The Washington Capitals
didn't have to do anything on Thursday night to become the first NHL team to clinch a division title and one of the 16 berths in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Caps, who lead the overall NHL standings with 99 points, were assured of the Southeast title when the Atlanta Thrashers
lost 2-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets
on Thursday night. The Thrashers, second in the Southeast, have 66 points with 16 games remaining, meaning they could earn a maximum of 98.
Washington is also closing in on assuring itself of first place in the Eastern Conference. The Caps lead second-place Pittsburgh, the leader in the Atlantic Division, by 14 points (99-85); both teams have 15 games remaining. The Penguins lost 4-3 in overtime at Carolina.
The next team likely to clinch a division title is the Chicago Blackhawks
, who entered Thursday leading the Central Division by 16 points over second-place Nashville, with both teams having 16 games remaining. The Hawks would be the first team other than the Detroit Red Wings
to win the Central since St. Louis in 1999-2000.