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Posted On Saturday, 04.16.2011 / 3:05 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - 2011 ECQF: Washington-New York Live Blog

Boudreau coy on center swap

Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Arnott switched places in the middle of the top two lines for the Washington Capitals at practice Saturday. Bruce Boudreau downplayed the move, blaming a wardrobe malfunction, but his past history suggests otherwise.

Arnott was between Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble on the team's top line for practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex while Backstrom skated between Marco Sturm and Alexander Semin.

"Actually, they just put on the wrong jerseys so I left them out there for practice," Boudreau said. "I could have changed it, but I knew we were only doing one drill that anything to do with it, so I just left it."

Boudreau has dropped the "wrong jersey" rationale a few times during his tenure as Capitals coach. He's also used the term "just wanted to see what it looked like" when he switches lines around. The deal is this: when Boudreau tries to downplay a line change, it has almost always ended up happening for the next game.

If Backstrom is not skating with the second line against the New York Rangers for Game 3 on Sunday at Madison Square, it might be the first time Boudreau was speaking the truth on the "wrong jersey" rationale since he became the team's coach in November 2007.

"It doesn't matter I think who we play with," Backstrom said. "There are such good players on this team. It is up to the coach to decide who we play with."

This is nothing new for Backstrom -- Boudreau has dropped him to the second line to play with Semin on several occasions during the postseason in the previous three years. Those two combined to have a great series against Philadelphia in 2008, carrying the Washington offense as the Capitals rallied to force Game 7 after being down 3-1.

It worked pretty well again against the Rangers in 2009. Both years Backstrom was switching places with Sergei Fedorov. Now Boudreau has another dependable veteran in Arnott who he can put with Ovechkin and force John Tortorella to decide which duo he wants to put Marc Staal and Dan Girardi on the ice against.

Tortorella has the last change but the choice between deploying his top pairing against Ovechkin or Backstrom/Semin is not an easy one. That is, of course, if Boudreau follows through and makes the switch for the start of Game 3.

"Yeah, I am [used to it]," Backstrom said. "It is nothing wrong with it. Sometimes you have to I guess. ... They're both good players. I just play where coach tells me to."
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Posted On Friday, 04.15.2011 / 1:21 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - 2011 ECQF: Washington-New York Live Blog

Wideman back skating for Capitals

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Four days ago Dennis Wideman was released after a nearly two-week stay in the hospital to recover from a hematoma and compartment syndrome in his leg, but he was on the ice here Friday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

Wideman did some light skating in a track suit before his teammates went on the ice for their morning skate. He hasn't played since hurting his right leg March 29 against Carolina after a collision with Tuomo Ruutu.

"A really surprising sign, but a very good sign," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He skated for about 15 minutes and felt pretty good, so maybe my assessment of three weeks was a little premature.”

Boudreau had previously said he didn't expect Wideman to be available until the second round at the earliest, but he said Friday it is possible the trade deadline acquisition is back before then.

"Sooner than later," Boudreau said. "Who knows? Depending on what kind of shape he can get into in a hurry and how long this series [extends], it might even be in this round.

"There was no damage to the muscle and that’s why he’s able to be out here doing what he’s doing. That’s a really good sign -- and it shows how tough he is."

Washington's other injured defenseman, Tom Poti, was back on the ice in full gear after take a day off. Poti hasn't played since Jan. 12 because of a groin injury. Boudreau said Thursday that his other six defensemen (not including Wideman) are playing so well that it might take injuries for Poti get back in the lineup when he is pronounced fit to play.

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Posted On Thursday, 04.14.2011 / 1:54 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - 2011 ECQF: Washington-New York Live Blog

Poti 'sore', misses practice

Washington Capitals defenseman Tom Poti has had a frustrating year because of a reoccurring groin injury, and his return might not be anytime in the near future.

The Capitals had an optional practice Thursday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, but Poti was missing because coach Bruce Boudreau said he was "sore" after his on-ice workout Wednesday. Poti was playing in a game of sideways 3-on-3 with the guys who would eventually be healthy scratches that night for Game 1 of this series when he was involved in a collision.

Poti stayed down on the ice for a few seconds and did not appear to be comfortable when he got back up. Assistant coach Bob Woods took his place in the game.

Boudreau said there might not be a place in the lineup waiting for the veteran Poti even when he is healthy enough to play.

"He hasn't played in four months now and I think our defense is playing pretty well," Boudreau said. "So it'd be pretty hard for him, unless there's injuries, to get back in."

