(AP) Armed with playoff experience and facing a first-round opponent lacking it, the NHL-best Washington Capitals are again favored to come out of the East.
Of course, it won’t be easy.
Beyond the Capitals being in this position before and continually falling short, the path through the Metropolitan Division and rest of the Eastern Conference is a minefield. To reach the conference final, Washington would have to beat the rookie-heavy Toronto Maple Leafs and then either the Columbus Blue Jackets or defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins — and the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers are formidable on the Atlantic Division side.
“It’s still a heck of a road and teams can really heat up at this time,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Whoever comes out of the East is going to be well-deserving, and we hope that it’s us.”
Alex Ovechkin and linemates Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are clicking and the Capitals won 11 of their final 14 games. They lost seven of their last 14 games a year ago before the Penguins knocked them out in the second round.
“We definitely have improved from last year in that area,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “That was one of the areas we wanted to get better at. I think our ability to realize what we’re doing well and not well, even when we’re having success, has helped us throughout the year. I think we’ve put in the work to prepare for playoffs.”
It helped the Capitals that they had to play well to beat out the Penguins, Blue Jackets and West-leading Chicago Blackhawks for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
Pittsburgh dealt with its share of injuries down the stretch, and Columbus stumbled to the finish line with eight losses in its last 11 games. Those two teams needing to meet in the first round is one reason NBC Sports analyst Ed Olczyk thinks it’s the Capitals’ year.
“That Pittsburgh-Columbus series to me is going to be one of those where it’s going to go a long while and if it’s six games, then it’s going to feel like eight and a half or nine games,” Olczyk said. “If Washington could have their way with the Leafs fairly quickly, that six- or seven-game series might feel like 10 or 11 and end up taking its toll.”
Here are some more things to watch on the Eastern Conference side of the playoffs:
Penguins vs. Blue Jackets
The Penguins will be without top defenseman Kris Letang and no team has repeated since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. But they still have 2016 playoff MVP Sidney Crosby and more.
“The potential we have is there,” defenseman Olli Maatta said. “We can’t go out and expect anything. We have to go out and work hard.”
The first-round rivalry series also features John Tortorella facing longtime assistant Mike Sullivan a year after his good friend and former understudy matched him with one championship.
Rangers vs. Canadiens
The Atlantic Division champion Canadiens and the Rangers are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 East final that featured tensions rising and suspensions getting handed out. New York’s Chris Kreider ran into Montreal goaltender Carey Price, injuring him and knocking him out of the series. Players have long memories, so expect it to be another physical series.
Maple Leafs vs. Capitals
The Capitals aren’t the perfect opponent for Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs’ first playoff series. Toronto has nine players who haven’t played in an NHL playoff game, but coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want anyone to wade into games this time of year.
“If you want to dip your toe into the water you’re going to find out its boiling,” Babcock said. “You might as well just jump in. Run down the dock and just jump right in.”
Bruins vs. Senators
Coming off shattering his career high with 85 points — and being suspended for spearing — Brad Marchand will have to be the key if the Bruins make a run. The suffocating Senators are up first and have home ice, but if Marchand can get on a roll and pile up the points, Boston won’t be an easy out for anyone.
From the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin to the Senators’ Marc Methot, Bruins’ Brandon Carlo and Canadiens’ Alexei Emelin, there are plenty of injury situations to watch. Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said he’s “optimistic” about Malkin being ready, while Ottawa, Boston and Montreal will likely at least begin the playoffs without an important defenseman.