Southeast Division Weekend Update: At the halfway mark, Canes set the standard

Eric Staal and Alex Semin are making some beautiful hockey these days. - Jamie Kellner (@jbk_ltd)

The Canes establish a winning identity, and the Jets continue to push through. Meanwhile, both the Caps and Lightning struggle to find consistency and confidence to give them traction in the standings. Florida's injury woes continue.

Washington Capitals

The Capitals turned up the heat this week in the Southeast putting together a three-game winstreak that had them sniffing at the cutoff for the playoffs. They are 7-3-0 in their last 10 going into today's action.

They began their recent winstreak by shutting out the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre last weekend, then staged a remarkable come-from-behind win Tuesday when they scored four unanswered goals to defeat the "Beast of the East"Boston Bruins in overtime. Alex Ovechkin and company followed that up by pouring it on with their 7-1 rout of the Florida Panthers at the Verizon Center on Thursday. Both Ovechkin and centerman Mike Ribeiro had a goal and 2 assists in that game.

After making 11 straight starts, Braden Holtby was given a day off yesterday on the Island as Head Coach Adam Oates turned to young Philipp Grubauer as the starter in goal, his first in the NHL. The more familiar backup Michal Neuvirth, who hasn't played in a month, became sick this week thus missing this seemingly rare opportunity to redeem himself with the club. Since Holtby became the clear number one in goal, the Caps have gone 8-3-0, as the 23-year old completed 3 shutouts with a save % of .935 over the span.

Despite all the promise of that three-game winstreak, the tenuousness of the Caps attempt to climb back into the playoffs became apparent when the loss to the Islanders dropped the playoff odds from 40% to 25% in a day. A little too early for hockey fans in the District to cancel travel plans for May.

On the injury front, no word (still) on when Brooks Laich (groin) will be able to play; Laich has yet to see action in 2013. Mike Green (LBI) is out too, having missed 4 games in this recent stretch. Another defenseman, veteran John Erskine left Saturday's game against the Islanders in the first period with an upper-body-injury and is described as day-to-day.

It was a quick turnaround today, with the Rangers waiting for them in DC and another early matinee. Holtby started in goal vs the Blueshirts for this match, the Capitals 24th of the season, the halfway mark. The Capitals dropped this one, 4-1. As of this morning, Grubauer was reassigned to Hershey.

With the ongoing assumption that only one team from the Southeast will be playing in the postseason, it's clear that the two games taking on the division leading Carolina Hurricanes at home and away Tuesday and Thursday are critical to the Caps push to get back in the mix. Washington dominated the last meeting between the two clubs, recording a solid 3-0 win on February 26th. Carolina is healthier now than they were at that juncture and nothing should be assumed.

The Caps finish the week in Boston Saturday, and I don't think the Bruins will get too comfortable with a 3-goal lead again.

Winnipeg Jets

The Jets made some noise this week in their swing through Florida. After an embarrassing 4-1 loss to the Panthers Tuesday, they came to Tampa Bay ready to play. They ground out a 2-1 win against a Bolts team that had been averaging over 4 goals/game on home ice - this with backup Al Montoya between the pipes.

They followed that up with a solid game in Sunrise on Friday night, taking two points more in the standings with an overtime win thanks to Dustin Byfuglien's OT winner that added to the goals from Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler.

Winning two of three against divisional opponents was the key to staying at second place in the Southeast this week. The Jets schedule is packed in March, with 12 games in next 21 days. They have four games this coming week, playing today in New Jersey, then home against the hot-and-cold NY Rangers, and twice versus a confident Toronto Maple Leafs team. Next Sunday they're in Ottawa.

No team in the Southeast has been as up-and-down as the Jets, but their recent success may mean they've found their game. They continue to hang around, but the stakes are getting higher. It will be interesting if they can continue to get wins and do some damage, and maybe even sneak into the playoff mix if New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers fail to turn their seasons around. The Jets can help their cause with a win in Newark tonight.

For some quality insight on the Jets, I highly recommend this installment of our "Three Questions" series at Raw Charge this week from Jets blog boss Derek Gagnon at SBNation's Arctic Ice Hockey. Three questions with Winnipeg Jets blog Arctic Ice Hockey - Raw Charge We catch up with SB Nation's Jets 2.0 blog, asking about the Winnipeg's adjustment to an NHL franchise, Evander Kane, and leadership from the defensive corps.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Canes are the only team in the Southeast showing the requisite consistency to win the division right now. The loss of Cam Ward for 6- 8 weeks to an MCL sprain announced Monday made those who don't follow this team closely think Carolina's playoff hopes were similarly bleak. The play of Justin Peters, a 26-year-old AHL All-Star, and veteran Dan Ellis in the three games since should snuff out that talk quickly.

The Canes held on to beat the Buffalo Sabres at home Tuesday, before they were overwhelmed by Carey Price and the Canadiens in the final frame Thursday, taking a 4-2 loss. The team bounced back last night versus the struggling Devils, putting up a 6-spot on the defending Eastern Conference champions. Four points on the week were enough to keep them at the top of the division at the halfway point in the season.

The headline in Carolina continues to be the production of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty whose stat lines are making fantasy pool owners giddy. Semin earned "First Star" honors in both wins this week. On Friday, GM Jim Rutherford told the News and Observer's Chip Alexander that management is impressed with what Semin has brought to the team in this post: Ruutu could be cleared next week, Rutherford says | Newsobserver.com.

"We hope that [Semin]'s here a long period of time," Rutherford said. "We did not think of this as a passing thing. We said when we signed him that we liked him and wanted to see how he fit the team. We have been very pleased and hope to re-sign him."