The Capitals have six healthy defensemen in front of Poti right now, plus trade deadline addition Dennis Wideman could be back during the second round to add another body to a crowded blueline corps.
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Posted On Wednesday, 04.13.2011 / 2:59 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - 2011 ECQF: Washington-New York Live Blog

Capitals ready to rely on 'unflappable' Neuvirth

ARLINGTON, Va. -- No player in the Washington Capitals dressing room has spent more time with Michal Neuvirth than defenseman Karl Alzner, so it fair to say he's got a pretty good handle on the goaltender's personality.

"He's seems to be kind of be unflappable," Alzner said. "He's very calm on and off the ice. I think that in this situation, that's going to be pretty good for him. It has proven well for him in the playoffs in Hershey a couple of times. He's just a guy that if he gets scored on, he doesn't really let it get to him too much."

That demeanor will be put to the test Wednesday night at Verizon Center when Neuvirth is in net for his first career NHL playoff game against the New York Rangers. Neuvirth and fellow 2006 draft pick Semyon Varlamov have spent this season jostling for the No. 1 job in Washington, with fellow young netminder Braden Holtby also squeezing his way into the competition.

Varlamov entered the year with more NHL postseason experience than Neuvirth, but the 23-year-old from the Czech Republic was able to stay healthy longer and that proved to play a big role in the derby.

"Right now, he's played way more games. He's won 27 games for us," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's not my thought only -- it is a collaboration of all the coaches. We thought he was the guy who has played the most games down the stretch and he's played the big games down the stretch and he's won the big games that we've needed to win."

While Varlamov has played in 19 postseason games for Boudreau, twice beginning the playoffs as Jose Theodore's backup before supplanting the veteran, Neuvirth has built a formidable postseason resume of his own. He helped Plymouth to an Ontario Hockey League title and Memorial Cup berth in 2007, and has won back-to-back Calder Cup championships with Washington's AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears.

Neuvirth was named the Calder Cup MVP in 2009, and he might have been even more valuable in 2010. He won 30 postseason games in that span, and defeated some elite goaltending prospects (Tuukka Rask, Cory Schneider and Jonathan Bernier) along the way.

"We were in control of every series pretty much the first year, but the second year not so much," defenseman John Carlson said. "We went down to Manchester, we were down to Texas, but he kept us in there and made it so we could battle back and win.

"He's a big-game goalie. He likes to be in that moment. He elevates his game when he's in that moment, it seems. For a defenseman it makes you feel pretty comfortable. He's had so much success and you feel good in front of him."

Boudreau was once Hershey's coach and maintains strong relationships with members of the Bears organization. He spent parts of those two Calder Cup runs watching at Giant Center with Hershey general manager Doug Yingst and other personnel evaluators in the organization after the Captials were knocked out of the NHL playoffs.

"I saw a lot of games in the playoffs last year," Boudreau said. "His demeanor when it is crunch time was outstanding. Championships are not only very difficult to win at any level, it takes something special to win them. He's done both. I don't classify him as a rookie. This is his third year pro. We thought he was our guy."

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Posted On Friday, 03.25.2011 / 3:51 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Ranking the schedules: Western Conference

Strength of schedule could play a factor in who claims the final playoff spots in both conferences as well as the final seeding. Determining the actual strength of schedule at this time of year can also be tricky -- some great teams might have little to play for while some non-playoff teams might be playing really well.

With that in mind, here's an attempt to rank the remaining schedules for teams in fifth through 10th place in each conference from toughest to easiest (Phoenix and Pittsburgh aren't locks to make the playoffs, but the Penguins could clinch a spot Friday night and the Coyotes are close to being safe at this point). Here's the rankings for the Western Conference (check out the Eastern Conference here):

1. Dallas (38-25-10, 86 points)

Home: Columbus, Colorado
Road: Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Colorado, Minnesota

Analysis: Seven road games, including five against teams currently in front of them. Best bet might be to try and steal 3-4 points in those first five road games and then sweep the final four.

2. Anaheim (41-28-5, 87 points)

Home: Chicago, Calgary, Dallas, San Jose, Los Angeles
Road: Colorado, San Jose, Los Angeles

Analysis: No other team on this list has to play seven games against the 10 teams still in the hunt in the West. Toss in those home-and-homes with rivals San Jose and Los Angeles, and a postseason berth for the Ducks is far from a given at this point.

