|VIDEO: Ovechkin can't be stopped|
Leading scorers: Alex Ovechkin 15-9-24, Nicklas Backstrom 4-19-23, Mike Green 3-19-22.
The skinny: The Caps already are running away with the Southeast Division and they've even done some of the damage without Ovechkin; the back-to-back Hart Trophy winner missed six games with an upper-body strain. Their goaltending tandem of Jose Theodore and rookie Semyon Varlamov has been decent. Michal Neuvirth playd well in a loss Friday. Backstrom and Alexander Semin, who is out with a right wrist injury, have been as good as advertised, and Brendan Morrison has proven to be a beneficial pick-up. He's centering the second line and is playing the point on the power play. He's a safer option up top than Ovechkin because of his defensive awareness. Injuries, though, are a concern as Mike Knuble is out with a fractured finger and Semin with the wrist problem. Defensemen Milan Jurcina and Tom Poti and center Boyd Gordon also are battling injuries.
The next 20: Washington hits its hardest stretch of the season, with 13 road games before the end of the calendar year. The Caps go on the road for four straight from Dec. 12-19, starting in Toronto and then going to Colorado, Vancouver and Edmonton. They also play at Philadelphia and at San Jose.
| TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
| VIDEO: Malone hat trick
Record: 8-4-7, 23 points (2nd in Southeast, 7th in East)
Leading scorers: Steven Stamkos 14-8-22, Ryan Malone 13-8-21, Martin St. Louis 5-15-20.
Vincent Lecavalier, who has scuffled all season. He has 4 goals and 18 points in 19 games, but it's a relatively quiet near point-per-game pace for the All-Star centerman. He had his first multi-goal and 3-point game of the season Monday, so he might be coming out of it. Imagine if he does; they've stayed above water without significant help from their captain, but if he gets hot it could be look-out time for the Lightning. Stamkos, the first pick of the 2008 Entry Draft, has been impressively consistent and Malone deserves a lot of credit for his gritty way of scoring goals. He's also a plus-8, while Stamkos is a plus-6. Mattias Ohlund and Calder Trophy candidate Victor Hedman have been a solid top defensive pair, and Matt Walker, an underrated addition, is plus-7. However, Tampa's special teams could use some work as they rank in the bottom 10 in both power play and penalty kill.
The next 20: The Lightning, who play their 20th game Saturday, have an even split of 10 home and 10 road games to close 2009. However, they hit the road for six straight from Dec. 11-21, and three of the games are in Colorado, Chicago and Detroit. They also play in Dallas, Boston and New Jersey. Their home dates include tilts against the Rangers, Capitals and Flyers.
| ATLANTA THRASHERS
| VIDEO: Ask a Thrashers
Leading scorers: Rich Peverley 8-15-23, Ilya Kovalchuk 13-8-21, Maxim Afinogenov 8-11-19.
The skinny: The Thrashers stayed afloat without Kovalchuk for six games and they've actually become one of the more feared teams in the League. Teams know they aren't among the NHL's elite, but if you take it easy for even a second the Thrashers will burn you. Atlanta gives up way too many shots (35.2 per game), but it's an exciting offensive team with killer special teams (No. 2 on PP and No. 6 on PK in NHL).Kovalchuk has been awesome despite missing time with a broken foot. Peverley has been a blessing; the out-of-nowhere forward, claimed on waivers last season from Nashville, is among the League's leading scorers. Even Afinogenov is experiencing a revival below the Mason-Dixon Line. Zach Bogosian is turning into an elite defenseman and Pavel Kubina has proven to be a solid blue-line pick-up. Nik Antropov has 16 assists, but just one goal.
The next 20: They close out a five-game homestand this weekend with their 19th and 20th games of the season. The second quarter begins Wednesday in Detroit, not the easiest of places to win. Atlanta plays 13 of its second-quarter games on the road, so staying in the playoff race will be difficult.
| FLORIDA PANTHERS
| VIDEO: Reinprecht hat trick
Record: 9-9-2, 20 points (4th in Southeast, 13th in East)
Leading scorers: Steven Reinprecht 9-7-16, Nathan Horton 5-11-16, Cory Stillman 6-7-13, Stephen Weiss 7-6-13.
David Booth after that vicious Mike Richards hit stung the Panthers, but since that game Oct. 24, they are 7-3-1. Granted, three of the wins came in shootouts, but those still come with two points and so did the OT win in Detroit on Friday. Florida still is giving up a League-high 35.4 shots per game. Reinprecht has been good and they are getting some goals out of Stillman and Weiss. Stillman, though, left Friday's game with an injury and could be out a while. In goal, Tomas Vokoun has been OK considering the amount of shots he faces. Backup Scott Clemmensen had a 5.13 GAA and .838 save percentage before making 39 saves in Friday's win to drop his GAA a full goal. The Panthers are within striking distance of a playoff spot because they are 4-2 in shootouts; they were 3-8 last season.
The next 20: After Saturday's game at the Rangers, Florida plays six of its next nine at home. They then hit the road for four straight, in Columbus, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Long Island. The schedule isn't dreadful as they play nine of their next 20 against teams that currently are not in a playoff spot.
| CAROLINA HURRICANES
| VIDEO: Ask the Canes
Leading scorers: Ray Whitney 6-8-14, Tuomo Ruutu 5-9-14, Jussi Jokinen 5-8-13.
The skinny: First the bad and then, well, the bad. There isn't much that we could call very good right now about the Hurricanes, who have won just once in regulation, and that was Oct. 9 in a 7-2 thrashing of Florida. Their other three wins are via the shootout, but bridged by a 14-game winless streak. What exactly happened to this team? Well, Eric Staal struggled out of the gate and has is now on injured reserve. Cam Ward also struggled to start the season, and he's still out after getting slashed in the leg with a skate five games ago. Erik Cole also missed 10 games with a knee injury. That's three key pieces from the team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. But it's not like they were playing particularly well before they went out. The Hurricanes are 29th in the League in scoring (2.24 goals per game) and 29th goals-against (3.67 per game).
The next 20: It doesn't get any easier for the struggling Hurricanes, who play seven of their next 12 games on the road. They play three straight at Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Washington from Dec. 7-11. They're home for four straight from Dec. 19-26.