With the Capitals having now reached the halfway point of the 2010-2011 season, one can’t help but look at the NHL standings for potential first round playoff matchups. One might say the Caps are in unfamiliar territory as they sit in fifth place in the conference. The silver lining is that they trail the Tampa Bay Lightning by just one point in the Southeast division, and the Philadelphia Flyers by just three points. All this despite enduring a cruel month of December that saw the Caps lose eight games in a row. So all in all, the Caps are not in too bad a spot with 41 games remaining on the schedule.
So I will ask the obvious question. What is the importance of the Capitals winning the Southeast division? Obviously a top-three seed in the playoffs is at stake. Guaranteeing yourself home ice advantage in the first round, and likely second round of the playoffs should be motivation enough. Although, as any hockey fan will tell you, home ice advantage in the NHL playoffs is nowhere near what it appears to be on paper. One of the top four seeds in either conference lose out in the first round almost every season.
For the Capitals, winning the division means avoiding two of their greatest rivals in the first round; one of which has historically crushed the dreams of millions of Caps fans’ over the last two decades.
Consider the following:
The Philadelphia Flyers lead the Eastern Conference with 57 points. The Flyers are in the same division as the Pittsburgh Penguins, who due to the fact of playing in the same division fall to the 4th seed in the East. The Tampa Bay Lightning sit atop the Southeast division, thus are guaranteed a top-3 spot in the East. The Flyers currently sit 2nd overall. Then come the Capitals. The Caps have 54 points, two fewer than the Penguins, thus placing the Caps 5th in the Conference. With the Flyers and Penguins being the consensus favorites in the Eastern Conference, we know that either the Penguins or Flyers will likely be the 4th, or at worst 5th seed in the Conference. The same holds true for either the Lightning or the Capitals. Whoever finishes second in the Southeast will fall to either the 4th or 5th seed in the Conference. So what does this leave us Caps fans? You got it; a first round date with either the Flyers or Penguins.
If you are a Caps fan, this is a scary proposition. The Penguins were responsible for many seasons in the 1990’s coming to an abrupt halt. Although the Caps are 8-0-2 in their last 10 games against the Penguins, the playoff history between these two clubs is a far different story. For all intents and purposes the Capitals are a cursed club when it comes to playoffs matchups with the Penguins. All time the Caps are 1-6 against the Penguins. On multiple occasions the Caps held two game leads in their best of seven series. The string of bad luck this team has endured against the Pens is beyond the realm of unexplainable. The last thing any Caps fan wants is a first round date with the Penguins.
Although the playoff history against the Flyers isn’t as rich as the history with the Penguins (2-2 all-time), the Flyers are a formidable foe. And due to the playoff alignment, the Capitals could face one of the NHL’s best teams. It would be a rematch of the 2008 first round series between the two clubs. The Flyers won that series on an overtime goal by Joffrey Lupul in game 7.
A lot could change in the next 40 games. Perhaps the Rangers make a run at the Atlantic division lead and change things. Montreal or Boston could alter the playoff landscape as well. But as of right now, the Capitals are on a collision course with history all over again. One has to wonder, perhaps a first round opponent against a foe as large as Philly or Pittsburgh may just be the thing that puts this Caps team over the edge and on to bigger and great things.
Just a little food for thought.
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About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.