3. Chicago (40-25-8, 88 points)

Home: Anaheim, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Detroit
Road: Detroit, Boston, Columbus, Montreal, Detroit

Analysis: Seven games against current playoff teams, but three are against the Eastern Conference and the West has dominated crossover games this season (Chicago is 9-4-2). This slate nudges ahead of the Kings' schedule because of three games against Detroit and an extra set of back-to-backs.

4. Los Angeles (42-26-6, 90 points)

Home: Colorado, Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim
Road: Edmonton, Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim

Analysis: Three games against the top four in the West (inclduing a trip to Vancouver while the Canucks are still trying to seal the top seed and Presidenst's Trophy) plus a home-and-home with archrival Anaheim when the Ducks might be desperate to secure a postseason berth.


5. Nashville (40-25-10, 90 points)

Home: Dallas, Vancouver, Detroit, Atlanta, Columbus
Road: Colorado, St. Louis

Analysis: Seven home games and two on the road against non-contenders (basically the opposite of Dallas) -- even if they lose the three against the top-nine clubs, they can still win the four against non-contenders and be safely in the playoffs.

6. Calgary (37-28-11, 85 points)

Home: Anaheim, Edmonton, Vancouver
Road: Edmonton, St. Louis, Colorado

Analysis: Good news: The Flames clearly have the easiest schedule, with four games against teams not in the mix (including all three road contests) and a game against the Canucks when they will likely have the West wrapped up. Bad news: They probably need to win all six.
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Posted On Friday, 03.25.2011 / 3:51 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Ranking the schedules: Western Conference

Strength of schedule could play a factor in who claims the final playoff spots in both conferences as well as the final seeding. Determining the actual strength of schedule at this time of year can also be tricky -- some great teams might have little to play for while some non-playoff teams might be playing really well.

With that in mind, here's an attempt to rank the remaining schedules for teams in fifth through 10th place in each conference from toughest to easiest (Phoenix and Pittsburgh aren't locks to make the playoffs, but the Penguins could clinch a spot Friday night and the Coyotes are close to being safe at this point). Here's the rankings for the Western Conference (check out the Eastern Conference here):

1. Dallas (38-25-10, 86 points)

Home: Columbus, Colorado
Road: Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Colorado, Minnesota

Analysis: Seven road games, including five against teams currently in front of them. Best bet might be to try and steal 3-4 points in those first five road games and then sweep the final four.

2. Anaheim (41-28-5, 87 points)

Home: Chicago, Calgary, Dallas, San Jose, Los Angeles
Road: Colorado, San Jose, Los Angeles

Analysis: No other team on this list has to play seven games against the 10 teams still in the hunt in the West. Toss in those home-and-homes with rivals San Jose and Los Angeles, and a postseason berth for the Ducks is far from a given at this point.

3. Chicago (40-25-8, 88 points)

Home: Anaheim, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Detroit
Road: Detroit, Boston, Columbus, Montreal, Detroit

Analysis: Seven games against current playoff teams, but three are against the Eastern Conference and the West has dominated crossover games this season (Chicago is 9-4-2). This slate nudges ahead of the Kings' schedule because of three games against Detroit and an extra set of back-to-backs.

4. Los Angeles (42-26-6, 90 points)

Home: Colorado, Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim
Road: Edmonton, Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim

Analysis: Three games against the top four in the West (inclduing a trip to Vancouver while the Canucks are still trying to seal the top seed and Presidenst's Trophy) plus a home-and-home with archrival Anaheim when the Ducks might be desperate to secure a postseason berth.


5. Nashville (40-25-10, 90 points)

Home: Dallas, Vancouver, Detroit, Atlanta, Columbus
Road: Colorado, St. Louis

Analysis: Seven home games and two on the road against non-contenders (basically the opposite of Dallas) -- even if they lose the three against the top-nine clubs, they can still win the four against non-contenders and be safely in the playoffs.

6. Calgary (37-28-11, 85 points)

Home: Anaheim, Edmonton, Vancouver
Road: Edmonton, St. Louis, Colorado

Analysis: Good news: The Flames clearly have the easiest schedule, with four games against teams not in the mix (including all three road contests) and a game against the Canucks when they will likely have the West wrapped up. Bad news: They probably need to win all six.
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Posted On Tuesday, 03.22.2011 / 2:50 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Names to watch: potential playoff recalls

There are now several Chicago-area reporters confirming that Marcus Kruger, a fifth-round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, is indeed en route from his native Sweden to join the Blackhawks for the final weeks of the NHL season. With injuries to Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland, the Blackhawks need some help in the middle and Kruger could make his debut as soon as tomorrow night.

