End of the Road Trip, But Not the End of the Road

The Capitals finished off their mentors trip in fine fashion on Saturday night in Tampa Bay, downing the Lightning 3-2. The win was Washington’s 28th of the season, matching the team’s total from the 2006-07 season. Sixteen very happy dads came down to the visitors’ locker room after the game and had a group photo taken with their sons and the rest of the members of the Capitals. The dads and the other 20,000 folks in attendance at St. Pete Times Forum witnessed a hell of a hockey game. There should be plenty more to come among the Caps’ remaining 22 tilts this season.

The dads and sons spent Sunday here under sunny skies, either golfing or fishing. We’ll all fly back to our respective homes late this afternoon.

Had Saturday’s game gone the other way, the Caps would have been in a third-place tie with Florida, four points behind top dog Carolina and just two points ahead of fifth place Tampa Bay. Instead, the Caps dealt the Lightning a “devastating” loss and kept the first-place Hurricanes well within reach.

The week ahead and the weeks ahead hold plenty of interest and intrigue for fans of the five Southeast teams, the tightest division in the NHL at the moment. Only eight points are separating the five Southeast teams, and only 17 points currently separate the 15 Eastern Conference teams roughly three-quarters of the way into the season.

Here’s a quick look at the Southeast in both the short run and the longer view.

Carolina has won three straight and four out of five. The Canes play twice (on Monday in New Jersey and at home on Tuesday against Boston) before the Caps play their next game. Carolina hosts Atlanta on Tuesday and then the Caps visit Raleigh on Saturday, so by week’s end, the Caps will have two games in hand on Carolina. Tuesday’s game against Boston starts a six-game homestand for Carolina. After Monday’s game in Newark, the Hurricanes have only seven more road dates all season. By contrast, Washington will play six straight road games late in March. Beginning on Mar. 19, the Hurricanes play nothing but Southeast Division opponents the rest of the way, a total of eight games.

Atlanta has won three of its last four and six of its last nine. Four of the Thrashers last five wins have come in overtime or in the shootout. Atlanta is off until Thursday when it visits Carolina. The Thrashers will play their next three games, five of their next six, and 12 of their final 21 games of the season on the road. Beginning on Mar. 19 when it hosts Carolina, the Thrashers play only against Southeast Division opponents the rest of the way, a total of seven games.

Florida is 5-3-1 in February. The Panthers play four games this week: they visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday, host Boston on Thursday, visit Philly on Saturday and Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Florida has a seven-game homestand in March, and plays nine of its last 10 games that month at BankAtlantic Center before going out on the road for all three of its April dates. Beginning on Mar. 16 when it hosts Atlanta, Florida plays exclusively against Southeast Division foes the rest of the way. The Swamp Cats will play each of their last nine games of the schedule against divisional foes.

Tampa Bay is 8-4-1 in its last 13 games, but Saturday night’s loss definitely hurts. The Lightning must climb over four teams to get to the top, a tall order with only 23 games remaining. The Lightning will also play eight of its first 11 March games on the road. The Bolts have three games left with Carolina and two each with the Caps and Panthers. Beginning on Mar. 22, the Lightning finishes out the season against Southeast opponents, a span of eight games.

Washington ran off four straight wins in mid-January but is 6-5-1 since. The Caps have climbed back into the playoff chase after a 3-14-1 stretch of hockey early in the season, doing so on the strength of their current 39-game run in which they have not suffered successive regulation setbacks. The Caps will have to play six straight on the road at the end of March, but they’ve played a strong 13-13-5 away from Verizon Center this season. Beginning with a Mar. 21 game in Atlanta, the Caps will finish out the schedule with seven straight Southeast skirmishes.

None of the five teams in the Southeast Division has managed to win as many as five straight games this season. If any is able to reel off five straight over the season’s final seven weeks, it might make the difference in the division. Plenty of folks are eager to write off the Hurricanes after the loss of captain and face-off whiz Rod Brind’Amour to a season-ending knee injury, but all the teams in the division have dealt with and played through injuries throughout the campaign. You won’t see me writing off Carolina, and they’ve won three straight at the moment, giving them the best chance to become the first team in the division to win five in a row this season.

Given the way the five Southeast teams have beaten each other’s heads in over the season, I think the best chance for a club to separate itself from the pack is from now to the middle of March, when the schedule almost turns into a Southeast tournament the rest of the way. The division could well be decided between now and mid-March, and the fun has certainly already begun.

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5 Comments on “End of the Road Trip, But Not the End of the Road”

  1. strungout Says:

    We need a 2nd line center.

  2. CapitalSpirit Says:

    This is the first year since the lockout that the Caps have been playing meaningful games after Valentine’s Day. And since I only go back to the lockout, this is a bit of a new experience for me. Hope to experience it more than once now that Ovechkin’s on board for the next decade and change, but that’s a whole other thread.

    Wednesday night’s game against the Islanders is starting to look like a must-win, because after that, we’ve got four consecutive games against division leaders: Carolina (Southeast), Minnesota (Northwest), and twice against New Jersey (Atlantic). We then host the struggling Leafs, whom we take for granted at our peril. After that, a trip to Buffalo breaks up a home-and-home with the Bruins, and those teams aren’t slouches, either (Boston has had our number in recent years). From there, it’s home for what might be a make-or-break 4-game homestand: Pittsburgh (always intense), a respectable Calgary squad, the Thrashers (their goaltender any good?), and one more time against the Bruins. From there, it’s a quick two-game Central swing, followed by dates with every other team in the division, in their barn. We’re then home for the last three games of the regular season, and if there’s any doubt left at that point, the Phone Booth is going to be a madhouse.

    Unless the Caps go on an absolutely historic tear in the next week or two, our regular season is going to come down to the last few games. It’s going to be an exciting end to the regular season, win or lose.

    Barring a collapse more catastrophic than the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, we’re going to surpass our 70 points from the previous two seasons. Not bad. We’re in position to make the playoffs, and if we do, even better. I’ve been saying “second round” since before the season started, and if that does indeed happen, wonderful. Thing is, I’m not sure we’ll be able to raise a ruckus in the later rounds with what we currently have in place.

    That said, this is going to be one very wild ride down the stretch. Strap yourselves in tight, Caps faithful: this stretch run might make the Storm Runner look like the Granny Bugs by way of comparison.

  3. Mike Says:

    Canes lost today, so still no SE team close to winning 5 straight.

    Looks like the caps have a pretty rough schedule ahead. Barring a total collapse, the last 7 games are going to be war.

    The caps are 2 points out of third, 2 points out of 8th, 3 points out of 7th, and 5 points out of 6th. They play the bruins (8th) 3 times the rest of the way. Those are probably going to be huge points if the caps cant catch carolina.

  4. Turk from Alaska Says:

    FUN? Fun? You call this FUN? I’m frakin’ dying up here Vogs… I don’t know if I can take another month of this up and down stuff!

    ~Turk

  5. Mike L Says:

    Hopefully the rest of the Month will be good to the Caps… with that big trip in Late March coming up, they better be ready!

    Any chance there’ll be fresh ice laid down at the Phone Booth while the Caps are away for 2 weeks?


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