Southeast Division Weekend Update: Up For Grabs

Is it too late? The Southeast Division seems to be up for grabs, still. - Marianne Helm

The Southeast Division is there for the taking if there's a team that can figure out how to play and win consistently.

Washington Capitals

This is a team whose 2013 season will surely make its most-devoted fans go gray. After a pitiful loss vs the Boston Bruins last Saturday, and a possible post-season effectively kaput, the Capitals went on quite the run this week, resurrecting hopes for a miracle down the stretch that would allow them to sneak back in to playoff contention.

So what happened? The Capitals won 3 of 4 games, their only loss at the hands of the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins by a 2-1 score at Consol Tuesday. The Caps' 3 wins, coming over the Buffalo Sabres and the Winnipeg Jets (twice!) were a showcase of offense as they outscored their opponents by a combined score of 15 to 4.

The beleaguered Captain, Alex Ovechkin, led the charge with at least one goal in four straight games, putting up 5 goals and 7 points on the week (part of 9 points in the last 6). Troy Brouwer added 2 goals and 3 points, while Mike Ribeiro, who was so woeful (and frustrated) in last weekend's game in Boston, added 5 assists.

Braden Holtby seems to be back in top form. He started all four games, saved over 94.4% of shots faced and picked up another shutout in Winnipeg Thursday night.

After missing three weeks with a lingering groin strain, the team's top blueliner Mike Green returned to the line-up in Winnipeg, with 22 minutes in his first game back. He added a goal in Friday's re-match. John Carlson is logging huge minutes (averaging over 25 mins per game this week) and is recovering nicely from early season mistakes that made him a scapegoat for the Caps failures in February.

Don't underestimate the impact of Brooks Laich's return. The popular alternate captain made his first appearance of 2013 Tuesday in Pittsburgh. By Friday night in Winnipeg, Laich had this first goal, won 69% of faceoffs, and was plus-3 in the rout.

Washington's powerplay as designed by Coach Adam Oates is now tops in the NHL with a success rate just shy of 25%. If you want to get into the nuts-and-bolts colored with not-a-little cynicism, check out this analysis. The problem with the Capitals’ power play | Neil Greenberg, WaPo But despite the success and improvement, is the Washington power play too one-dimensional?

And the response piece from the Washington Times: Predictability not problem for Caps power play | Steve Whyno, Washington Times Adam Oates didn't want the pressure and expectations that come with having the NHL's top power play. But he's got it with the Washington Capitals.The Caps have a power-play goal in four straight games and five of their past six. And it's not because they changed a whole lot.

So how realistic are playoff hopes in The District? The Capitals have 17 games left to play, and to reach the hypothetical cutoff of 53 points, they can lose five of them. Per Sportsclubstats.com, they have a 29.7% of doing just that. The NHL Trade deadline come in just 10 days, over which span the Capitals play five games, only one of which is at the Verizon. Which way will GM George McPhee go? Buy? Sell? That right there is your Caps storyline this week.

Winnipeg Jets

The Jets benefited from the meltdown in Carolina to hold on to the top spot in the Southeast, despite going 1-3 themselves since last weekend. The great vibe that came from a gutsy come-from-behind win over the Boston Bruins Tuesday night evaporated with two beat-downs handed to them by the Capitals in consecutive nights to close out the week in Manitoba.

The Winnipeg club will face rival Southeast Division teams three times in their four games this coming week, including two matches against their primary challengers, the Carolina Hurricanes. The Jets hold a narrow two-point lead over the Canes in the standings, but the Canes have a slight (unproven) advantage holding two games in hand.

Or: You can't overstate the importance of this week on how the Jets fare in what is their final season playing in the Eastern Conference.

Seems like the right time to focus on the status of Winnipeg's workhorse goaltender, 25-year-old Ondrej Pavelec. This feature story, posted Friday, foreshadows the game vs the Caps that night, when Pavelec was pulled early in the 2nd period after surrendering 3 goals on 9 shots. Ondrej Pavelec's workload a storyline as Winnipeg Jets chase playoffs | Patrick Williams, NHL.com But memories of March 2012 remain fresh in Winnipeg. Pavelec sputtered down the stretch last season with the Jets in the midst of a playoff race. Starting 13 games that month, he went 5-7-1 with a 3.13 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage as the Jets faded from Eastern Conference contention.

