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How Washington Capitals Will Match Up with Each New Division Opponent

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIOctober 22, 2016

How Washington Capitals Will Match Up with Each New Division Opponent

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    For the Washington Capitals, the 2013-14 season will see the Caps, in many respects, return to their roots.

    The Southeast Division is no more. For the Caps, making the playoffs has been easy the past six seasons as they have just mauled the other teams in the now-defunct division.

    Those days are now over. Instead of bludgeoning the Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers  for the 2013-14 season, the Caps will have to contend with new divisional rivals who will present a much more formidable challenge.

    For all intents and purposes, the old Patrick Division has been resurrected. The Hurricanes will join the Caps in the new division, and so will the Columbus Blue JacketsNew York Rangers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils next season.

    All of these teams are good. The Islanders played the Penguins very tough in the playoffs and the Rangers eliminated the Caps in seven games. The Pens seemed unstoppable until the Boston Bruins pulled off a stunning sweep of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Final.

    The Blue Jackets barely missed the playoffs this past season while the Flyers, Devils and Hurricanes will all likely improve in 2013-14, after having an off-year during the past lockout-shortened campaign.

    Whatever this division is ultimately named, it is almost an exact replica of the old Patrick Division that existed up until the 1993-94 season. Those who do have a long memory will recall the wars involved in determining the Patrick Division champion way back when.

    This past season, the Caps went 8-10-2 against their new divisional opponents—and they did not play the Blue Jackets at all.

    Compare that to the Caps record of 15-3-0 against the Southeast Division in 2013 and the quandary becomes apparent.

    Obviously, the key to the Caps' success in 2013-14 will hinge on how well they play against their new divisional foes.

    This article will explore how the Caps match up against their seven new—yet very familiar—foes.

Carolina Hurricanes

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    Two teams from the Southeast Division are making the trek to the new division and they just happen to be, arguably, the two biggest rivals from the extinct division.

    The Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes are certainly no strangers to each other. The rivalry took on a new wrinkle this past season due to Alexander Semin's departing Washington and signing on with Carolina.

    Prior to the season starting, the Canes were a popular choice to ascend to the top of the Southeast Division. It did not happen.

    The Caps took four of five from the Canes this past season including the final three matchups of the season. The Caps averaged 2.8 goals-per-game against the Canes, while surrendering just two goals-per-game.

    How will the two rivals match up with each other in the new division? Obviously, both teams could look a bit different once the 2013-14 seasons stars. As for now, though, Washington is the better offensive team. The Caps averaged 3.04 goals-per-game this past season while the Canes averaged just 2.65.

    Both teams have some excellent scoring threats though. The Caps obviously have Alexander Ovechkin, the new Maurice Richard Trophy winner and, now, a three time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy. The Caps also got a great season from Troy Brouwer who finished 17th in the NHL with 19 goals this past season.

    The Canes got great seasons from Jiri Tlusty, who finished seventh in the NHL with 23 goals, and Eric Staal, who finished 18th in the NHL with 18 goals.

    Defensively, the Caps are quite a bit better. The Caps gave up, on average, 2.71 goals-per-game while the Canes allowed 3.31. Much of Carolina's problems took place after Cam Ward was injured back on March 3. Ward never played another game the rest of the season and his replacement, Dan Ellis, went 6-8-2 with a 3.13 goals-against-avergae and a .906 save percentage.

    Compare that with the Caps, who got better defensively as the season progressed. Mike Green led all NHL defensemen in goals scored with 12.

    As for goaltending, you have to give the nod to Braden Holtby on that front as Holtby went 23-12-1 during the regular season with a 2.58 goals-against-average and a .920 save percentage.

    On almost all fronts, unless the composition of both teams lineups change dramatically, the Caps will match up very well with the Hurricanes in 2013-14.

     

    Advantage: Washington

Columbus Blue Jackets

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    It is very difficult to predict how the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets will match up with each other as the teams have not played each other since New Year's Eve in 2011 when the Caps beat the Jackets 4-2.

    The Blue Jackets, along with the Detroit Red Wings, are the two Western Conference teams making the switch to the Eastern Conference this season. Columbus will end up joining the Caps in the new division.