Semin isn't going on record regarding his intentions either, but the Canes PR team shared the English translation of an interview with Dmitry Manakhov with Sovietsky Sport this week, in which Semin is asked about his future:

"As for the future, let’s finish this season and play great hockey. It always feels great when fans acknowledge you. Their support brings positive emotions, adrenaline rush and helps to move forward."

The other update in the N&O's story was that top-6 right wing Tuomo Ruutu might be back ahead of scheduled following January hip surgery. This bodes well for Carolina's hopes down the stretch. He should be slotted on the second scoring line with Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal - though it could still be mid-April before the hard-hitting Finn returns to the lineup.

Other injuries: Chad LaRose is out indefinitely with a concussion while minute-munching blueliner Joni Pitkanen remains day-to-day with a groin injury.

The Canes have three important Divisional games this week, facing the Capitals twice, home and away, before they head to Tampa next Saturday to see if they can get their first win of the season over the Lightning.

On the business side of the organization, the Hurricanes are selling tickets fast and furious. Hurricanes attendance jumps after lockout | NewsObserver.com Any trepidation the Carolina Hurricanes felt about the effects of the prolonged NHL lockout on their attendance has been quickly eased. The Canes are averaging 17,971 fans a game, 15th-best in the 30-team NHL. That’s 96.2 percent of the arena’s capacity of 18,680 for hockey.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning continue to tumble down the standings and with the season now half over, they sit at fourth in the Division. The last couple weeks have been nothing but trouble as they have only managed two wins in the last 10.

Much has been written here at Raw Charge in this stretch to evaluate whether it's time to panic or if the team (and it's fans) just need to weather the storm. Despite the win over the Devils Tuesday, they lost the other three games they played over this past week, including a "must-win" match they dropped by a score of 2-1 to the Jets at home Thursday.

Whether it's weak goaltending, ineffective coaching or simply bad luck, this Lightning club is missing what it takes to get the job done and playing "scared to lose" according to the League's top goal scorer Steven Stamkos last night lamenting the team's fragile mental state.

"We're not hungry to win and we're scared to lose right now and it shows," Stamkos said. "In the first 10 minutes, instead of keeping the pressure on them we are dumping the pucks into nobody. They get the momentum, come breaking out of their zone, they score, and it's a different game."

The Lightning have a couple days to re-group before they head to Sunrise for a game with the Panthers on Tuesday. Then back home to take on a resurgent New York Islanders club led by John Tavares, followed by a Saturday night game vs the Hurricanes at the Forum.

I'm wondering at what point does Bolts GM Steve Yzerman start looking to next season, and making some deals at the deadline with next year in the new Central Division (which will include the Red Wings, a team he knows very well) in mind?

Florida Panthers

Last week, I suggested that if the Panthers could win all 4 games versus Southeast division opponents this week, they might be able to think about hockey past April. Instead they went 1-2-1, taking 3 of 8 points possible. Their playoff odds dropped from .37 to .18%. That's less than 2 chances out of 1,000. So yeah.

This week the injuries kept on rolling as the club announced both Jose Theodore (knee) and then top line Centerman Stephen Weiss (wrist surgery) were done for the season. Rookie goaltender Jacob Markstrom, 23, is in the big leagues to stay, and is working to find consistency. He stopped 30 of 31 SOG from the Jets Tuesday, before giving up 2 goals on 2 shots against in Washington Wednesday night, lasting only 3 minutes before Kevin Dineen replaced him with Scott Clemmensen. The rookie was back in goal against the Jets the next night, surrendering 3 goals (of 28 shots against) in the OT loss.

Other injury updates: Kris Versteeg finally returned to action in the Friday game versus Winnipeg after a 12-game absence. Team Captain Ed Jovanovski, who has been sidelined with a lower-body injury since January, has begun skating with the team. Here's video with Dineen on Jovo's progress.

You can't say enough good things about Jonathan Huberdeau. He leads the Panthers with 12 goals and is tied with Tomas Fleischman with 17 points in 25 games. He also leads among rookies for goals scored, and should expect to be among the finalists for the Calder Trophy in June. When he's on the ice, scoring chances materialize from nothing, in a way that reminds me a bit of Jeff Skinner. If he can add some size to the lanky frame, the nineteen-year-old Huberdeau will be an exciting player for this franchise to build around.

You have to think that if the Panthers are able to add another top 2 or 3 pick in the draft this year, they should be close to having a team that competes for a playoff spot again. Of course, the NHL's realignment (expected to be approved this week) means the Cats will now be in the new Central Division next year, with the current Northeast Division teams plus Tampa Bay and Detroit. Looking at how things have turned around in Ottawa and Montreal in the last two seasons, perhaps Bowman and Dineen will find the same formula to become contenders.

Checking the Chart

Here's the graph of the season's ups and downs for Southeast Division teams from Sportsclubstats.com. Just for fun, they've added a new feature where you can see how NHL teams would look with their current records if they were playing in their new "realigned" Divisions - check that out here.

03

This Week's Standings and Schedule

(Updated 8am Sunday)

Stdgs Team Record Points

S

Mar 10

M

Mar 11

T

Mar 12

W

Mar 13

T

Mar 14

F

Mar 15

S

Mar 16

Games

played

(season)

1 Carolina 14-9-1 29

at

Capitals

vs

Capitals

at

Lightning

27
2 Winnipeg 12-11-1 25

at

Devils

vs

Maple Leafs

vs

Rangers

at

Maple Leafs

28
3 Washington 10-12-1 21

vs

Rangers

vs

Hurricanes

at

Hurricanes

at

Bruins

27
4 Tampa Bay 10-14-1 21

at

Panthers

vs

Islanders

vs

Hurricanes

28
5 Florida 7-12-6 20

vs

Canadiens

vs

Lightning

at

Bruins

vs

Islanders

29

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