The Washington Capitals will have a bye into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as part of the NHL Return to Play Plan, but they expect a difficult challenge in the Eastern Conference Seeding Round Robin against the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers.
The top four teams in points percentage in each conference will play against each other once in the round-robin to determine seeding against the four teams in each conference that advance from best-of-5 series in the Qualifying Round.
“I think it’s very interesting how it could play out,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said Friday. “It could be great to watch on TV.”
The Bruins had the highest points percentage in the NHL (.714) when the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. The Lightning (.657) were tied with the Colorado Avalanche for third, the Capitals (.652) were fifth, and the Flyers (.645) were sixth.
Philadelphia was one of the hottest teams before the pause, going 9-1-0 in its final 10 games and 18-5-1 for an NHL-best .771 points percentage since Jan. 13.
“I still think those games are going to be competitive against good teams,” MacLellan said. “You’re playing Tampa [Bay], you’re playing Boston, you’re playing Philly, all real good teams. … I think it’s a fairly level playing field. It’s not perfect, but I think reasonably well, it’s good.”
With the games to be played in two hub cities to be determined — one for the 12 Eastern Conference teams and one for the 12 Western Conference teams — earning home-ice advantage might not be as big a factor as it normally is, but there will be something at stake.
“You get last shift. You get your last change,” MacLellan said. “I’m assuming that is a competitive advantage, so seeding could become important. You would want that advantage throughout the playoffs. You look at Boston, and Boston has probably earned to be a home-ice, last-change team throughout the playoffs, but they have to go through a mini-series to determine their seed … so it’s important to a certain extent.”
Before the season was paused, the Capitals believed they were well-positioned for making another run at the Stanley Cup after winning it for the first time in 2018. With forward Alex Ovechkin tying Bruins forward David Pastrnak for the NHL lead with 48 goals, and John Carlson first among NHL defensemen with 75 points (15 goals, 60 assists), Washington finished first in the Metropolitan Division for a fifth straight season.
The Capitals also felt good about their depth after acquiring defenseman Brenden Dillon in a trade with the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 18 and forward Ilya Kovalchuk in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 23.
“I feel like we have as good a chance as anybody of winning a Cup,” Washington center Lars Eller said last week. “That’s a bigger incentive and reason for us to want to play again. That window won’t last forever.”
A date to resume play has not been announced. And though the path to the Cup this season will be different because of the circumstances, MacLellan said he doesn’t believe that will make winning it less meaningful. If anything, it might be more difficult.
“Realistically, I think the championship is up for grabs with the format the way it is right now,” MacLellan said. “A lot of teams could upset other teams, and anything could happen, basically. And I think it would be entertaining, it would be compelling, and it’d be fun to watch. If you’re one of the teams that gets upset, it might not be as fun. But it could be wildly entertaining.”