July 25, 2014

Washington Capitals’ next six games may determine playoff fate

The two weeks leading up to the NHL trade deadline may be the most closely-watched stretch of regular season games in the NHL season, as teams jockey for position in the playoff race, front office staffs assess the health of their rosters and consider trade options, and general managers ask their coaches to showcase potential trade bait for any and all suitors.

In the nation’s capital, the disappointing Washington Capitals currently sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 61 points and have six games remaining before the 3 p.m. deadline on Monday, February 27.

Of those six games, three are against the three teams immediately above the Caps in the standings: the Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto Maple Leafs.  All three of those games are on the road, two are in Canada, and one – a visit to Toronto in both teams’ last game before the trading deadline – on national television on Hockey Night in Canada.

Washington’s other three games are at home against Montreal and on the road at Tampa Bay and Carolina, all teams mired in the bottom tier of the Eastern Conference.

All this is to say, the NHL’s schedulers have provided Washington a golden opportunity to make up ground in their own hunt for the playoffs while separating themselves from the squads breathing down their necks, all in time for general manager George McPhee to decide whether to enhance his team’s push for the playoffs or play the long game and look to next season.

According to The Globe and Mail‘s James Mirtle, Washington needs 31 points in its remaining 26 games, the equivalent of a 15-10-1 record, to make the Eastern Conference projected playoff cutoff of 92 points.  That would require the Caps to improve on their current points pace by 2.7 points, or the equivalent of an extra win and overtime or shootout loss.

Florida has been playing well over the past few weeks, winning six of its past nine, including a two-game split with Washington. Meanwhile, the Leafs and Sens, sitting just one and three points ahead of the Caps, respectively, are eminently vulnerable.

Ottawa, who many observers picked to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, have only won two of their past ten games.  Toronto is in the midst of a four-game losing streak.  The Caps have played 56 games so far this season, the Leafs 57, and then Senators 59.

Eight teams from the Eastern Conference will make the playoffs, and Washington only needs to be one of those.  There’s less stratification in the East — with no team more than nine points out of a playoff spot — than in the Western Conference, where the gap between 8th and 15th is 25 points, but the possibility of three-point games means that the Capitals are in a reasonable spot as they round into the home stretch.

Forget the top of the standings, forget the bottom of the standings.  There are only five other teams the Caps should even bother tracking: Florida, Ottawa, Toronto, the Winnipeg Jets, and themselves.  Three of those five teams will make the playoffs.  At this point in the season, everything is relative to other teams in the standings.

Washington is no longer a championship favorite, but they will be in the playoff conversation from now until early April.  More so than any other stretch during the remainder of the regular season, the team’s next six games will set the course for whether or not they earn the right to participate in the second season.

Abram Fox is the Washington Capitals Page Editor for District Sports Page.  He has been covering the Capitals from the press box since the 2007-08 season.

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