Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.
Bold = playoff contender; Italics = likely lottery fodder.
Southeast Division outlook (March 14 -March 20th)
1. Washington Capitals (40-20-10 for 90 pts; 70 Games Played)
Current streak: Eight wins in a row.
Week ahead: Three road games – vs. Montreal (Tuesday), Detroit (Wednesday) and New Jersey (Friday).
Thoughts: The Capitals are one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now, there’s no doubt about that. Even with a five-point lead in the Southeast Division, they can’t rest on their laurels. Tuesday’s game against the Canadiens begins a six-game road trip that should test Washington’s growing case as a Cup contender.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning (38-22-9 for 85 pts; 69 GP)
Current streak: Two losses in a row.
Week ahead: Three road games – vs. Toronto (Mon), Montreal (Thurs) and Ottawa (Sat).
Thoughts: If I had to wager on the Capitals or Lightning, I’d probably have to go with Washington. Tampa Bay would improve their odds if they closed the gap to three points with 12 games to go if they beat the Maple Leafs tonight. Still, with eight of their last 13 contests away from home, it might be a bit much to ask.
3. Carolina Hurricanes (31-28-10 for 72 pts; 69 GP)
Current streak: Four straight losses.
Week ahead: Away vs. Buffalo (Tues), home against Toronto (Wed) and home vs. Islanders (Fri).
Thoughts: It’s probably true that every remaining game is at least somewhat big for the Canes, but the next two are still substantial, as they take on bubble teams on Tuesday and Wednesday. Cam Ward, Eric Staal & Co. actually play the Sabres two more times counting Tuesday’s big road contest, so they could conceivably close the gap in a vacuum if they won both of those games in regulation.
4. Atlanta Thrashers (29-28-12 for 70 pts; 69 GP)
Current streak: One win.
Week ahead: Road game vs. New Jersey (Tues), home vs. Philadelphia (Thurs) and @ Buffalo (Sat).
Thoughts: This week might just be a “fork in the road” moment for the puzzling Thrashers. All three of these contests could be defeats, but if they make an impressive showing, that will reveal their legitimacy in the home stretch. It’s tough to fault anyone who has been questioning their playoff credibility since New Year’s, though.
5. Florida Panthers (28-32-9 for 65 pts; 69 GP)
Current streak: One win.
Week ahead: Three home games – vs. Philadelphia (Tues), Toronto (Thurs) and Islanders (Saturday).
Thoughts: The Panthers have been solid in the first four games in their seven-game homestand (2-1-1), but solid wasn’t what they needed to make a last minute surge into the playoff picture. Instead, they leave their fans with yet another purgatory season in which they’re not good enough to make the postseason but not bad enough to get a great draft pick. Unless they start tanking right now, that is.