|Will the Caps see a rematch of 2009 in the first round?|
Carolina: Probably the team that the Capitals are least likely to face in the first round, the Southeast Division rival Hurricanes have played Washington tough all year. The Caps are 5-0 against them this season, with one more game to go, to be played March 29th at Verizon Center. However, four these games have been one-goal affairs that came down to the wire. The Hurricanes' strength is in goal: Cam Ward is a stud has a history of playoff success, most notably a Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup ring as a rookie in 2006. Superstar captain Eric Staal and rookie Jeff Skinner provide punch up front, but the Carolina offense is not fearsome, and the defense is very weak, especially with the diminished play of Jamie McBain. Verdict: Fine. Carolina presents no matchup problems for the Caps on paper, and likely will be gassed if they make the playoffs.
Buffalo: Like the Hurricanes, the Sabres are relevant for one reason: Ryan Miller. The hero of the 2010 Olympics is among the best in the league and even though he has had a down year still is capable of getting hot at any time (like he is now). The Caps are 2-0-1 against Buffalo this year, with one more game to go on April 2nd at Verizon. The Sabres are missing their best forward (Derek Roy) and after the news broke Sunday that star defenseman Jordan Leopold will miss at least the end of the regular season with a broken hand, they are a lot less intimidating. Verdict: Meh. Ryan Miller is scary, but the loss of two of their top players will likely prove too much for Buffalo to overcome.
Montreal: Three words: One man show. All season, the Canadiens have relied on star goalie Carey Price to remain relevant, and they are going to ride into the playoffs on the shoulders of their young netminder. Are you sensing a theme here with these teams? The Capitals are 3-0-1 against the Habs this season, including two impressive wins at the Bell Centre this month. Montreal is missing three of their top five defensemen to knee surgery in Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, and Jaroslav Spacek, and none of them are expected back this season. Their top forward, Tomas Plekanec, is playing hurt, and something has been off with Mike Cammalleri all season. Verdict: Nervous. While the Habs provide few matchup problems on paper, Carey Price has been able to carry this team all season. Why should the playoffs by different? Oh, and then there's, well, yeah. Let's not go there.
New York: The Rangers are by far the most complete hockey team that the Capitals could potentially face in the first round. They have two solid forward lines with some skill, they have an excellent defense that blocks shots, and they have one of the best (and hottest) goalies in the entire NHL in Henrik Lundqvist. Then, there's the fact that the Capitals are 1-2-1 against the Rangers this year, and both regulation losses have been utterly humiliating: 7-0 and 6-0 shutouts. New York is really rolling as of late, too, and will for sure be the hottest team entering the playoffs in the East barring an epic collapse. Verdict: Be afraid. Be very afraid. (This is not an earth-shattering assessment.) The Rangers present matchup problems up and down the board, most notably Marc Staal on Alex Ovechkin, and have found ways to exploit the weaknesses of the Caps all season. They don't score much, but they don't need to, they grind everything out. And then there is Lundqvist. Ruh-roh.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs start April 13th. Who do you not want to see on opening night? Drop a comment below.