The Washington Capitals are coming off a three-game span without their suspended captain Alexander Ovechkin. The team has also been without top center and point getter Nicklas Backstrom for the past 12 games. Without Ovechkin, Washington went 1-1-1. Not bad, but not good enough to hold on to the top spot in the division. After last night’s loss to the Florida Panthers, the Caps sit in second place in the division and the ninth playoff spot with 56 points, one point fewer then both the eighth-seeded New Jersey Devils and division-leading Florida.
Let’s first take a look at the raw numbers, then break down the Caps’ remaining match-ups within the division. Washington has played 50 games, two fewer than the Carolina Hurricanes and one more than both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida.
Washington is 20-12-4 versus the Eastern Conference. That’s the best in the Southeast. With 28 out of 32 remaining games coming against the East, the Caps will need to continue this trend in order to make a strong final push.
Conversely, Washington is 6-8-0 versus the Western Conference. Not good at all. Luckily, they only play four more games against the West. The games will surely be tough as they have drawn the San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild down the stretch. All playoff teams as of now.
The Capitals are currently 8-4-1 against the Southeast division with 11 games left to go. That record is good for second best behind Florida who has 19 points against the division, with the same amount of games played.
Against Carolina, Washington is 3-1 with two games remaining. Carolina’s lone win came about two weeks ago at home. The Hurricanes have picked up their play recently after getting a new coach. Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner are always dangerous and Cam Ward can steal a game at any time between the pipes. The key for Washington against the Canes has always been to get a lead. Brooks Laich has had a stellar season head to head against Staal, often frustrating him with tough gritty play that keeps the puck in the Canes D-zone. With one game at home and one game on the road remaining, the Caps should look to split with the Hurricanes for a solid 4-2 mark to end the season. If the Caps do lose one of these games, it will be very important for them to get the contest into OT in order to gain an extra point.
Against the Winnipeg Jets, Washington is 2-1 and has won the last two meetings. Two of the three remaining games against the Jets will be at Verizon Center, where the Caps have the second best power-play in the NHL. It is essential for the Caps to win both home games. This will again, give them a solid 4-2 mark. With Dustin Byfuglien coming back from injury and Goalie Ondrei Pavelec playing the best of his career, don’t expect these games to be easy. Washington will need to work the cycle down low and take advantage of their size against a speedy Jets team.
The Tampa Bay Lightning swept the Capitals out of the playoffs last year. This year the Caps hold a 2-1 mark against them. Two out of the three remaining games are on the road for Washington. The Lightning boast a high octane offense and an unorthodox 1-3-1 forechecking system. When Washington is playing well, they are controlling the puck well through the neutral zone and sending the biscuit towards the Lightning’s weak goaltenders. Washington struggles when they turn the puck over and let the rush oriented Bolts get up the ice quickly. If the Caps’ high-end players match the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos, Martin St.Louis and Vincent Lecavalier in production they will have a strong chance of winning their game at home. Throw in a grinder goal from a Mike Knuble type and they can steal one on the road. Splitting the series with Tampa will be adequate if the Caps can get at least one of the losses to OT for an extra point.
Finally, the Florida Panthers. Washington is 1-2 against Florida with the Panthers winning the last two contests. Florida doesn’t do anything particularly well but they get clutch goal scoring and have a knack for shutting down the Caps top line. With two of the three remaining games against Florida on home ice in the district a split is very realistic. The X-factor for these games could be former Panther and current Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun. It would be sweet revenge for Vokoun to steal a game in net and help swing the season series into Washington’s favor, especially down the stretch when points are at a premium.
When healthy the Capitals are easily the deepest and most talented team in this division. Health could play a key factor as Washington desperately needs Nicklas Backstrom back making plays and lighting the lamp. On the positive side, Mike Green has skated 25 mins each of the last couple of days. The Capitals are nearly unbeaten with Green in the lineup.
Around this time last season Washington turned on the juice and finished the season extremely strong. With nothing left to prove in the regular season, and everything left to prove in the post season, it makes sense for this team to get more focused and excited when crunch time comes. So, will the Capitals win the Southeast division? History is on their side with four straight titles hanging in the banners of Verizon Center.
My final answer… yes. Washington wins the Southeast division. I actually believe they will pull away down the stretch and win by more than a couple points. When playing well this team can’t be stopped. They are big, strong, fast and skilled. They have more to prove than any team in their division and have too many players slumping now. How is that good? They will come out of their slump at just the right time…
Follow Charlie Passero on Twitter: @CAnthonyPassero