February 22, 2020

Caps in Advance: Week 26

Five months, 25 weeks, 79 games…the Washington Capitals’ entire season boils down to what happens in the last week of the season.

With three games remaining, Washington’s playoff future is still very much up in the air. Depending on how this week shakes out, the Caps could squeak into the playoffs as a 7 or 8 seed, win the Southeast Division and secure home ice as the 3 seed, or finish 9th in the Eastern Conference and miss the playoffs entirely.

While a large portion of the Caps’ possible playoff spots depends on the results earned by other teams, Washington controls its own destiny in terms of just getting into the postseason.

Any combination of four points won by Washington or lost by the Buffalo Sabres will clinch a playoff berth for the Caps. That means that the Caps could make it in without a win, if Buffalo chokes away two of its last three games, but there’s no doubt Dale Hunter’s squad would far prefer to win at least two of its final three to guarantee the playoffs on its own terms.

7:00 pm, Tampa Bay Times Forum

Washington Capitals: 40-31-8, 88 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
Tampa Bay Lightning: 36-35-7, 79 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 11th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 3-1-1

Tampa Bay was officially eliminated from playoff contention last week, but the disappointing campaign hasn’t been the fault of sniper Steven Stamkos. Sitting atop the NHL with 56 goals, Stamkos has run away with the Rocket Richard Trophy race with six goals in his past five games. Depending on how Evgeni Malkin’s final three games pan out, Stamkos could be the only player to reach the 50-goal mark in 2011-12, an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that only 12 of his 56 came with a man advantage.

Bolstering the Lightning’s recent attempts to finish the season in a respectable manner has been American-born Ryan Malone. Last week Malone netted his fourth career hat trick on Thursday night, following up two nights later with a pair of strikes against the Jets, including a gorgeous play where Malone gathered the puck at his team’s blue line and flipped it over the defender to gain a breakaway. Malone has now hit the 20-goal plateau six times in his eight-season NHL career.

7:00 pm, Verizon Center

Washington Capitals: 40-31-8, 88 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
Florida Panthers: 35-27-17, 91 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 3-2-0

All season long the Capitals have been looking up at the Panthers for the top spot in the Southeast Division. While many observers, including yours truly, expected Florida to falter at some point, Kevin Dineen has held his squad together in the face of injuries to starting netminder Jose Theodore (.920 Save%, 2.38 GAA), Kris Versteeg, Mikael Samuelsson, and erstwhile Cap Matt Bradley to keep his team at the top.

Depending on the results of Florida’s Tuesday night game against the Winnipeg Jets, this final matchup between the Caps and Cats could have Southeast Division ramifications. If Florida loses all three of its final games and no more than one of those games goes past the end of regulation, and the Capitals win out to end the season, then Washington will win the Southeast. It’s even conceivable that Florida could miss the playoffs, if the Sabres also win out in conjunction with the aforementioned scenario.

All that said, Washington would do well to just focus on taking care of its own business. The Panthers are 7-2-1 this season against its other two remaining opponents, Winnipeg and Carolina, and the Cats have gone past regulation 23 times already this season, meaning their odds of picking up at least two points in this final stretch are pretty darned good.

6:30 pm, Madison Square Garden

Washington Capitals: 40-31-8, 88 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
New York Rangers: 50-22-7, 107 points, 1st in Atlantic Division, 1st in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-2-0

The Washington Capitals’ last game of the 2011-12 regular season, the game that could make or break their playoff push, just so happens to take place on the home ice of the best team in the Eastern Conference. That same team would also most likely be Washington’s opponent in the first round of the playoffs…a round in which they’ve been eliminated in the first round in two of the past three postseasons in a dramatic seven-game series.

All that is to say, even if game 82 means nothing for the New York Rangers in the regular season standings, John Tortorella’s squad will be beyond amped up for the game. If the Caps have already clinched the 8th seed, it will be a chance for New York to set the tone going into the playoffs, and if Washington is still on the bubble, the Rags will undoubtedly cherish the opportunity to eliminate their tormentors right up front.

New York is led, as they have been for the past seven seasons, by star netminder Henrik Lundqvist (1.92 GAA, .932 Save%), the presumptive Vezina Trophy winner for this season (St. Louis’s Brian Elliott and Los Angeles’s Jonathan Quick have slightly better stars, but the former has played less than half his team’s games and the latter may not even make the playoffs). Lundqvist played well in the 2011 playoffs, allowing only 13 goals over the course of five games against the Caps, but the sting of a double-overtime loss in Game 4 of that series will undoubtedly inspire him to be on the top of his game come Saturday evening.

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