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Breaking down the Southeast title race

by Corey Masisak
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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