The ultra-tight Southeast Division race may carry more weight this season than the average division title pursuit - any team that doesn't win it may not even make the playoffs.
The Washington Capitals and the Atlanta Thrashers will both look to improve their hopes of coming out of the Southeast when they face off Wednesday.
|Kari Lehtonen deflects one of 36 Capitals shots en route to a 2-0 shutout in their last meeting on Feb. 2. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
The top four teams in the division - Washington, Carolina, Atlanta and Florida - are all within a few points of one another. Even the last-place Lightning are still in the race despite having the fewest points of any Eastern Conference team.
"We're aware of it, we talk about that kind of stuff in the dressing room," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "We're very aware of where we stand and what we need to do, and how important more games are than others."
Division games have taken on added importance considering that if the season ended today, only the Southeast champion would make the playoffs.
The Thrashers (27-27-4) have 13 games left against Southeast teams, while the Capitals (27-25-5) have 12.
"Our weak division is going to be pretty exciting, I think, in the next little while," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Either Washington or Atlanta will emerge with at least a share of the division lead on Wednesday, and they both will be tied for first place if the Thrashers win this game in overtime or a shootout. Both teams are looking to string together wins after overtime victories in their most recent games.
The Capitals beat the New York Rangers 3-2 on Sunday, as Mike Green scored just 23 seconds into overtime off an assist from Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin had a goal and two assists, running his league-leading totals to 47 goals and 76 points.
Ovechkin has 27 goals and 43 points in his last 29 games, a stretch during which the Capitals have gone 18-8-3 to rebound from a dismal start.
|Alex Ovechkin (8) and Tomas Fleischmann (43) celebrate with Mike Green (52) after his game-winning goal Sunday. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
They've won three of four and nine of 13 overall, and now seek their first three-game road winning streak in a single season since a four-game run from Nov. 28-Dec. 23, 2006.
"Our goal ultimately is to try to be the best team in the East, and we don't want to hang our hat on just winning the division," Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "Obviously it gets you in the playoffs automatically, but we're just going to continue to try to do good things."
The Capitals are 2-2-1 against Atlanta this season, losing the last meeting 2-0 at home on Feb. 2 as Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen made 36 saves.
Lehtonen stopped 27 shots in the Thrashers' 2-1 win over Tampa Bay on Saturday, as Atlanta temporarily took over the division lead after defenseman Alexei Zhitnik's overtime game-winner.
"It's like a roller-coaster, in first place one day and in second place the next day," Zhitnik said. "We're trying to find some consistency and put a winning streak together."
The Thrashers had lost their previous two games - both at home - before beating the Lightning, and a win streak might require more offense from leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk has 39 goals and 65 points this season, but he has just two goals and no assists in his last eight games.
Atlanta had lost six straight when Kovalchuk was held without a point before Saturday's win, but he has three goals and eight points in four games against the Capitals this season.