With Kruger's pending addition in mind, who might be some other surprise call-ups once the Stanley Cup playoffs begin? P.K. Subban, who had all of two NHL games on his resume, was a big hit for the Canadiens last year when injuries forced his recall during the first round of the playoffs. Buffalo played Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2006 with a pair of guys, Nathan Paetsch and Jeff Jillson, who had combined for three NHL games before that.

The rules for this list is the players must not be on roster today and can't have played more than nine NHL games to this point (this rules out guys like Washington's Braden Holtby and Buffalo's Luke Adam). Here's five names to remember if injury problems strike during the Stanley Cup playoffs:

1. Cody Hodgson, F, Vancouver

Hodgson has already had two stints with the Canucks this season (both last month), and he had a goal and an assist in eight games. The additions of Maxim Lapierre and Chris Higgins at the trade deadline meant another trip back to Manitoba for Hodgson and made it seem less likely that he'll be around in the postseason.

Manny Malhotra's eye injury could change that though. Hodgson was considered one of the top 2-3 prospects in hockey after a star turn at the 2009 world junior championships, but injuries have delayed his development. Don't be surprised if he earns a sweater for Vancouver at some point if the Cancuks go on a long playoff run and there is another injury or two up front.

2. Brayden Schenn, F, Los Angeles

Schenn began the season with the Kings and had two assists in eight games. He also spent some time on a rehab assignment with Manchester in the AHL before returning to the Western Hockey League. He was the top scorer at the WJC in December/January and The Hockey News recently named him the sport's top prospect in their "Future Watch" edition.

If the Kings were looking for an offensive boost during the playoffs, he could be the guy they turn to. There might be a problem with his availability. Schenn was traded to Saskatoon this season, and the Blades were the top team in the WHL during the regular season. A long run with the Blades could keep him from being available to the Kings if they needed him.

3. Ryan Ellis, D, Nashville

Ellis scored 100 points in the Ontario Hockey League (yes, that total is right) and might be the premiere offensive defenseman prospect in hockey. The Predators have a lot of good, young defensemen but if the power play is struggling during the postseason, he could have a Subban-like impact.

His junior team, Windsor, is not the powerhouse it once was, so he could be out of the OHL playoffs (and with Milwaukee in the AHL or even Nashville) sooner than Schenn. Ellis is a diminutive guy who has always had questions about his size, but his skill is elite and tossing him into the fire in the NHL postseason might just be worth the risk for the Predators if they needed him. Another good prospect on defense, Roman Josi, would be a safer choice but there's no reason why both couldn't play for the Predators if there was a rash of injuries.

4. Brendan Smith, D, Detroit

Could also include Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar here, who had a goal in nine games earlier this season, but Smith would, like Ellis, potentially be making his NHL debut during the playoffs. Smith was Detroit's first-round pick in the 2007 Entry Draft and spent three seasons at the University of Wisconsin.

He's had a successful rookie season with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League (12 goals and 32 points in 57 games) and his second on the Griffins in scoring among the defensemen. Detroit might lean toward recalling a more seasoned option like Derek Meech or Doug Janik, but Smith is the organization's top prospect and it isn't out of the realm of possibility that he gets a game or two for the Red Wings in an emergency situation.

5. Michael Leighton, G, Philadelphia

OK, so this is breaking the rules a little. Calgary's Leland Irving, San Jose's Alex Stalock or Nashville's Mark Dekanich are possibilities as young goalies who could be thrust into a tough spot during the NHL playoffs, but wouldn't Leighton be a great story?

The emergence of Sergei Bobrovski has pushed Leighton down the depth chart in Philadelphia, and he's made only one appearance for the Flyers this season. He has a .924 save percentage in the AHL this season, and no other team has a guy who went 8-3 in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs sitting in the minors as a "in case of emergency, break glass" option.
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Posted On Friday, 03.18.2011 / 12:05 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Sorting out postseason-cinching scenarios

The Vancouver Canucks were the first team to reserve a spot in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, but a pair of Eastern Conference teams can join them Friday night. Both the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals could clinch a spot in the playoffs with some help.

The Flyers are idle, but will lock up a playoff berth if the New Jersey Devils do not beat the Capitals in regulation (New Jersey claims less than two points) and if the Carolina Hurricanes lose to the New York Islanders in regulation (Carolina gets no points). The Capitals will book their postseason reservations for a fourth straight season with a victory against New Jersey and if the Hurricanes lose to the Islanders in regulation.