    The Jackets were a rather pleasant surprise this past season. After trading away their best player, Rick Nash, to the New York Rangers, it certainly seemed like the Jackets would be in a rebuilding sort of mode.

    Instead, Columbus finished with the same amount of points as the Minnesota Wild and lost out on the final playoff spot in the Western Conference due to a tiebreaker. Still, the Wild spent tons of money on free agents and the Jackets were equally good all the way to the end.

    Columbus is a young, up-and-coming team with a ton of potential. They will be a handful for their new divisional opponents for years to come, including the Capitals.

    The goaltending battles between the new divisional rivals should be fierce. Braden Holtby, when he is on his game, is as good as they come. But this past season, and as reported by NHL.com, the Blue Jackets' Sergei Bobrovsky just won the 2013 Vezina Trophy.

    As solid as Holtby's numbers were, Bobrovsky's were even better. Bobrovsky finished the season with a record of 21-11-6, with a 2.00 goals-against-avergae (fifth in the NHL) and a .932 save percentage (second in the NHL). If there was a reason why the Jackets were as competitive as they were, then you had to look no further than No. 72 in net.

    In general, the Jackets were the better defensive team as they yielded 2.40 goals-per-game as compared to the Caps 2.71. The Jackets, however don't have a two-way threat like Mike Green, nor do they have a shot-blocker like John Carlson, although Jack Johnson was no slouch in this category with 90 blocks on the season.

    If the Jackets hope to compete with a team like the Caps though, they will need to find ways to score. The Blue Jackets averaged just 2.40 goals-per-game as compared to the Caps 3.04.

    The Jackets have the ninth most salary cap space available this coming offseason, so I expect to see them make a move or two to bolster their offense.

    For now, the Caps and Blue Jackets look to be a really close matchup. I think the Caps offensive skill and experience will give them an advantage this coming season—but it is an advantage they might not enjoy too much longer.

     

    Advantage:  Washington (Barely)

New Jersey Devils

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    We now get squarely into the divisional rivals that were rivals of the Capitals for many years when the old Patrick Division existed.

    For 11 years, the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals called the Patrick Division home. From 1982 to 1993 the Caps and Devils traded blows each and every season. The two teams were actually the least successful of the divisional competitors, as the Caps won only one regular season divisional title and the Devils never even accomplished that.

    The Devils took two of the three meetings from the Caps this past season. Still, for New Jersey, 2013 has to be considered a disappointing season after the team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals a season earlier.

    For the Devils, the season started off great. A 4-7-1 record down the stretch, though, caused the Devils to miss the playoffs completely, the second time in the past three seasons that has happened.

    Offensively last season, the Devils really struggled averaging only 2.29 goals-per-game. Compare that to the Caps 3.04 and it is easy to see why the Devils could just not maintain much momentum during long stretches of the season.

    David Clarkson was the Devils' biggest scoring threat, and he will be an unrestricted free agent on July 5.

    Defensively, the Devils were a bit better than the Caps as they only allowed 2.54 goals-per-game, as compared to the Caps 2.71. Still, the Devils do not possess an extremely good shot-blocker and some would argue that the teams lack of physicality hurt them more than anything this past season.

    In net, the ageless Martin Brodeur had another good season last year posting a 13-9-7 record with a 2.20 goals-against- average and a .901 save percentage. When you compare that to Braden Holtby, who had a 2.58 goals-against-average and a .920 save percentage, the two goalies almost cancel each other out.

    If the Devils have a big advantage it will be with respect to free agency. The Devils will have the third most cap space available and they will need all of it if they wish to re-sign Clarkson and Patrik Elias. Still, the Devils should have some money to spend on free agents this offseason if they plan on bolstering their offense—something they desperately need to do.

    For now though, the teams are pretty evenly matched and the games between the two this coming season should be closely contested affairs.

     

    Advantage:  Push

New York Islanders

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    One of the best rivalries from the days of the old Patrick Division was between the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders.

    The Islanders were members of the division since its inception and, when the Caps joined the party in 1978, it did not take long for tensions between the two to escalate.

    The Isles were far and away the more successful of the two, as New York captured the divisional title six times and won the Stanley Cup four years in a row, from 1980 to 1983.

    Once the Isles' dynasty was done, though, the Caps were more than a match for them and the two teams engaged in some epic playoff battles. Included in their history is the infamous Easter Epic, the four-overtime Game 7 won by New York in 1987, and Dale Hunter's cheap shot of  Pierre Turgeon in the closing moments of the Isles' Game 6 win over the Caps in the Patrick Division semifinals from 1993.

    This past season, the Isles returned to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and played the Pittsburgh Penguins very tough before falling in six games. Along the way, New York took two of the three meetings it had with the Caps. The Caps did not look particularly good in any of those games to be quite honest.

    The Isles are a young and definitely improving team. They are led by John Tavares, a Hart Trophy finalist. Tavares finished third in the NHL in goals with 28, just four behind Alexander Ovechkin.

    Tavares is not the only threat the Isles have. Matt Moulson also had a solid campaign with 15 goals and 44 points on the year.

    Offensively, the Isles ranked seventh in the NHL in goals scored, with 2.81 per game while the Caps were slightly better at 3.04. To me, the Isles looked to be the more efficient offense when the two teams played, but not by much.

    Defensively, the two teams were very close again. The Isles allowed 2.83 goals-per-game, while the Caps allowed 2.71. A big issue now, though, is how the Isles will respond to the loss of their best defenseman—and team captain—Mark Streit. As reported by CBSSports.com, Streit's rights were traded to the Flyers so that Philly can try and work out a deal with him prior to free agency.

    How will Streit's loss effect the Islanders? That's a good question.

    From a goaltending standpoint, Evgeny Nabokov had a fine season for New York. Nabokov finished with a record of 23-11-7 with a 2.50 goals-against-average and a .910 save percentage. For those keeping track, that means that Nabokov had as many wins as Braden Holtby, with a better goals-against-average but not quite as good a save percentage. In most ways, the two goalies look about equal.

    And the same can be said for the two teams. I am going to give the Caps a very slight edge here. I think the loss of Streit will have a bigger impact on the Islanders than they realize and that could make the difference as the two teams renew their once bitter rivalry.

     

    Advantage:  Washington (Barely)

New York Rangers

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    As if the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers needed any incentive to make their rivalry more intense, let's just throw a divisional title into the mix and see how things progress.

    Once more, we find two old Patrick Division rivals who will be thrown together again. With the Caps and Rangers, though, the rivalry has only grown more intense as of late.

    When the Patrick Division still existed, the Rangers won the divisional title twice as compared to the Caps one. The two teams met in the playoffs a few times, but none of their clashes came close to what has happened in the past few years.

    Since the 2008-09 season, the Caps and Rangers have met in the playoffs four times, including the past three seasons in a row. The Caps won the first two meetings; the Rangers the next two, both of them in epic seven-game confrontations.

    The two teams are very evenly matched and that has shown through the past two seasons where the margin for error has been very small and the difference between victory and defeat even smaller.

    The Rangers took two of the three regular season meetings this past season. Of course, the Rangers won the series that counted with a 4-3 series victory over the Caps in the 2013 playoffs, including a 5-0 thrashing in Game 7 that left the Caps scratching their collective heads.

    Offensively, the Caps seem to be the better team. The Rangers averaged 2.62 goals-per-game this past season as compared to the Caps 3.04. The Rangers were led by Rick Nash, who had 21 goals, and Derek Stepan, who had 18. Nash struggled mightily in the playoffs though, as he had just one goal and four assists in 12 games played.

    Defensively, though, the Rangers are the better team. The Rangers gave up just 2.25 goals-per-game, while the Caps surrendered 2.71. The Rangers also play a much more physical style of hockey. To make matters worse, the Rangers know how to neutralize the Caps top scoring threats, as evidenced by the job they did on Alexander Ovechkin in the playoffs this year.

    The Rangers limited the Maurice Richard and Hart Trophy winner to just one goal through seven games, a tremendous accomplishment.

    The Rangers have Dan Girardi, who loves to hit and was ranked 21st among NHL defenders with 102 hits on the season. The Caps John Erskine was pretty good in this category too as he ranked 29th with 91 hits.

