Southeast Division Weekend Update: Jets rise to the top

Blake Wheeler and the Jets are smiling pretty at the top of the Southeast standings. - Marianne Helm

The Jets convert three wins this week into the third seed in the East while the Canes pair of losses drop them to 8th. Meanwhile the Lightning may be forced to concede the season, as the Capitals face a similar future. In Sunrise, yet another big injury dims the chances of at least an exciting trade deadline for Dale Tallon and the Panthers fans.

Winnipeg Jets

We have a new leader in the Southeast. The Jets have earned points in six straight and have converted the 5-0-1 streak into the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Strong goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec, 60-minutes of hustle and a top-to-bottom lunchpail effort has seen these former Atlanta Thrashers earn key wins this week against the New York Rangers and twice over the Toronto Maple Leafs, including a 10-round shootout victory at the ACC last night.

Two-time Stanley Cup winner, Jets Captain Andrew Ladd gets full credit from the coach for his leadership. Ladd had 4 points in 3 games this week which gives him team-best 28 points in 28 games. Dropping the gloves with the Leafs truculent captain Dion Phaneuf in the first period Tuesday also did not go unnoticed, even if Ladd didn't win that bout (video). Other key contributions came from Blake Wheeler, who chipped in 5 points this week, with Dustin Byfuglien adding 6 points of his own.

Bluechip defenseman Zach Bogosian is healthy and contributing. "Bogo" scored the winning goal in the shootout last night - almost seems like a Bettman-era Gordie Howe hattrick when combined with an assist and a fight he initiated with the Leafs' Korbinian Holzer in the first period.

Veteran Tobias Enstrom began skating with the team this week, coming back from a shoulder injury suffered in early February. For intriguing coaching moves, note that young gun Alexander Burmistrov has been scratched all week which doesn't seem to have harmed the Jets ability to win, though may earn him the prefix "enigmatic Russian" in future Canadian press coverage.

A good write up from Pierre LeBrun shows how head coach Claude Noel frames his club's push to compete in front of the Winnipeg fans and prove to the rest of the League they are for real:

Eyeing playoffs, Jets set sights on Rangers - Cross Checks Blog | Pierre LeBrun, ESPN

"I think the honeymoon's over, I agree," Noel said. "Last year, the fans were happy to be back part of the National Hockey League, they were just happy to have a team to cheer for. Now they want more than that and they expect more than that, and I think they should. It's very clear what the fans want: They want to be proud of our team, of the way we play and perform, they want to see improvement in our game, and they want to see that we're trying. When you don't, they let you know. They're knowledgeable hockey fans, they're through the roof. But they don't expect anything less from us than what we should expect from our ourselves, to be honest."

The Jets are in Ottawa to test their mettle against the resilient Senators this evening before returning home for a four-game homestand which includes 2 games vs the Washington Capitals, followed by a Sunday match-up hosting the Lightning. Before that they face a very tough challenge in the Boston Bruins Tuesday, a good measuring stick to show the rest of the League how far they've come.

Carolina Hurricanes

After several weeks at the top of the Southeast, the Hurricanes dropped two games this week against a pair of desperate divisional opponents and now find themselves all the way down in 8th place in the Eastern Conference. The Canes' emotional win in Washington Tuesday, shutting out the Capitals 4-0, was followed up Thursday at PNC Arena with Carolina surrendering a 2-goal lead in the 3-2 loss to the same Washington club. The loss last night to the Lightning, a team they have yet to beat in three tries in 2013, closed out the disappointing week.

The line of Eric Staal and Alexander Semin continues to contribute on the scoresheet, but elsewhere chances were less common in the two losses. The powerplay is also becoming conspicuous for its ineffectiveness to produce goals. The Canes have converted just 2 of their last 21 opportunities, and this week had 11 straight chances with the man-advantage without a powerplay goal to show for it.

Some hope in sight for the Carolina club as veteran Joni Pitkanen returned to the lineup last night after missing 14 games (except one period in the middle) with a troublesome groin injury. The blueliner has been the team's top powerplay quarterback in previous seasons and may be able to heal what ails them. Similarly, Tuomo Ruutu began practicing with the team this week following off-season hip surgery, and accompanied them on this two-game weekend roadtrip. Assuming he's slotted at Jordan Staal's right wing, opposite Jeff Skinner, the trickle-down effect through the line-up will be very noticeable.

Looking ahead, the Canes are in New York Monday night to face another team desperate to get back in the playoff hunt as Tortorella's Rangers are back home from a dismal road trip and are sitting at 10th in the East. The Canes host the Panthers Tuesday and then the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, before they get a four-day break in their schedule next weekend prior to the final push in April to earn a playoff berth for the first time in four years.

Tampa Bay Lightning

With 17 days left till the trade deadline April 3rd, the Lightning are still on the fence. The solid win last night over the division leading Hurricanes breathed some life into the club that hadn't won at home in nearly a month. Still, they are at a crossroads and reports are that Steve Yzerman is not looking to deal yet.

From Monday, NHL.com - Report: Struggling Lightning not ready to be sellers - 2013 Trade Deadline "I think we are doing a lot of things the right way to win games," Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times. "Our coverage in our own zone, we're improving upon. The results aren't showing up in wins and losses, but we are hoping if we stick with the process, that will start to show -- and we are hoping sooner rather than later."

There is certainly reason for optimism in the long term view as many of the organization's minor league Calder Cup Champions are finding their way to Tampa Bay and showing they are ready for the bigs. Last night it was a group of rookies, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Cory Conacher and Alex Killorn that combined for 2 goals and 5 points in the 4-1 win. Defenseman Victor Hedman, only 22 still, was +3 with over 25 minutes of icetime earning first star honors.

