Capitals surging as NHL regular season winds down

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Fresh off a successful five-game road trip, the Washington Capitals head into the final week of the regular season with plenty of momentum, though their first-round postseason opponent is still unknown.

Washington, which has four games left to play in the regular season, could face either the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes or the New York Rangers. The Capitals will have to start the first-round series on the road, no matter the matchup. Their next game is Sunday at home against Toronto.

Washington (44-23-11, 99 points) sits in the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. If it finishes the regular season in the same position, Washington will play Florida in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. If the Capitals can move up in the standings, either to the first wild-card spot in the East or third in the Metropolitan Division, they would either play the Rangers or the Hurricanes.

Vitek Vanecek shines as weary Capitals close road trip with win in Arizona

Each opponent has its pros and cons for the Capitals. Florida is the best team in the East, with a knack of scoring goals and a veteran goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky. Washington has fared well against Bobrovsky, who can be shaky in the postseason, in years past. The netminder is 10-13-5 in 30 career games against the Capitals, with a goals against average of 3.05 and a .898 save percentage.

This season against Florida, Washington went 1-1-1, scored an average of four goals a game but gave up an average of 4.33. A playoff series between the two teams would likely be a high-scoring affair, with all eyes on the goalies.

Washington still has two inexperienced netminders with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, neither of whom has won a playoff series. Both goaltenders have shown flashes of No. 1 starter potential, but neither has been able to grab the reins. Vanecek recorded his fourth shutout of the season Friday night in a 2-0 win against the Arizona Coyotes.

Samsonov looked like he was gaining some momentum, starting three of the first four games on Washington’s recent road trip, but appeared to give up one too many soft goals in an overtime loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.

If Washington faces the New York Rangers, it will also face a juggernaut goaltender in Igor Shesterkin. The Russian goaltender, who has recently emerged back into the Hart Trophy conversation, has been great against the Capitals so far in his short career, with a 4-1 record and a 2.22 goals allowed average.

The Rangers have looked dangerous in recent weeks and have improved immensely after the trade deadline, when they picked up Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte and Justin Braun.

Washington has only played the Rangers twice this season, splitting the series, 1-1. The Capitals and Rangers will play again on Friday at Madison Square Garden in the regular season finale for both teams. The Capitals will be coming off a game against the New York Islanders at UBS Arena the night before.

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The last postseason scenario for Washington is a first-round date with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Capitals have been solid against the Hurricanes this year, going 3-1. Their only blip was their most recent meeting in late March, a lackluster 6-1 loss.

Washington faced Carolina in the 2018-19 postseason, when young, gritty Hurricanes pushed the favored Capitals to a back-and-forth Game 7, which Carolina won in double overtime. A spirited rivalry has developed between the two teams, often highlighted by physicality from both sides.

This season, Carolina was among the early favorites in the East and looked like a team built to make a run at the Stanley Cup. However, a late-season injury to goaltender Frederik Andersen has been cause for concern. Andersen, a Vezina Trophy candidate as the league’s best goaltender, suffered a lower-body injury earlier this month. Antti Raanta is now likely Carolina’s starter for the rest of the regular season.

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