NHL Playoffs: Breaking down the Capitals' competition in the Wild Card race

Breaking down the Caps' competition in the Wild Card race originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The Wild Card race in the Eastern Conference is shaping up to be one of the NHL’s tightest battles for playoff spots this season. After the Capitals entered the All-Star Break with a three-point lead over the rest of the field for the top spot, several of the teams behind them have made up ground during Washington’s bye week.

Entering play Wednesday, the Capitals hold the top Wild Card spot with 60 points in 53 games played. Four other teams remain in the hunt: Pittsburgh Penguins (59 points, 50 GP); New York Islanders (59 points, 54 GP); Buffalo Sabres (56 points, 50 GP); Florida Panthers (56 points, 53 GP). With the Penguins, Islanders and Panthers all slated to play over the next two days, the Capitals could find themselves outside the playoff picture entirely when they resume Saturday.

Washington will have 29 games the rest of the way to solidify its spot in the playoff bracket. Eight of those contests pit the Capitals against the other Wild Card contenders, with five at home and three on the road. So far this season, they’re 2-2-1 when facing those teams and trending in the right direction having beaten both the Islanders and Penguins in January.

Those games will be critical for the Capitals, who have spent most of the season ahead of the others in games played. While their bye week allowed the Islanders and Panthers to use up their extra games, the Penguins present the biggest threat to usurping them for the No. 1 spot. According to the sports data site Tankathon, Pittsburgh has the easiest remaining schedule among the five teams while tying the Sabres for the most games in hand.

Buffalo carries the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the NHL followed by the Capitals (ninth), Islanders (10th), Panthers (19th) and Penguins (21st). For the Capitals, they open the second half with a back-to-back against the Bruins and San Jose Sharks before playing a pair of games against the Metropolitan Division’s top-seeded Carolina Hurricanes sandwiched around a matchup with the Panthers. Their schedule lightens up through early March, but they will run through a gauntlet to close out the regular season; eight of nine games against contenders.

Seeding will be important considering the second Wild Card will likely have to face the Boston Bruins, the NHL’s leader in goal differential by a whopping 40 goals, in the first round. The second Wild Card team would then have to face the winner of the Metro, which projects to come down to either the Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils.

It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that the Capitals could catch the New York Rangers for the third spot in the Metro. New York enters play Wednesday with a four-point lead over the Capitals and three games in hand, but the two teams face off against one another three more times this season and Washington won the first matchup 4-0 in late December.

Regardless of opponent, the most important thing for the Capitals to do over the final two months of the season is win. In qualifying for the playoffs 14 out of the last 15 seasons, they’ve typically been fighting for seeding at the top rather than just a spot in the dance. With a difficult schedule and some tight competition, the Capitals must prove they’re a playoff team down the stretch.