With goaltending injuries running rampant elsewhere in the Southeast Division, Pavelec's health and ability to hold up well despite the intense workload may be the most important storyline to be following.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes played three games this week, and picked up one point of the six available. After inspired displays of resilience and skill earlier this month, the likes of which hadn't been seen in Raleigh for years, the club is now suffering from an inexplicable lack of mojo. Winless in their last 5, outscored 14 to 4 in their last four, they are back on the bubble to even make the postseason. Should they miss for the fourth straight season, the decisions and investments made in acquiring Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin and hiring young coach Kirk Muller in late 2011 will challenge the patience of the fanbase and perhaps that of the club's ownership next season.

The top line of Eric Staal - Alex Semin - Jiri Tlusty was at one point the top-producing threesome in the League. This week, they combined for 3 points. In his postgame presser Thursday following a lackluster performance vs the New Jersey Devils feat. PPG Brodeur, a disgusted Coach Muller talked about the rest of the team piggy-backing on the success of others, and needing to look at themselves in the mirror for their inability to put in the work necessary to win games.

The Hurricanes have an unusual scheduling break with 4 days off this weekend before they finish out the season with a grueling run of 18 games in 32 days. If there ever was a time when a team needed to re-set, this was it. They resume play Tuesday hosting the Winnipeg Jets, their primary challenger to take the Southeast. The Canes have two more games after that vs the Jets this season, and seven of those 18 remaining games are versus divisional rivals.

Here's the best synopsis you'll read on what's going on in Raleigh as the Hurricanes regroup from their recent struggles: Schedule breaks favorably for ‘out of energy’ Hurricanes | Chip Alexander, NewsObserver.com As Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said Friday, despite an energy-sapping five-game winless streak, his team is 15-13-2 and remains in the thick of things – still solidly positioned to challenge the front-running Winnipeg Jets in the division and to secure a playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

The injuries continue to mount, as this week's losses included three defensemen, Joe Corvo, Justin Faulk and Bobby Sanguinetti. Faulk's injury is the most severe - a second-degree MCL sprain will put him out of action for 3 to 4 weeks. Just turning 21 Wednesday, Faulk has emerged this season as the Carolina's most reliable blueliner. While Joni Pitkanen's return will help mitigate Faulk's absence somewhat, GM Jim Rutherford's very public search to acquire a veteran defenseman down the stretch becomes that much more imperative just as it becomes that much more difficult for him to pull off.

Yet more key injuries: The Canes added another goalie to their sickbay, as Dan Ellis suffered a self-inflicted cut above the left knee with his right skate blade in a scramble late Thursday vs the Devils. He needed 13 stitches and will be out at least a week. Cam Ward is still a month away, recovering from his MCL tear suffered in early March. The very capable Justin Peters now takes the reins, but whether Charlotte Checkers' current #1 tender-in-residence John Muse (from Boston College's NCAA Championship fame), will be the next to claim Canes' backup slot is yet to be announced.

There was a bit of sunshine as Tuomo Ruutu made his season debut Thursday night, seeing a variety of line combinations as Muller sought to get the Finnish forward back up to speed and contributing.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Helluva week in Tampa Bay, eh?

It ended with the abrupt announcement at 7am this morning Coach Guy Boucher has been fired in his third season on the job. That moves Kevin Dineen and Claude Noel, who were hired the summer of 2011, into the lead as longest tenured coaches in the Southeast.

For full coverage from Raw Charge with the latest updates, predictions and discussion, please click your mouse here.

[The rest was written late yesterday, prior to the news on Boucher, which colors everything an even darker shade of gray - or not if this is the solution to the downward spiral of this season for the Bolts.]

Did you hear about that Southeast Division team whose #1 goaltender went down with a season-ending injury? Yes, I'm sure you did. Because it's happened three times in the last month actually. Anders Lindback now joins Cam Ward and Florida's Jose Theodore on the IR as the big Swede suffered a flukey high ankle sprain in Toronto Wednesday.

This announcement only added to the mood that opened the week when it was reported Monday that Vincent Lecavalier's LBI is a broken bone in his foot. Next, Ryan Malone went out again Tuesday with an upper body injury incurred courtesy of the Flyers' trainwreck on skates Zac Rinaldo. That's two big bodies from the top six that are pretty much impossible to replace. Another important contributor, Benoit Pouliot has at least begun skating with the team and (presumably) will be back soon, but having missed the month of March, it's really too little too late.