    Girardi is also the best shot-blocker in the game, as he led the league with 125 blocks. But John Carlson was right on his tail with 123 blocks. Both teams are solid on defense but you have to give the Rangers the nod here.

    As for goaltending, you again have to give the edge to Henrik Lundqvist over Braden Holtby. Lundqvist has gotten the best of Holtby in Game 7 two seasons in a row. Lundqvist has a Vezina Trophy to his credit. When Lundqvist absolutely had to play his best, he shut out the high-powered Caps in Games 6 and 7. He is as clutch as it gets.

    Lundqvist led the league in wins this past season with 24, had a better goals-against-average than Holtby (2.05 as compared to 2.58) and had a better save percentage (.926 as compared to .920). In all the major categories—and in the intangible ones, too—Lundqvist has the edge over Holtby.

    A big question for New York is how they will look and play now that John Tortorella has been fired. Tortorella gave the Rangers a particular type of identity, for better or worse, and the Rangers transition to a new coach will definitely have some impact on the team.

    Several reports have surfaced, such as this one on SBNation.com, indicating that former Vancouver Canucks' coach Alain Vigneault has been hired by New York. What sort of impact Vigneault will have on the Rangers is a big question for New York heading into 2013-14.

    The two teams remain very evenly matched. Whenever they play, it is a war. But until the Caps prove they can beat the Rangers when it counts, I am giving the edge to New York in this matchup.

     

    Advantage:  New York (Barely)

Philadelphia Flyers

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    As for bitter rivals, the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers definitely resemble that remark.

    The two teams have a history with each other including several epic playoff battles. Two of them stand out in the minds of Caps' fans.

    In the 1988 Patrick Division Semifinals, Dale Hunter scored one of the most iconic goals in Capitals' history when his overtime winner in Game 7 capped a rally from a 3-1 series deficit for the Caps.

    Some 20 years later, the Caps would return to the playoffs for the first time with Alexander Ovechkin, and the Flyers were waiting for them. Ovi would help the Caps again rally from a 3-1 series deficit and force a Game 7 in D.C. Again it would take overtime to decide the issue but, this time, the Flyers would prevail.

    Since then, the two teams have enjoyed some playoff success and failure. The Flyers have been the more successful, including rallying from a 3-0 series deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in the 2010 playoffs. The Flyers would ultimately reach the Stanley Cup Finals before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.

    Last season, the Flyers took two of three from the Caps. The last win, a 5-4 overtime win for Philly, was particularly memorable, as the Flyers rallied from a two-goal deficit in the third period, tying the game with just 10 seconds remaining, and winning in overtime.

    But memorable moments for the Flyers in 2013 were few and far between.The Flyers overhauled their roster quite a bit prior to the 2013 season, and while the team showed a lot of promise, they struggled mightily to win consistently, ultimately missing out on the playoffs.

    Offensively, the Flyers were a bit more potent than some might have expected. They averaged 2.75 goals-per-game, which placed them in the top 10 offenses in the NHL. The Flyers most prolific goal-scorer was Jakub Voracek, who led the team with 22 goals. Wayne Simmonds also had a good season with 15 goals.

    On defense is where the Flyers struggled. They gave up 2.90 goals-per-game and were ranked 23rd in the NHL in this category. Despite that, the Flyers' fans have to be thrilled with the play of Luke Schenn who proved to be a physical powerhouse. Schenn led all NHL defensemen with 187 hits on the season, a full 34 hits more than his closest pursuer.

    Schenn was also an excellent shot-blocker, as he was ranked 17th in the NHL with 102 blocks on the season. No, he is no John Carlson (ranked third in the NHL with 123), but Schenn's play has to give Philly hope that its defense can improve in 2013-14.

    From a goaltending standpoint, Braden Holtby had a decided edge over Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov, ever the model of inconsistency, was great at times and not so good more often. Bryzgalov finished the season with a record of 19-17-3 with a 2.79 goals-against-average and .900 save percentage.

    Holtby had more wins (23), a better goals-against-average (2.58) and a higher save percentage (.920). Holtby was the more consistent of the two goalies and I don not expect that to change much this coming season.

