Now that the Capitals have locked up the Southeast Division and will begin the Stanley Cup playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the East, who will they face in Round 1?
If the playoffs started today, it would be the sixth-seeded New York Islanders, who have won two of three against the Caps this season, outscoring them 9-6.
But it could also be the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators, who have split their two games with the Capitals, handing them a 3-1 loss on Thursday night in Ottawa, their only defeat in a 10-1-0 stretch
Or the eighth-seeded New York Rangers, who are 2-0-1 against the Caps this season.
There is an outside chance the fifth-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs could fall to the sixth spot. They’ve beaten the Caps two out of three times this season, with the Caps crushing them 5-1 in their last meeting on April 16.
Capitals defenseman Mike Green is well aware the Caps do not have a winning record against any of their four possible first-round opponents.
“You could match up against certain teams you don’t do well against during the regular season,” he said, “but to be honest that doesn’t matter. When the playoffs start, it’s a battle of attrition.”
With a playoff spot clinched, the mood on the ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex was much lighter Wednesday than it was a day earlier when the team’s focus was on the Winnipeg Jets and the Southeast Division title.
“It’s a little looser after a win and that was a big win,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Now we’re locked in and it’s a good feeling. At the same time everyone knows that there’s a lot of hockey left.”
Now that the Jets are behind them and the Caps can neither move up or down in the standing, Capitals coach Adam Oates said he’s trying to keep coaching the way he has all season.
That means goaltender Braden Holtby is likely to get the final two starts of the season against Ottawa on Thursday and Boston on Saturday. He said he also expects to distribute ice time in much the same way he did on Tuesday night.
Against the Jets, the Caps’ fourth line of Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti averaged just under 11 minutes; the third line of Mathieu Perreault, Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr averaged about 14 minutes; the second line of Mike Ribeiro, Marty Erat and Troy Brouwer averaged about 15 minutes; and the top line of Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson and Alex Ovechkin averaged about 17 minutes.
“Quite honestly, I think we’re going to play the exact same way,” Oates said. “Guys are used to their minutes and your conditioning is based on that.”
The Senators have been outscored 7-2 in two losses following their 3-1 win over the Caps last week and are still fighting to clinch a playoff spot. Carlson said it’s important for the Capitals to keep playing the way they have during their 10-1-0 stretch and “not stray away” from what got them to the top of their division.
Green said the Capitals will be doing a different kind of scoreboard watching over the next five days. Because the Senators and Bruins will playing on Sunday, it’s possible they won’t know their playoff opponent until late Sunday night.
“Everybody’s got it on their apps,” Green said. “We’ll be following.”
Feeling pretty giddy: Caps right wing Eric Fehr was asked Wednesday how Tuesday night’s celebration of the Caps’ Southeast title compared to their first one in 2008.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “It felt pretty similar, just because everybody in the league has counted us out [this season] just like every team in the league counted us out back then.”