Because of the NHL's new tiebreaker rules, officially clinching playoff berths could be tricky -- espcially if those teams in the Western Conference are still so compactly congested in a couple of weeks. The first tiebreaker is now non-shootout wins, so it is possible we won't know who earns the nod in non-shootout wins between teams with a similar number of maximum points until the final game or games of the season.

Here's why Philadelphia and Washington can be safely in the playoffs after tonight's action:

* Philadelphia currently has 94 points and 41 non-shootout wins. If the Hurricanes lose in regulation to the Islanders, they can max out at 94 points and 38 non-shootout wins. If the Devils defeat the Capitals in a shootout, their maximum becomes 94 points and 41 non-shooutout wins. In that scenario the Flyers would earn the spot because they have clinched the next tiebreaker (Philadelphia has seven points against New Jersey to the Devils' four with one game to play in the season series).

* Washington would have 94 points and either 38 or 39 non-shootout wins with a victory. Again, Carolina's maximum after a regulation loss to the Islanders would be 94 points and 38 non-shootout wins. Like Philadelphia with New Jersey, the Capitals have already secured the second tiebreaker (points earned in the season series) by beating Carolina in all five meetings to this point this season, so they clinch a spot either way.
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Posted On Wednesday, 03.16.2011 / 3:18 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Flames road to playoffs in peril?

If the Stanley Cup Playoffs began tonight, the Calgary Flames would be preparing to play the Vancouver Canucks.

Alas, the NHL postseason does not begin for nearly a month and the Flames have a lot of work to do to be part of the 16-team party. While the Flames currently sit eighth in the Western Conference with 81 points, there are a few factors working against them and the path to retaining their current position in the top eight is not likely to be an easy one.

Calgary's two biggest problems on the ice are recent play and injuries. The Flames have lost three straight games, all in regulation, for the first time since mid-December. Two of those three losses came to the Phoenix Coyotes and represent the four-point difference in the standings between the two clubs (the Coyotes are fifth with 85 points).

"I'm not going to sugar coat it, we've lost three in a row now at this time of the season — it's unacceptable," Calgary coach Brent Sutter told reporters Tuesday after a 4-3 loss to Phoenix. "We're at a critical point in the year and when you’re at a critical point you need to play with a huge urgency and I didn't think we had it here tonight."

The Flames have been without Brendan Morrison since March 2 because of a swollen knee, and are now without David Moss indefinitely because of an ankle injury. That's two of the team's top eight scorers and has forced rookie Mikael Backlund, who turns 22 on Thursday, into the No. 1 center role between Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla.

Calgary has enough adversity to overcome, but the Flames have only 10 games left to play. Every other team in playoff contention in the West has at least one game in hand on Calgary. Nashville, currently in ninth place and one point behind Calgary, has two games in hand. Anaheim is two points back with three games in hand.

The Predators are 8-8-4 since the All-Star break. Project that pace out and they would finish with 92 points. However, Nashville has nine of its final 12 games at Bridgestone Arena where the Predators are 17-8-7 this season. Factor in the home/road ratio and 94 points looks like a solid projection for Nashville. The Predators also have four of their final five contests against Colorado, Atlanta, Columbus and St. Louis -- four the bottom six teams in the standings.

Anaheim has an extra game on Nashville, but the Ducks have a tough closing schedule. The Ducks have 6 of their 13 contests are at home, but 11 of the 13 games are against the nine teams currently ahead of them in the Western Conference.

The Ducks are 9-7-1 since the All-Star break. Using either projection method (post-ASG pace or home/road), Anaheim settles in somewhere between 93 and 94 points.

So a 6-3-1 finish for Calgary gets them to 94 points. The problem then becomes the tiebreaker. The Flames have only 28 non-shootout victories, which puts them behind Nashville (29) and well behind Anaheim (33). Should the Flames and Predators finish the season with the same number of points and non-shootout wins, Calgary does hold that tiebreaker thanks a four-game sweep of Nashville this season.

Six of Calgary's 10 games are on the road. One positive is four of the Flames' remaining games are against Colorado (twice), St. Louis and Edmonton -- the bottom three teams in the conference. Two of their games are against Anaheim and Calgary has one each at San Jose and Los Angeles.