With the veteran captain Vincent Lecavalier out indefinitely with a lower body concern, contributions from the youngsters have got to be encouraging for the Bolts' fans whose hopes for another glorious postseason run came crashing down as the Lightning went 5-14-1 before the win last night.

After a game at home vs the similarly struggling Flyers (always a good game), the Lightning head north of the border for games in Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg, all teams battling to stay above the playoff line. We should know by next week if Yzerman would be wise to unload some bigger and/or veteran contracts and focus on making room for his promising corps of youth next season.

This afternoon, the local press is speculating on what the team should do, as beat reporter Damien Cristodero suggests that trading Martin St. Louis would bring a solid return, and hey, it's good for Marty too. Is this really an option or just fishing for pageviews? Nothing like a losing season to stir up trouble.

Washington Capitals

These have been trying times on the Potomac of late. The storms of ugly losses and placing blame for expectations not met have a lightning rod in Alex Ovechkin, as his efforts are analyzed frame-by-frame almost nightly to demonstrate why he has failed his club. First year coach and Hall-of-Famer Adam Oates went on record earlier this week to take the media to task for their relentless criticism of the team's captain, who, by the way, earned his 700th point this week, reaching that milestone faster than all but a handful of players (Selanne, Jagr among them) in League history.

After splitting a home-and-home with the Hurricanes, the Caps went into Boston recalling the magic of their stunning Game 7 overtime win in the first round of the playoffs a year ago. This time the Bruins were ready and would have shut the Caps out if David Krejci hadn't scored a goal in his own net to open the second period. The final score, 4-1, needs to include mention of a few lopsided bouts that included two separate heavy-weight tilts for Matt Hendricks (vs Nathan Horton and then Adam McQuaid) and the unlikely sight of Mike Ribeiro taking on Brad Marchand, the first fighting major for the veteran Ribeiro in a decade. Puck Daddy was among many who were not impressed with the Caps efforts to go toe-to-toe with the Bruins' thuggery. Bruins fans troll Capitals; Matt Hendricks in ‘joke’ fight vs. McQuaid (VIDEO) | Puck Daddy - Yahoo! Sports

No matter how you look at the loss, it was not pretty, and served to all but eliminate the Capitals from playoff contention. They sit 14th in the East with about 20 games left and only a 5.6% chance of getting themselves back into the mix.

The Caps are back home tonight to take on a similarly disappointing Sabres team before they are off to Pittsburgh to take on the World's-Best-Player Sidney Crosby and the Penguins Tuesday - a harsh reminder of my how times have changed. Then the Caps head up to Manitoba for a short-season scheduling oddity of a back-to-back vs the Jets, both at MTS Centre on Thursday and Friday.

It sure looks like George McPhee will now be a seller for the first time since 2007. And speculation that he should also be on the hotseat will likely only increase as the blame shifts away from the club's flamboyant Russian winger to the man calling the shots upstairs.

Florida Panthers

The Panthers went 0-for-4 this week sinking further still in the standings. The conversation becomes more about the draft now for them and anything that focuses on the long term future after they can get through this season.

The devastating injury of the week in Sunrise was to the knee of Kris Versteeg who will be out for the rest of the season. The key pieces that might have helped them at the trade deadline to add to their draft opportunities are vanishing as quickly as their playoff hopes.

Captain Ed Jovanovski did return this week after nearly 6 weeks absence with an undisclosed lower body injury. His mentoring of young defenseman Erik Gudbranson was the focus of this story from the Sun Sentinel.

Panthers young defenseman Erik Gudbranson is evolving into a leader - South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com Panthers captain Ed Jovanovski returns to the ice tonight after long absence No one is happier to see Jovanovski back than Gudbranson, his protégé who has lived with Jovanovski and his family on and off since his rookie season last year, and again during the lockout when he was recovering from shoulder surgery following an offseason wakeboarding accident.

Florida will be on the road this week, starting in Raleigh Tuesday before heading up to New York and New Jersey and Long Island. All four teams are desperate for points and the Panthers could play the part of the spoiler for one or all of these opponents. First they have to figure out how to win a game, something that has eluded them for long stretches this season.

Playoff Odds

You can see some movement this week as the Winnipeg Jets' recent string of wins has lifted them nearly 60% in less than two weeks. The Capitals are trending in the opposite direction as their hopes dwindle. Carolina is managing to hold on as most likely to reach the post-season, but you only need to look at the Lightning's line over the last month to see how quickly these things can change.

Head over to SportsClubStats.com to see how the Southeast's teams fit into the big picture of the Eastern Conference playoff odds or just click around and waste an hour or three.

03


This Week's Standings and Schedule

(Updated 8am Sunday)

Stdgs Team Record Points

S

Mar 17

M

Mar 18

T

Mar 19

W

Mar 20

T

Mar 21

F

Mar 22

S

Mar 23

Games

played

(season)

1 Winnipeg 15-11-2 32

at

Senators

vs

Boston

vs

Capitals

vs

Capitals

32
2 Carolina 15-11-1 31

at

Rangers

vs

Panthers

vs

Devils

30
3 Tampa Bay 12-15-1 25

vs

Flyers

at

Maple Leafs

at Senators 31
4 Washington 11-15-1 23

vs

Sabres

at

Penguins

at

Jets

at

Jets

31
5 Florida 7-16-6 20

at

Hurricanes

at

Rangers

at

Devils

32

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