The Capitals officially begin Phase 2 of the NHL's return to play plan on Thursday, marking the biggest step yet towards the resumption of the NHL season. MedStar Capitals Iceplex will be open to players for voluntary on and off-ice activities provided groups are limited to no more than six players at a time. We may still be a ways off from playoff hockey, but players are back on the ice and we have a playoff format already set. With that in mind, it is time to start looking ahead to what may happen in the postseason.
The 2020 playoffs are going to be impossible to predict because it is all unprecedented. We just don't know how teams are going to look when they come back to play and that includes the Caps. Here are a few reasons why the pause to the season could help Washington and a few reasons why it may hurt.
Why the pause could help the Caps:
The team was really struggling
Since Feb. 1, Washington had the 27th best record in the league by points percentage. That is abysmal. Only once during that time -- a stretch that included 17 games -- did they string two straight wins together. They were struggling and likely would have lost their spot atop the division to the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers.
The season officially paused on March 12 meaning we have not had hockey for three months. The earliest we could see the season resume is August and even that could be a stretch at this point. There will be at least five months between games when the puck finally drops. That is basically an entire offseason. There will be no carryover at all for any team, good or bad. The Caps aren't in a funk anymore, it's a clean slate.
Washington is a veteran team in which rest could be beneficial
Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, Braden Holtby, Ilya Kovalchuk, T.J. Oshie and Alex Ovechkin are all 30 years or older. Those are players with a lot of miles and the extra break could prove to be beneficial for them.
Don't forget, in 2019 this team completely ran out of gas against the Carolina Hurricanes in just the first round of the playoffs after winning the Cup the year before.
The coaches have had time to figure out the power play
For the season, the Caps rank 17th on the power play at 19.4-percent. Not terrible, but that number hides how horrendous the extra-man unit was as the season went along.
Since Dec. 1, the Caps' power play ranked 30th in the NHL at 15.5-percent, worse even than the lowly Detroit Red Wings. A team that boasts offensive talent like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana should not be struggling to score on the power play. Period.
Figuring out how to fix the power play was a major struggle for the coaches in season. We saw a few minor tweaks, but nothing really seemed to make much of a difference and it felt more like grasping at straws than a real fix. This pause to the season has given the coaches plenty of time to figure out what ails the power play and how to fix it. Add in the fact that there will be a training camp when the team returns where they can work on it and there is no excuse for the power play to pick up where it left off when play resumes.
The Caps can climb in the standings
Washington was going to drop to second in the Metropolitan Division behind Philadelphia. Even if it didn't, the Caps had no shot at catching Boston for the top spot in the conference. Now they do.
The round-robin tournament offers Washington the opportunity to climb to as high as No. 1 in the standings or drop to No. 4. Considering they would probably have dropped to No. 4 anyway, there is nothing for the Caps to lose. Add in the fact that the teams will reseed at the end of each round and there is a real bonus to trying to take the top spot in the round-robin.
The first games Washington plays won't be do-or-die
It sounds as if each team will get some exhibition games before the real postseason begins, but after that 16 of the 24 teams remaining will be immediately thrust into a best of five play-in series. When you are still working out the rust, that is a tough position to be in. Yes, every team is in the same position, but there are going to be eight teams eliminated from the play-in round who will feel like they did not even have a chance to get up to speed as a team or play their best hockey.
The first three games the Caps will play are the round-robin games. While there is an obvious benefit to doing well in that round-robin tournament, ultimately they will be in the playoffs regardless of whether they go 3-0 or 0-3.
Why the pause could hurt the Caps:
Their first playoff series will be against a team that already won a playoff series
The catch-22 for the top seeds is that, yes, they will not have to immediately play in a do-or-die series right out of training camp, but all of them will have to play a team in the first round that just won a series. Unless the round-robin is ultra-competitive to the point that it mimics a playoff series, which it won't, then there is no way the top seeds will go into those first series up to speed with their opponents.
Ovechkin was hot
In the last 10 games before the pause, Ovechkin had eight goals and 10 total points. Extend that out to 20 games and he had 17 goals and 20 total points. It really seemed that Ovechkin had found his groove when things stopped. Will he be able to pick up where he left off or will the 34-year-old captain start to look like a 34-year-old?
Holtby has dealt with slow starts recently
Holtby's numbers have not been great the past few seasons and those stats are really hurt by his slow starts. in 2018, Holtby had a .888 save percentage and 3.41 GAA in the month of October. In 2019, he had a .888 save percentage and 3.11 GAA in October. Those numbers rebounded considerably over the course of the season, but a bad month when the season resumes will likely mean the end of Washington's season.
The start of Phase 2 on Thursday will mark the first time Holtby will even have the chance to get on the ice, let alone face shooters. He has to be ready to go when the playoffs start or it will be a short postseason for Washington.
Boston is a veteran team too
While the time off will be good for a veteran-heavy team like Washington, the same could be said for Boston which just so happens to be the best team in the NHL. If the Caps had one advantage over the Bruins it was the fact that they had a long offseason. Washington exited in the first round in 2019 while the Bruins went all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. But that's not something players like Patrice Bergeron (34), Zdeno Chara (42), Jaroslav Halak (34), David Krejci (33), Brad Marchand (31) or Tuukka Rask (32) will have to worry about now after several months to rest.
The Caps don't seem to like day games
This has been an issue for Washington for a few years now as they really don't seem to like messing with their routine, or at least messing with their body clock's routine. In games that started before 7 p.m., Washington was 7-5-1 this season. That's not bad, but two of those games were actually at 7 p.m. ET and were actually only day games because they happened before that in local time. Both of those games were wins for Washington so if you take those out, the Caps were really only 5-5-1 in day games.
With the entire conference converging on a hub city, the early rounds especially are going to have to feature a large number of day games just to fit them all in. How will Washington handle those games?
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Why the NHL's pause could help or hurt the Capitals originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington