The Washington Capitals
What’s up: The Capitals, fighting Pittsburgh and Columbus for both the Metropolitan Division championship and the Presidents’ Trophy that goes to the team with the best record in the regular season, will be in Denver to face the Avalanche on Wednesday night. They likely will have a lot at stake.
Background: Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom quietly — and I say quietly because he’s on the same team as Alex Ovechkin — is having a season that merits Hart Trophy consideration. He won’t win it, but he should be in the conversation. Going into the Capitals’ Saturday game against Arizona, Backstrom had 22 goals and 78 points. Also, the Capitals have managed to do this well with Ovechkin having what possibly could end up the worst goal-scoring season of his career. That’s relative, of course: He had 29 going into the weekend.
Frei’s take: This is highlighting one of the potential flaws in the NHL’s latest playoff format, with the second- and third-place teams in each of the four divisions matched against each other in the first round. Winning the Metropolitan Division is extraordinarily important, since the top three teams also are the three best teams in the league. The winner, likely the Capitals, will face the second Eastern Conference wild-card team in the first round. The other two will have to play each other right off the bat. That’s wrong.
Granted, you still have to win four series to hoist the Stanley Cup, and it’s never easy. But the NHL periodically has overemphasized divisions in determining early-round playoff matchups, and this reinforces how misguided that is. The league should revert to the conventional 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 matchups in each conference for the first round. The only concession to divisions would be guaranteeing division winners a one or two seed.
Under that system, as of Saturday, the Eastern Conference first-round pairings would have been Capitals (1) vs. Bruins (8), Canadiens (2) vs. Maple Leafs (7), Penguins (3) vs. Senators (6) and Blue Jackets (4) vs. Rangers (5).
Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom is having a season that merits Hart Trophy consideration. Patrick Smith, Getty Images