Despite a three-goal third period in Ottawa Saturday afternoon, the Bolts attempted comeback failed to produce a much needed win. The Lightning now sit at 14th in the Eastern Conference, where they can no doubt commiserate with their Florida colleagues, the Panthers, who sit in 15th, lamenting injuries and disappointments after so much promise. Together both clubs are looking to the future in next year's Division "C".

In the near term, the Lightning are off to Winnipeg [sans Boucher] for a game vs the suddenly shakey Jets tonight, before returning home for a three-game homestand.

Not that the season has gone without bright spots. Steven Stamkos' continued development and leadership are on display every game it seems. His 200th career goal came Monday, at the ripe age of 23.

The youngsters from last year's Calder Cup winning Syracuse Crunch (fka Norfolk Admirals) continue to thrive in the big leagues, the latest to shine being one Tyler Johnson, who has been the primary beneficiary of the Lecavalier injury. Johnson had a "pretty good" week, scoring 3 goals and 6 points in four games. Another one of the team's five rookies on the current roster, Cory Conacher is holding on to the scoring lead for all first year players in the league.

Steve Yzerman is clearly focused on the future too. Slater Koekkoek (pronounced COO-coo), was the Lightning's first round pick last June (10th overall). The 19-year-old OHL defenseman was signed Wednesday to a three-year entry level contract.

A highly sought-after NCAA UFA, defenseman Andrej Sustr, also joined the Lightning organization this week. At 22 years old, the 6-foot 8-inch Czech national will be a visible part of the Lightning's new division that also features well-known supersized dmen Tyler Myers (6-8) and Zdeno Chara (6-9) and the Bolts' own Victor Hedman (6-6). Seems like 6-foot 7-inch Hal Gill might need to head back to Montreal, just to give them one too.

Finally, bottom-six centerman Nate Thompson was signed to a four-year contract extension this week, for some reason I have yet to see explained.

It would seem the next move for Yzerman is making room for all this young talent, and we might expect him to be active in the trade market over the next 10 days. Here's Capgeek's page for Tampa Bay should you feel like exploring the potential moves and play a little armchair-GM. Personally, I don't a lot of options for him, though the very hot market for shutdown defenseman has got to mean his phone is ringing.

Here's one Tampa Bay beat reporter's appraisal of the situation: Tampa Bay Lightning lacking tradable assets | Erik Erlendsson, TBO.com How this pans out come trade deadline day is unknown, but one thing is certain: General manager Steve Yzerman has no intentions of blowing up a roster that already features plenty of young talent and won't make a deal just to make a deal.


Florida Panthers

After an unexpected two-game win streak on the road, defeating the Canes and then the New York Rangers this week, the Panthers lost a close one to the Devils last night. Blogger Donny Rivette from Litter Box Cats summed up the week quite nicely immediately following the loss.

The Panthers hop over to Nassau County for a game vs the Islanders Sunday night, then look to be the spoiler in Toronto, before returning home to see the Sabres and a re-match vs the Devils next weekend.

Graphic Depictions

The lines that jump out at me in this week's freeze frame from SportsClubStats.com is that Winnipeg and Washington are on inverse roller coasters. That and the Hurricanes owe the Capitals a boatload of thanks for soundly whipping the Jets in those 2 games this week. To see how the teams of the struggling Southeast compare to the rest of the Eastern Conference, be sure to click on this link and check back often to get a handle on who might have some reason for optimism and who is hanging on by a thread.

03

This Week's Standings and Schedule

(Updated 10pm Saturday)

Stdgs Team Record Points

S

Mar 24

M

Mar 25

T

Mar 26

W

Mar 27

T

Mar 28

F

Mar 29

S

Mar 30

Games

left

(season)

1 Winnipeg 16-14-2 34

vs

Lightning

at

Hurricanes

at

Penguins

vs

Hurricanes

12
2 Carolina 15-13-2 32

vs

Jets

at

Maple Leafs

at

Jets

15
3 Washington 14-16-1 29

at

Rangers


vs

Islanders




at

Sabres

14
4 Tampa Bay 13-17-1 27

at

Jets

vs

Sabres



vs

Devils

14
5 Florida 9-17-6 24

at

Islanders

at

Maple Leafs


vs

Sabres


vs

Devils

12

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