With Carolina’s 5-0 win over Washington Monday night, the Canes pulled to within eight points of the division leading Florida Panthers.
Most pundits picked Washington to win the Southeast for a fifth straight year, citing the clear-cut best team in a weak division. Tampa was another choice, shown by their deep playoff run. Nobody was sure what Florida would do after their spending spree or how Winnipeg would play after their move from Atlanta. Carolina was projected as a team battling for a playoff spot.
We approach the season’s three-quarters pole, as we see Florida leading the division by tiebreaker over Winnipeg and Washington is right behind both. Tampa and Carolina have struggled this season, but are still hanging around.
Florida’s only won 27 games, but are helped by 11 overtime/shootout losses. Both Winnipeg (18-9-3) and Washington (19-8-2) are great at home, but can’t win on the road (both have 17 regulation road losses). Tampa has allowed 197 goals, second worst in the NHL. Carolina was 14-23-7 on January 10th. Their deep hole that late in the season will make it very hard for them to make the playoffs, but they’re giving a fight.
Since the new year, Florida has only gone 7-8-4, allowing the rest of the pack to gain some ground. Kris Versteeg, team leader in goals (22) and points (48), has only scored 5 goals, 10 points in 18 games since the calendar flipped, and is a -11, compared to a +14 in the first three months of the season. Veteran blueliner Ed Jovanovski has missed the last 14 games and his presence has been missed. Fortunately, he nears a return for the Cats.
The Jets have been a surprise since moving from Atlanta. The Thrashers finished in 4th place in the division last season, earning 80 points. Winnipeg’s getting production from everyone, with 10 players with eight or more goals. But only one of them (Evander Kane, 22) has hit the 20 goal mark.
Washington fired coach Bruce Boudreau in late November and replaced him with former Capital captain Dale Hunter, who had been the OHL London Knights coach since 2001. Unfortunately for Washington, it hasn’t worked out, as the team has gone 17-16-4 under Hunter. Alex Ovechkin only has 24 goals and 45 points in 56 games. Unless he majorly picks up the pace, it’ll be the first time in his career that he will finish with less than a point a game.
Goaltending has been Tampa Bay’s achilles. Dwayne Roloson is one of the league’s worst goalies this season, recording a 3.67 GAA and an .883 save percentage. Mathieu Garon has taken over the reigns as #1 goalie and has gone 3-2-2 with a 2.55 GAA and .907 save percentage in the month of February. Steven Stamkos continues to be a star, hitting the 40 goal mark already.
Carolina is the hottest team in the division, going 9-3-4 in their last 16. Eric Staal is no longer the worst player in plus/minus, “improving” to -15. 2011 Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner has had a pretty good sophomore year (16-15-31 in 44 games) despite missing more than a month with a concussion.
Washington’s the best team on paper and would be expected to snap out of their funk any time now, but people have been expecting that for the entire season and it hasn’t happened. Winnipeg’s played more games than everyone else, which will hurt them in the long run. Florida’s got the best chance, according to Sports Club Stats, a website that predicts the odds sports teams will make the playoffs.
Whoever wins, it’ll be a fun race to get there.