The problem for the Flames is they have lost six straight games to the California trio and have not won in the Golden State this season. The two games against Anaheim will be critical (March 20 in Anaheim and March 30 in Calgary), and the three contests in four nights in California (March 20, 21 and 23) could be a defining stretch.

It certainly looks like 7-3 (and 95 points) could be the minimum for the Flames to stay ahead of Nashville and Anaheim in the race for the final spot in the West. It is possible one of the teams in front of them slumps, but 93 or 94 points could end up leaving the Flames agonizingly short of a tremendous comeback after being in 14th place in the West in late December.

"There are 10 games left in the season and we still have time," Sutter told reporters. "Teams have games in hand on us and we need to start winning some games and getting some points or we will find ourselves on the outside looking in quickly."
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Posted On Thursday, 03.10.2011 / 10:54 AM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Breaking down the Southeast title race

The Tampa Bay Lightning were in first place in the Southeast Division for 65 straight days, but the Washington Capitals have used a six-game winning streak to reclaim the top spot.

Both clubs won last night, so Washington has a two-point lead but Tampa Bay has a game in hand. One month from today, both teams will finish their seasons with road games against division foes. Will Washington claim its fourth straight division title, or will Tampa Bay earn its first banner since the Stanley Cup-winning season of 2003-04?

First and foremost, the Capitals are playing better right now. Six straight wins, albeit against mostly weak competition (a road win in Tampa is the only one against one of the top 24 teams in the League), matches the longest run of success for the Capitals this season. Tampa Bay scratched out a big win against Chicago last night, but the Lightning had lost four in a row and are 7-6-3 since the All-Star break.

Both teams have key players dealing with injuries. Mike Green is out until at least March 22 for Washington, and fellow defenseman Tom Poti is out indefinitely. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov is also hurting, but the other two kids in net for the Capitals have been just fine without him. Nicklas Backstrom might miss another game with a thumb injury, but it isn't expected to be much more than that.

Tampa Bay is missing Ryan Malone and might not get him back until the postseason. Defenseman Randy Jones and forward Steve Downie are also missing. Washington just added Eric Fehr to the lineup, while Mike Lundin just returned for the Lightning. Should Washington get Green or Poti back (or Malone make a speedier than expected recovery for Tampa Bay) that could have a big impact.

A big key for Washington has been Alex Ovechkin's form. The captain and two-time MVP has points in six straight games and 10 of 11 -- the best run of his season both in total production (16 points) and consistency. For the Lightning to keep pace, they will likely need their top gun, Steven Stamkos, to put together a similar stretch. He had a goal and an assist last night after going six games without a goal. A hot streak from Stamkos could swing the race.

Both teams have six home games left, so Tampa Bay's game in hand will come on the road. The biggest advantage for the Lightning is their six games against non-contenders, including three with Ottawa (though Craig Anderson has made the Senators plucky of late). Washington has four games against non-contenders, including a home-and-home with Florida to finish the season.

Washington has one less set of back-to-back games, so that might be worth a point or two. The Capitals also have a sizable advantage in the first tiebreaker (non-shootout wins) in the event the teams finish with the same number of points - the Lightning have won three more games via the shootout.

The Capitals do face a tougher schedule though, and not just because they have fewer games against bottom feeders. Tampa Bay has three games against current top-10 opponents (vs. Pittsburgh, at Chicago, at Montreal), while Washington has five such tilts (vs. Chicago, at Montreal (twice), Philadelphia and Detroit).

Both teams have to play three games in four days twice, but the difference is Washington's 3-in-4s overlap, and that brings us to the most important stretch of either schedule - and what could ultimately decide the Southeast Division.

The Capitals play four times in six days next week, and the task is brutal. A Sunday matinee at home against surging Chicago, then road games at Montreal (Tuesday), Detroit (Wednesday) and New Jersey (Friday). That's three of the top 10 teams in the League and three of the hottest teams in the League.

After the Capitals play in New Jersey on March 18 and the Lightning play in Ottawa the next night, both teams will play on the same day until the final week of the season, so there will be plenty of scoreboard watching in those arenas and in the coaches' offices during intermissions. Tampa Bay won't make up the game in hand until April 8 against Florida.

If it goes down to the final day, Washington is in South Florida to play the Panthers and Tampa Bay will be in Raleigh, N.C., to play the Hurricanes. It could end up being the NHL's most exciting division race.

Who has the edge? Tampa Bay has the easier schedule. Washington has the momentum. It should be fascinating to see it play out.
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