Saturday, April 7, 2012

Looking at Possible First Round Matchups

So the Caps have clinched a playoff spot with the win over Florida and a Buffalo loss. Now what? Can a team that still has no identity, no set lineup, and is very likely being forced to roll with their AHL goalie tandem due to late injuries have a shot at surviving the first round? Well, as all Capitals fans SHOULD know by now, the NHL playoffs might as well be a whole separate season. Playing styles change, and team matchups matter a lot more when you have to see the same players and coaches for as many as seven games in a row. Adjustments and style adaptations are made more rapidly than the regular season. It helps to have a leg up on the other team to start a series, whether it's a morale issue or your players' strengths simply match up best against the other guys'.

Look back to Montreal for that lesson: the Habs were one of the few teams that Washington struggled against (read: at all) during the 09-10 season. A combination of an unconscious goaltender and incredible shot-blocking by the Canadiens led to an historic upset in the first round. Matchups, people, that's where I'm going with this. In 09-10, the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference lost in the first round, and the 7th and 8th seeds ended up playing to see who would go for the Cup. Nothing is guaranteed, and home ice can mean zilch if another team has your number and knows how to beat you. When it's all said and done, you can really only get one extra game at home, and the advantage is all about whether you win the first two games and crush the visitors' souls in the process. With all that said, before Saturday's plethora of action, here are your possible first round matchups:
  • 1st seed Rangers vs. 8th seed Capitals (1-2-0, 70 SF, 93 SA, 9 GF, 10 GA, 12.5 PP%, 91.7 PK%):

    Obviously the season series has yet to be decided, but this is your most likely matchup, as it will occur if both Ottawa and Florida get at least one point in their final games. And really, the numbers don't look too bad. Yes, the Caps did lose two of the three games, but despite being outshot by 23, the Rangers have only scored one more goal than our boys in red. The special teams numbers also favor the Caps, and with Backstrom and Green both healthy, the good news there could keep up. Throw in the fact that the Caps defeated the Rangers in five games last year, and seven two years before that, and you begin to see that things are a bit more even than they appear. History absolutely matters in the playoffs. Mental toughness goes a long way, and knowing that a lot of the guys you're playing against were directly responsible for your mid-April tee times two of the past three seasons will weigh on you. The final game of the regular season could just be the beginning of a best-of-eight rather than a best-of-seven. I honestly believe the Caps could win in six games, barring any further injuries to key players.
  • 2nd seed Bruins vs. 7th seed Capitals (3-1-0, 112 SF, 123 SA, 13 GF, 12 GA, 16.7 PP%, 87.5 PK%):

    If the Caps win their last game, the Panthers get a point, and the Senators lose in regulation, this will be your matchup. Despite what I have been seeing for the past 24 hours, I think this is absolutely the best possible matchup for this year's team. The Caps have had Boston's number for years now. Tim Thomas' career numbers against the team may be impressive (14-5-3 with a GAA of 2.46 and a .923 save % in 23 games vs. the Caps; h/t to Japers' Rink for the numbers), but he is 6-4-2 over the last four seasons, including his 3-0-0 record in his record-setting season last year. Our secondary scorers match up very well against this team, most notably Mathieu Perreault, who recorded his first career hat trick against Boston and Thomas in a 5-0 rout. They may be last year's Cup champions, but that doesn't always hold a lot of sway. Again, I think the Caps could win this in six, but having Holtby in net (who I'd still rather have in net any day than the league's 10th-worst goalie in Neuvirth) coupled with the Bruins 7-2-1 record in games 72-81 obviously has me a bit worried. But so does this whole season. Even still, I'd rather see this matchup in the first round rather than...
  • 3rd seed Capitals vs. 6th seed Devils (1-1-2, 85 SF, 100 SA, 8 GF, 13 GA, 0 PP%, 88.9 PK%):

    Should the Capitals defeat the Rangers and Florida loses to Carolina in regulation, the Caps will squeak out another Southeast Division title and claim the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Their opponents in this scenario will be the New Jersey Devils, a team against whom they have their second worst goal differential (Buffalo outscored the Caps by eight goals this season), and have failed to cash in on 14 power play opportunities. They are the only team in the East that the Caps have failed to score a powerplay goal against, although both teams have scored once while shorthanded. Johan Hedburg allowed two goals against on 40 shots in 125 minutes of ice time against DC, and likely starter Martin Brodeur... well, he is Martin Brodeur. Parise is playing for a huge contract in the offseason, and Kovalchuk will want to show up his fellow Russian stars. The Devils got better against the Caps as the season went on, losing the first game 3-1, then winning in two shootouts before shutting out Washington completely 5-0 last month. While this could have the makings of a fantastic playoff series, with the last minute division champs in Washington playing against the highly skilled and well-decorated Devils and Russian superstars as far as the eye can see, not to mention the home ice advantage Washington would enjoy, I have a feeling Ovechkin and company would be breaking out their clubs after just five games. I just do not see a lot of upside to this series. Home ice advantage can be nice, but like I said, it's all about matchups, and this just looks like an ugly one to me.
So, what is a team to do? Jumping up in the standings requires outside help and a win against the top seed, and you have to think that the Rangers would rather face slumping Florida or Ottawa than Washington. The Panthers and Senators are the only teams with double-digit overtime losses in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and taking longer to lose in the playoffs gets you sent packing just as quickly. In fact, the Caps have more regulation and overtime wins than Florida, Ottawa, and New Jersey. Ottawa plays before the Caps and Rangers, and Florida gets going a half hour after the puck drops at Madison Square Garden. Scoreboard watching will be rampant, and may decide if one or both coaches consider playing their B-squads at some point during the game. Because it's all about matchups, folks.

Shameless plugging time! Before the Caps played the Panthers the other day, I recorded my first-ever podcast with my friend Pamitha for his fantasy sports site The Fantasy Brokers. Nothing says vanity like saying "Hey, listen to me talk for 45 minutes!" So for those of you who want to hear me discuss my blog and thoughts on key players from the 2011-2012 NHL season and what is going on with the Caps, if you have secretly wondered what I sound like on the phone, or if you just want proof that I actually have a friend, check out his site and our podcast.

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