The Race to the FinishPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
It’s hard to believe, but we’re now less than four weeks from the conclusion of the NHL’s 2011-12 regular season. Washington’s big four-point weekend has given the Capitals four points worth of breathing room in the chase for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference standings with 13 games to go, and the Caps are just a point back of the Florida Panthers for the top spot in the Southeast Division. With a rugged stretch of five road games immediately ahead, the Caps know they’ve got to keep their foot on the gas here. As we head into the final weeks of the season, we’re seeing some tightening of the standings around the league. In the Eastern Conference, it seems as though the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins have occupied the top two spots in the standings all season. That’s still the case, but both clubs are starting to feel some back pressure within their respective divisions. Pittsburgh has won nine straight and Philadelphia has won seven of 10 to make the Rangers feel some heat from behind. New York’s Atlantic Division lead is down to four points over the Penguins now. Philly and New Jersey are both four behind the Pens as the Atlantic is virtually certain to place four clubs in the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring. The Blueshirts opened a seven-game homestand on Sunday with a come-from-behind overtime win over the New York Islanders, who have coughed up three third-period leads in the last two weeks. The Rangers have two games left with the Penguins, including one on the homestand this week. New York should be able to hold onto the top spot, but if Sidney Crosby returns to the Pens’ lineup this week, he could provide them with quite a boost. Boston has been a .500 hockey team for about two months now, and the Bruins’ lead in the Northeast Division is down to just two points over the Ottawa Senators. The B’s do have two games in hand on the Sens, but Boston also has a West Coast trip looming in which it must play three games in four nights at San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim. Florida held onto the top spot in the Southeast with its 2-0 win over Carolina today. The Cats have never won a division title in their history, and today marks the latest they have ever occupied a top spot in the division standings in their history. The Cats led the Caps for the Southeast top spot on March 10, 2000 but were toppled from that perch the next day. The Panthers hold a one-point lead over second-place Washington, and they've got a game in hand on the Caps. The two teams meet once more, on April 5 in the District. Like the Caps, Winnipeg has struggled on the road. The Jets have three home games this week, including Friday’s marquee match against Washington. But the Jets will play seven of their final 10 on the road, with four of those coming against teams currently in the playoff picture. Out west, the St. Louis Blues have opened up a commanding six-point lead over Detroit in the Central Division. The Blues started a stretch in which they’ll play seven straight on the road with a 2-1 win at Columbus today. The Red Wings have a game in hand on St. Louis and one game left with the Blues. St. Louis will still pay two more visits to Chicago this season, and the Blackhawks are one of four Central clubs that are virtual locks for the playoffs. Things are very interesting in the Pacific Division. Dallas leads Phoenix by three points for the top spot, but Los Angeles and San Jose are still in the running. Only six points separate those four clubs, and it’s possible that only two of them will make it into the postseason. Dallas has two games left with the Sharks and one with Phoenix. Los Angeles is one of three teams currently tied for the eighth spot in the west, and the Sharks have dropped to 11th, just one point out of eighth. The Kings and Sharks play a home-and-home set against one another to conclude the regular season, a pair of games that could have a lot of meaning to a few other clubs by that time, too. Vancouver has locked up the Northeast and is a good bet to finish second overall in the Western Conference. The Canucks own a 16-point bulge over second-place Calgary. Vancouver is five points behind the Blues for the top spot in the west, and it has completed its season series with St. Louis. Only 25 points separate the top 21 teams in the NHL right now. The same standings tightness that led to a lackluster trade deadline two weeks ago is now creating a furious run to the finish for playoff spots and playoff positioning now that we are in the final month of the campaign. For all their ups and downs this season, the Caps have put themselves in a decent spot. If they can string together some wins, they should out some pressure on Florida and Winnipeg in the Southeast Division. Those two teams are in somewhat unfamiliar territory, having earned just one playoff berth between them in their last 22 combined NHL seasons. Although they have struggled at times to beat the teams ahead of them in the standings, the Capitals have won a game in the building of every Eastern Conference club ahead of them in the standings except for the Rangers. The Caps get a chance to correct that when they close out the campaign at Madison Square Garden on April 7. Fasten your seatbelts. It should be quite a ride to the finish for a lot of teams.
Washington has an impressive 19-1-2 record when leading after the first period, a mark that ranks second in the NHL only to the Boston Bruins this season. Boston is 20-2-0 in such situations; its .909 points pct. is better than Washington’s .864. The Caps have led after the first 20 minutes 22