The Caps’ Best Path to the Stanley Cup Final

WASHINGTON – It is that time of year again. The Capitals have another Presidents’ Trophy under their belt and are set for the Stanley Cup playoffs next week against an opponent still to be determined.

Whoever the Caps play – Ottawa, Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay, the New York Islanders – is almost irrelevant. They are superior to all five teams and have proven that repeatedly throughout the regular season. You could pick an upset if you wanted. They aren’t unprecedented in the NHL and Washington fans know that better than anyone (see 2010’s seven-game series vs. Montreal). But the Caps will be heavily favored in the first round.

One caveat: The Lightning and Islanders are technically still alive, but would need to win their final two games this weekend and hope the Maple Leafs gain no more than one point. It’s possible, but not likely. Boston and Ottawa are already in the postseason. Here is Washington’s most realistic – and advantageous – road to the Cup final along with a ranking of the top contenders other than the Caps to win the Eastern Conference.

First round

Toronto – assuming it doesn’t choke this weekend. The Leafs play at home against Pittsburgh and Columbus, but both teams are in the postseason already and have nothing to play for. There is some risk here. Toronto has a young talent base to rival any team in the league. Rookie forward Auston Matthews (39 goals) and Mitch Marner (61 points) have been brilliant in their age-19 seasons and second-year pro William Nylander (60 points) is right there with them at age 20. Mike Babcock has won a Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals as a coach. But it’s not the Leafs’ time yet. The defense isn’t deep enough and the Caps would relentlessly exploit favorable matchups as they did in a 4-1 win in Toronto on Tuesday.

Second round

There isn’t much choice here. It’s either Columbus or Pittsburgh, two of the four best teams in the NHL this season. It’s a terrible playoff format for the league, but which do you choose if you’re the Caps? The Penguins.

Yes, the demons are there. Time and again Pittsburgh has been better than Washington in the postseason, including last spring in six games. But there wasn’t much difference between the Penguins and Blue Jackets in the regular season in 2016-17. Now add in the injuries: Top defenseman Kris Letang (herniated disc) is gone for the year. That was announced on Wednesday. Meanwhile, star center Evgeni Malkin (upper-body injury), third-line left wing Carl Hagelin (broken foot) and defenseman Olli Maatta (broken hand, surgery Feb. 17) are still out. All are expected back for the playoffs and defenseman Trevor Daley (Feb. 23 knee surgery) returned on Thursday. But the Caps would love to see a wounded Pittsburgh.

Eastern Conference final

If Washington finally makes it to this round, it could see anyone. Montreal won the Atlantic Division, but has a tough first-round series against the New York Rangers. Ottawa probably isn’t a realistic bet to win two series to get here. The Boston Bruins, though, absolutely could and that would be a better matchup for the Caps than either New York or Montreal.

Boston fired coach Claude Julien on Feb. 7. Since then it is 18-7-1 under interim coach Bruce Cassidy. But Washington has also owned the Bruins in recent years. The Caps have won eight games in a row against Boston and are 11-3 in the series since 2012-13. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 with a core group that got back to the Cup final in 2013. That core group of Zdeno Chara (39), Patrice Bergeron (31) and David Krejci (30) has some miles on it. Brad Marchand (39 goals) has turned into one of the game’s top scorers, but goalie Tuukka Rask ranked 22nd in save percentage (.914) during a turbulent season. The guess here is the Bruins would be out of gas by late May.

The Eastern Conference’s top 5 contenders after the Caps

1. Columbus

Health has to be a factor here. The Blue Jackets have it better than Pittsburgh right now even without standout rookie defenseman Zach Werenski (shoulder). Plus, Sergei Bobrovsky will likely win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie.

2. Pittsburgh

Even with those injuries, the Penguins are still dangerous. Remember, Evgeni Malkin missed most of March last year, too, and Game 1 of the playoffs. Yet he was there in the end as Pittsburgh won the Cup. Reinforcements are coming just in time.

3. Montreal

The Atlantic Division winners have Carey Price (.924 save percentage) in net and that alone gives them a punchers’ chance. It’s a gritty lineup led by winger Max Pacioretty (35 goals) that hasn’t been great offensively, but whose skillset might be a better fit for the postseason.

4. New York Rangers

Whatever the reason, goalie Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t been his normal brilliant self this season (.910 save percentage, t-31st). But there is plenty of scoring talent in New York and if Lundqvist finds his form the Rangers could make a run.

5. Boston Bruins

A better blend of experience and talent than you’ll find in Ottawa or Toronto and the Bruins are streaking. Their goal differential (+24) is right there with the rival Canadiens (+27), who hired Boston’s long-time coach (Claude Julien) on Valentine’s Day a week after he was fired. Could make for an intriguing second-round series.

Follow 106.7 The Fan reporter Brian McNally on Twitter

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