    Another problem for the Flyers is that they have the least cap space available of any team in the NHL this offseason. In fact, they are about $2.5 million over the cap. While the Caps will have trouble making moves due to their own cap situation, the Flyers will be able to do even less.

    I expect the Flyers to improve this season, but I still think they are a year or two away from being truly able to make some noise. For now anyway, I think the Caps are the more balanced and better team.

     

    Advantage: Washington

Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The Washington Capitals will be reunited with so many old rivals this season. Without question, though, realignment will thrust the Caps together with their biggest rival of all on a regular basis.

    I am, of course, talking about the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    There is such history between these two teams. It is a rivalry that has actually been raging for the better part of the past quarter century. Many modern hockey fans believe that the Caps vs. Pens rivalry began with Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. That is far from the case.

    It was actually back in 1991 when the two teams met in the playoffs for the first time. The Pens easily dispatched the Caps in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games, en route to their first Stanley Cup.

    The teams have actually met in the playoffs a stunning eight times. Even more surprising is the fact that the Penguins have won the series seven of eight times. Twice they have overcome a 3-1 series deficit, and twice more they were able to climb out of a 2-0 series hole.

    The rivalry took on a new dimension in 2004 when the Caps drafted Alexander Ovechkin No. 1 overall and the Pens took his countryman Evgeni Malkin with the second pick. Then, when the Pens drafted Sidney Crosby No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft, it was game-on between these two teams.

    The two teams played one of the all-time great playoff series during the 2009 NHL playoffs and then staged one of the most memorable Winter Classic games so far in 2011.

    This past season, the Pens dominated the Caps winning all three matchups between the two teams. The first two battles were particularly lopsided.

    As for the ongoing rivalry between Ovechkin and Crosby, that should only intensify with Ovi beating out Crosby for the Hart Trophy but Crosby winning the Ted Lindsay award, the players version of the Hart Trophy.

    Regardless of that, the Caps simply do not match up well against the Pens, not at all. The Pens were the most offensively deadly team in the NHL this past season, leading the league by scoring 3.38 goals-per-game.

    You want goal-scorers? The Pens had three of the top 30 in Chris Kunitz (22), James Neal (21) and Pascal Dupuis (20).

    Crosby was tied with Ovechkin for fourth in the NHL in points, with 56. Had Malkin not missed about 17 games due to injury, you can rest assured he would have been at the top of the leader boards as well.

    To say the Pens are loaded is an understatement. With the exception of Ovechkin, the Caps simply do not have anywhere close to the offensive might of the Pens.

    Defensively, things are a bit closer. The Pens gave up 2.48 goals per game as compared to the Caps 2.71. The Pens do not have a goal-scoring defensive threat like Mike Green. Paul Martin came closest with six goals, but that is half the number Green scored even though they both played almost the same number of games.

    Brooks Orpik is one of the best hitting defensemen in the NHL, as he finished 11th in this category with 119 hits. The Pens probably need more of that this coming season, as they were bullied by the Boston Bruins quite a bit in that four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Orpik is also an excellent shot-blocker, as he was ninth in the NHL with 114 blocks on the season. Again, John Carlson is the better shot-blocker, but the gap is not quite as wide here. It is interesting to note though that in the playoffs, Martin was the best shot-blocker for the Pens.

    Goaltending, however, was an adventure for Pittsburgh in the playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury was ineffective and was replaced by Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun played as well as he possibly could, but the Pens scored no goals for him against the Bruins. As good as Vokoun was, Tuukka Rask was just better.

    During the regular season, Fleury was the better of the two with a 23-8-0 record, with 2.39 goals-against-average and a .916 save percentage.

    Braden Holtby's numbers compare quite favorably to Fleury's as he had the same number of wins and a slightly better save percentage at .920.

    All of that aside, though, the Penguins just have too much firepower for the Caps right now and the Caps do not have the defensive players, or skill level, to play the style of game the Bruins played, which is really what you have to do to beat the Penguins.

    Until that changes, look for the Pens to continue to dominate this matchup.

     

    Advantage:  Pittsburgh

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