If not for the excellent play of the Carolina Hurricanes since mid-February (16-4-2 since February 15) and a solid second half of the season by the Florida Panthers (22-16-6 since January 1st), the Capitals would have easily clinched the division a couple of weeks ago. As it is last night's 5-4 overtime loss to the Sabres puts the Capitals 9 points (4 1/2 games) ahead of the Hurricanes and 15 points (7 1/2 games) in front of the Panthers with each team having only 4 games left to play in the season..Clinching the division means the Capitals are now free to concentrate on staying ahead of the New Jersey Devils as both the Caps and Devils play their remaining four games as well. Finishing second in the conference would guarantee the Capitals home ice advantage in both of the first two rounds of the playoffs. Given the Capitals are 0.738 at home so far this season and 0.566 on the road this season, and Verizon Center has turned in to one of the hardest buildings in the league to beat the home team this season, a game 7 home ice advantage in at least two of the four series between the Capitals and their ultimate goal would figure to be pretty desirable.
Before delving deeper into that discussion though it would seem a closer look and deeper discussion about the second half play of what is supposedly the weakest Division in the NHL is in order. Presently it's a real possibility that the Southeast Division teams will finish the regular season next week with three teams qualifying for post-season play: Washington, Carolina, and Florida. If the Panthers manage to move up from 9th to 8th and qualify for the playoffs in the four remaining games that would likely mean that the Rangers dropped out of the playoffs. If that's how the Panthers get in to the playoffs that would mean the Eastern Conference playoff teams would consist of: 3 Atlantic Division Teams, 2 Northeast Division Teams and 3 Southeast Division Teams - who would have forecast that makeup at the start of the season? Of course in the season ended tomorrow the Eastern Conference playoff mix would consist of 4 Atlantic Division Teams, 2 Southeast Division Teams and 2 Northeast Division Teams.
However, another note on who you do and don't want to play right now (i.e. who's hot vs. who's not) as you drive to the close of the season looking at each team's performance over the past ten games gives you a decidedly different perspective then looking at the overall season records. Right now the hottest team in the NHL over their last ten games is Western Conference's Anaheim Ducks who are playing 0.800 hockey who are 8-2-0; in the Eastern Conference both Carolina and Pittsburgh are also playing 0.800 hockey by virtue of their 7-1-2 records in the last 10 games as well. After that there are 4 teams that are playing 0.750 hockey, 3 Western Conference Teams (San Jose, Vancouver, and Saint Louis) and 1 Eastern Conference Team (Boston).
At the end of the season it'll take 90-92 points to make this post season that's an overall pace of 0.556 - 0.568 hockey, so it would figure that as you drive for a playoff berth and every point counts a hot team would certainly be any team that is playing 0.650 hockey or better. Besides the aforementioned teams the following teams have been 0.650 or better through their last 10 games, in the West: Columbus, Nashville, and Phoenix; in the East: Washington, and Atlanta. That's a total of 12 "hot" (0.650 or better) teams. Their Divisional Breakout is: Pacific Division - 3 Teams, Southeast Division - 3 Teams, Central Division - 2 Teams, Northwest Division - 1 Team, Northeast Division - 1 Team, and Atlantic Division. This is not a case about who's the toughest and/or weakest division to play in over the course of the season or overall - that's not what this analysis is about. This analysis is about whether or not the Capitals who conventional wisdom a couple of weeks ago said had the weakest schedule remaining in the drive for the playoffs do/did in fact have that "advantage" over New Jersey. The current data would suggest that this supposition and prior conclusion is/was in fact just about dead wrong. Right now it's true the Capitals control their own destiny, with each team having four games remaining, the Capitals one point ahead of the Devils, and games tomorrow (at home against Atlanta), Tuesday in Atlanta, Thursday in Saint Petersburg, and next Saturday in Florida, while the Devils play today in Buffalo, take on Toronto in Newark on Tuesday, play in Ottawa on Thursday and finish the season at home in Newark against Carolina. Assuming the Capitals and the Devils each win today and tomorrow the Caps will remain in control of their own destiny however right now using their last 10 game records as a gauge of strength of opponents things look like the list below:
SAT/SUN: Atlanta (0.700)-H/ Buffalo (0.600)-A
Tuesday: Atlanta (0.700)-A /Toronto (0.500)-H
Thursday: Tampa (0.400)-A/ Ottawa (0.600)-A
Saturday: Florida (0.600)-A/ Carolina (0.800)-H.
Looking at those matchups in that light and taking in to account that right now when the meet their opponents only two are "bubble teams" Buffalo and Florida, along with the "extra" road game the Caps have to play a purely qualitative view would be if the strength of schedule favors either team it's New Jersey. However, the Devils only managed to squeak by Tampa Bay (5-4 OT) last night in Newark to break what had been a 6 game/1 point loosing streak. While back up goaltender Kevin Weekes started and exited the game with an injury so that means Scott Clemmensen should return to New Jersey as the backup, that won't slow the Devils down assuming Clemmensen resumes where he left off this season if needed in Newark. The big question mark is was this recent loosing streak and the issues it exposed in the Devils game rectified once and for all. On Washington's side the questions at hand center on focus, and the other factors contributing to the intermittent defensive miscues. Those unknowns and how they play out over the next week may well totally overshadow anything to do with strength of schedule but a few things are clear and bear keeping in mind:
1. Atlanta seems to be fine with their role as spoiler and will play every remaining minute for pride and to win, the Caps cannot take the next two games lightly or they may well NOT be in control of their destiny when Wednesday morning dawns.
2. Buffalo will play "with a vengeance" tonight at home in their struggle to stay alive and that may well be the Capitals best hope at getting some daylight between themselves and the Devils before their season finale against Carolina.
3. Given all the attention and controversy surrounding Alex Ovechkin's 50th goal celebration, along with the fact that Mike Green also broke the consecutive goal scoring record for defensemen in Tampa this season, you have to think the Lightning will play "extra hard" against the Caps in what should be their best chance for victory in their final three game road trip of the season. Proving, their are no "gimmes" in the NHL and "that's why they play the game on the ice."
4. In a strange turn of events depending on how things go for Florida and the Caps between now and next Saturday, the final regular season game for both teams may actually mean more for the Capitals then it does for the Panthers.
5. Depending on the next 6 days, it's entirely possible the final season games between the Caps & Panthers and the the Devils & Hurricanes could be the two most important games for the playoff implications in the NHL next weekend. At the beginning of the season who would have thought that Southeast Division teams would be 3 of the 4 teams involved in a situation like that?
Coming up later musings about a look ahead to tomorrow afternoon's Caps - Thrashers game, then on Monday some musings on do the Caps have what it takes to get to and possibly through the Stanley Cup Finals.
In the meantime, congratulations to our Washington Capitals for clinching their second consecutive Southeastern Division Title. Next up Atlanta at home tomorrow so, now let's get back to work and clinch home ice for the first two rounds of the playoffs.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!!