their new coach and deadline acquisitions, making Pittsburgh one of the deadliest first round teams.
CK's take: This Caps team is talented enough to dispatch the Pens, but given the history between the two clubs it's best to avoid troubled waters until you absolutely must ford them.

Currently #6: Montreal Canadiens (80 points)
Season Series: 3-1 (SO loss)
Why we want them: The Canadiens somewhat resemble Ottawa of last year. A talented team that started the season hot and then hit some major bumps as the season wound down. The Caps have had a great deal of success when playing the Habs, and their only regulation loss was a one-goal game.
Why we don't want them: It's their 100th anniversary as a team, so you know the motivation to perform well in the postseason is there. Outside of the Caps' 3-0 shutout in November, games with the Canadiens have been determined by one goal or the shootout. The Caps aren't necessarily dominating the Canadiens, and a few bad breaks for Montreal got the season series to where it is.
CK's take: The Habs won't be the easiest matchup out there if they manage to stay in the playoff race. They have their 100th anniversary, a new coach, and playoff-experienced team to their credit, although their recent slides make them vulnerable. It's a favorable matchup, but given how well the Panthers, Canes and Rangers are playing, there may not be enough room for the Habs in April. Also, keep this equation in mind. Alex Ovechkin + hockey's largest stage = Great success.

Currently #7: New York Rangers (80 points)
Season Series: 3-1 (SO loss)
Why we want them: A shutout, a come-from-behind victory, a one-goal game and a SO loss. Not bad considering the Rangers have one of the best goaltenders in the world (Henrik Lundqvist) and the Caps' big wins over the Blueshirts came on the road. Much like the Canadiens, the Rangers started hot and now are on the brink of making tee times.
Why we don't want them: The Rangers fired their coach and brought in John Tortorella, the man who authored the Tampa Bay Lightning's Stanley Cup run. The Rangers also have Henrik Lundqvist, a world class goaltender.
CK's take: The Caps have one of the best power plays in the league, and the Rangers have one of the most bone-headed agitators in the league in Sean Avery. I think you see where I am going with this one. If the Rangers manage to stay in the playoff race, this is one of the best matchups for the Caps. This applies too: Alex Ovechkin + one of hockey's largest stages = Great success.

Currently #8: Carolina Hurricanes (79 points)
Season Series: 3-2 (one game remaining)
Why we want them: They're a divisional opponent that the Caps are familiar with. The Caps have had dominating performances against the Canes, and of the two losses to Carolina one came on the heels of a back-to-back set of games and the other during a four-game slump. Let's not forget Alex Semin's year-long harassment of Carolina: He has 13 points in four games against the Canes (6 goals 7 assists).
Why we don't want them: Goalie Cam Ward has been solid for the Canes, and the re-acquisition of Erik Cole brings back another veteran from their Stanley Cup winning team. There's also the issue that the Canes are just as familiar with our system as the Caps are with theirs. With a maximum of 13 games that could be played by the two clubs, sometimes it's best if your opponent isn't someone you see six times a year.
CK's take: The Canes haven't been a problem team, and when the Caps are on their game they outmatch Carolina. Many consider the Southeast Division to be a "cupcake" division, but the Capitals' worst record against Eastern Conference divisions is from, you guessed it, the Southeast. We wouldn't mind this matchup, but we'd prefer the Rangers or Canadiens.

Currently #9: Florida Panthers (78 points) On the outside looking in
Season Series: 2-2 (2 games left)
Why we want them: If the Panthers make the playoffs, they'll be one of the most inexperienced teams in postseason play. That doesn't mean they'll be bad, it just means they'll need to be quick learners like the Caps were in last year's playoffs. The Caps, already scarred from one playoff exit, have the advantage of being the "old pros" in this matchup.
Why we don't want them: Once again, they're a Southeast Division opponent who are familiar with the Caps and have authored some big wins over the Caps (6-2, 5-3). They have one of the best two-way goaltending duos in the league, and if they manage to surge into the playoffs with a streak of wins they'll likely carry that momentum into the postseason.
CK's take: Florida reminds me a bit of the Caps last year. They're a talented team that will need to play near-flawless hockey if they want to make the postseason, which could exhaust them when the puck drops in the postseason.

So, who've ya got? Are there any matchups you'd like other teams to have? Is there another reason you'd want to see or miss a certain team?

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