As I write this, the Washington Capitals sit atop the NHL’s Eastern Conference with 106 points from 74 games. 106 points earned is more than any other team in the NHL, and the Capitals +75 goal differential is the best in the NHL as well. The Capitals have been the most impressive team so far in the regular season, but the question remains: how will they fare in the playoffs?
Well, last year, the Capitals had a slightly better regular season statistically than this year, with 120 points in 82 games. That Capitals team lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in six games. Other Ovechkin-led Capitals teams, in the past 10 years, have looked promising but have also disappointed in the playoffs.
If the Capitals can hold on to first place in the Metropolitan division, they will get to play the eight-seeded team, the worst team in the East to make the playoffs. However, if the Capitals lose the top spot in the Metropolitan, to either Pittsburgh or Columbus, the Capitals would have to play either Pittsburgh or Columbus, depending on which team finishes lower. This scenario would set up a challenging first round for the Capitals, which could see them eliminated very early.
Regardless, the Caps will almost certainly play the winner of the Penguins-Blue Jackets series in the second round, as long as they avoid them in the first round. While both teams are having excellent seasons, I see the Penguins’ playoff experience being too much for the surprisingly strong Blue-Jackets.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins’ veteran squad would defeat Columbus, if they play in the first round.
This would set up a Capitals-Penguins rematch from last year’s second round series. However, instead of losing in six games, I see this slightly more experienced Capitals team pushing the Penguins to a Game 7.
If the Capitals have the home ice advantage, which they likely will, I see the Capitals winning a Game 7 against the Penguins at the Verizon Center. With another season under his belt and possessing an uncanny ability to score or set up goals at critical times, Evgeny Kuznetsov would be the difference maker in this match-up.
If the Capitals can get past the incredibly talented Pittsburgh Penguins, they will have to face a team like the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers or Ottawa Senators, in the Eastern Conference Finals. While these teams have quality offenses, defenses and goalkeeping, none of them have enough quality to beat the Capitals in a seven-game series. The Capitals have had one of the top offenses, as usual. But what makes this Capitals team hard to beat is their defense and Braden Holtby’s goalkeeping. So ultimately, I see the Capitals making it to the Stanley Cup Finals this year for the first time since 1998. But, I should mention that in the NHL, a team with a hot goalkeeper or just great momentum can knock off a superior team; I’m sure I’m not the only Caps fan that still has nightmares of Jaroslav Halak, in a Canadiens jersey, saving shots that seemed to be already past him, back in 2010.
OK, maybe I’m the only one.
However, in the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals, I predict the Caps will fall to a strong Western Conference team, like the Chicago Blackhawks or Minnesota Wild. Even though the Capitals are arguably the best team in the NHL, they will be exhausted after playing against tough opponents in long six or seven game series against the East. In addition, the Western Conference is top heavy, and the team that makes it to the Stanley Cup Finals will likely be relatively well rested. But the Caps won’t get swept like they did in 1998; they will push the Finals to six or seven games, hopefully.
Final Prediction: Chicago Blackhawks defeat Washington Capitals after six games in the Stanley Cup Finals.