Saturday, March 31, 2012

Final Four - Looking at the Caps Last Four Games

The Capitals are making a surprising late-season push. Surprising, generally, for all the wrong reasons. Just about everyone (except me) had this year's team pegged for the top, a Stanley Cup favorite. Instead, with their 79th game of the season coming tonight against the Canadiens, they are in a tight battle for a playoff spot, courtesy of the NHL's worst division. As it stands, Washington sits in 8th place, two points out of 7th (although Ottawa has a game in hand), and four points behind third-place Florida. To make matters worse, they are tied in points with 9th place Buffalo, holding the ROW tiebreaker. This absurd reality goes to show just how lucky the Capitals have been: in a better, if not more competitive, division, things could be even worse, seeing as they only have a 11-7-4 record against their division rivals. With only four games remaining, each point is extremely important. So let's look at what is in store for them:

March 31 (Tonight): Montreal @ Washington
  •  Montreal sits last place in the Eastern Conference, and have only scored a single goal against the Caps in three games. However, they have managed to hold Washington to a lone powerplay goal in 13 opportunities, an Eastern Conference stat bested only by the 0 for 14 powerplay shutout against the Devils this season. Not to mention that season villain Rene Bourque is now on the Habs, and news came this morning that season hero Nicklas Backstrom will make his (surely triumphant) return to the lineup this evening, and there are plenty of reasons the Capitals should easily win this game. A loss here, quite honestly, would just about crush playoff hopes and any remaining morale on the team. If they can't beat the worst team in the conference, a team they have absolutely dominated, on a night their best player from the first 38 games returns... Let's just not think about it and expect a solid win.
April 2: Washington @ Tampa Bay
  • Last year's Stanley Cup Eastern Conference playoff finalists, who, as we all remember in our nightmares, swept the Caps in the second round, are in 12th place. They are nine points behind Washington, and only five ahead of Montreal. The season series record is 3-1-1. Again, there is no reason to believe the Capitals should or will lose this game, other than it has become the norm to expect the unexpected failures this season. Don't kid yourselves, though, the Lightning will absolutely be looking to play the part of spoiler. Steven Stamkos has all but locked up the Richard Trophy, and this is still a talented roster. It'll be hard-fought and close.
April 5: Florida @ Washington
  • Talk about your big games. At this point, only four possible points will remain for Washington, and two will be available against the division leading team, who, as of right now, they sit four points behind. Depending on how things play out, this could be a game to take third in the conference, setting up a first round match against either Philly (1-2-1) or New Jersey (1-1-2). A loss would just about certainly put third out of reach, assuming the previous two games have not already put them out of reach of the playoffs to begin with. They should still win this game, as the Panthers are realistically an inferior team, and the 3-2-0 record against them speaks somewhat to that fact. Special teams will likely play a big factor in the game, since the Caps are clicking in at a 25% PP conversion rate against Florida, while the Panthers are coming in with about a 21% conversion rate against Washington. Should be very exciting.
April 7: Washington @ New York Rangers
  •  Even at the last game of the season, against the likely top seed in the league, the two points will matter. Buffalo could still be tied with Washington, or even ahead. Same goes for Florida, or hell, even Ottawa. This is absolutely a playoff game, and even in the metaphorical sense. Really, this may be the first of a best-of-eight series for the Caps and Rangers, as the most likely matchup right now will be 1st seed Rangers against 8th seed Capitals. The season series is at 1-2-0, although Washington has only been outscored by one goal. This game, and a likely series, will be a lot closer than the standings and points would imply, especially if Backstrom, Green, and Vokoun are all healthy and at 100%. Semin and Ovechkin have returned to form of late. Johansson has finally been moved to the wing, and has seen his scoring increase. They only have three games before this one, but we should finally see a set lineup, with healthy players playing at their season best. Barring another injury, the Capitals really should win this one.

There is no real reason the Caps should not come out of these last four games with at least six points, if not all eight. Aside from that, they just about have to come out of these games with at least six points... if not all eight. As little faith as I have had in this team all season, and especially as of late, I feel pretty good about the next week. How about you?

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