Tag: Eastern Conference playoff bubble

Toronto Maple Leafs v Florida Panthers

Panthers cough up chance to clinch Southeast, playoffs


There aren’t many sports that allow you to “back into” a third seed, but the Florida Panthers might just do that with the Southeast Division this season. They keep inching toward that mark and/or their first playoff berth in more than a decade, but they’re earning virtually zero style points (not to mention tempting the jinxing gods.)

At first, it seemed like they were ready to cruise to an exciting destination as they opened up a 3-0 lead against a Winnipeg Jets team that had every excuse to fold – especially on the road.

Blame it on “playing not to lose,” just not being good enough or any number of other factors, but the bottom line is that the Jets took over the scoring after Tomas Fleischmann made it 3-0 just 25 seconds in the second period. Winnipeg collected two goals to end the middle frame and then scored two goals within four minutes of the third period to make it 4-3. On the bright side, the Panthers squeezed another charity point out of the game as Tomas Kopecky scored the game-tying goal but Andrew Ladd’s OT winner has to be tough to swallow.

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Well, unless you’re the team that ends up with the East’s sixth seed, that is. In that case, you’re probably licking your chops.

Southeast showdown

This sets up a great opportunity for the Washington Capitals to unseat the Panthers for the Southeast title. Florida only needs a point to clinch a playoff spot and the division but the Caps could make that less of a certainty by beating them at the Verizon Center on Thursday.

After that, the Panthers visit the Carolina Hurricanes while the Washington Capitals face a Rangers team with little to play for in Madison Square Garden – both on Saturday.

It would be surprising if Florida fails to win the division and even more shocking if they fall out of the East’s top eight if things really fall apart, but they opened themselves up to that possibility by letting a seemingly certain victory slip away.

Capitals, Sabres react to changing fortunes

Montreal Canadiens v Washington Capitals

When the Buffalo Sabres clearly outclassed the Washington Capitals 5-1 on Tuesday, it seemingly provided evidence of two teams going in the wrong direction. The Caps disappointed again while that victory marked the fifth in a row for Buffalo.

That turned out to be true, only it seems that game was a turning point for the Capitals and perhaps the peak of the 2011-12 season for the Sabres.

Things are pretty bad for Buffalo now, something that isn’t lost on the team. Ville Leino told the Buffalo News’ John Vogl that much:

“Tuesday we have to win,” Leino said. “Otherwise, we don’t have a chance.”

With a two-point gap between Washington and Buffalo and three games left for each team, it would seem like Leino is being a bit dramatic. Yet with the Capitals’ tiebreaker advantage, it’s more like a three-point difference.

The Sabres are struggling with two consecutive regulation losses but the Caps seem aware that they haven’t exactly gotten their edge with dominant wins. They beat both the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens 3-2 via shootouts after coughing up leads.

Mike Knuble discussed the results with CSNWashington.com’s Chuck Gormley.

“We’d love to do it with a little more ease but the bottom line is we got the two points and Buffalo didn’t,” Knuble said. “We’ve said all along we’re shooting for at least eight out of 10 points (in their final five games) and we’re heading into the right direction.”

Indeed, if the Capitals get four more points, they’d make the playoffs even if the Sabres win out. Washington has five more regulation/OT wins than Buffalo, so the only way the Sabres are taking the eighth spot is by finishing with more points.

Then again, maybe Buffalo can take advantage of another falling team in the Florida Panthers, so ultimately, it’s all about carving out as many points as possible. As the stretch run shows, fortunes can change pretty quickly.

Leafs shock Sabres; Capitals earn shootout win

Nicklas Backstrom

The Toronto Maple Leafs might actually receive a few nice questions from Lance Brown this weekend – or at least a Christmas card from the Washington Capitals next year.

A game after inspiring sarcastic Blue Jays chants, the Maple Leafs won their first game in Toronto since Feb. 6 – and it was a big blow to the Buffalo Sabres. A late goal made things awfully interesting but the Sabres lost 4-3 in regulation, thus locking them up in ninth place regardless of the Capitals’ actions.

Unfortunately for Buffalo, the Capitals came through during Nicklas Backstrom’s return to the lineup by winning a 3-2 shootout against the Montreal Canadiens. This gives the Caps a two-point lead for the East’s final spot while both teams have three games left.

Considering the fact that Washington holds the tiebreaker advantage over Buffalo, it really means the Sabres might have to make up a three-point gap for the eighth seed.

Chasing the Cats

With that in mind, the Capitals might even switch their sights from the Sabres and the eighth seed to the Florida Panthers and the Southeast Division title/third spot. Florida’s buffer has been reduced to two points and although it has a game in hand, the Capitals hold the tiebreaker advantage there as well and the two teams meet in Washington on Thursday.

It’s a pretty amazing turnaround for a Capitals team that was one of the league leaders in disappointments and negative press this season.

Backstrom’s return

Capitals fans were elated to see Nicklas Backstrom return, so here’s a quick look at what he did tonight:

Backstrom: zero points, two shots on goal, 12-6 in faceoffs and a -1 rating in 19:40 minutes.

Even with overtime in mind, Backstrom skating for almost 20 minutes might be the best sign for Washington. If he can get up to speed, the Capitals could actually be dangerous – whatever playoff spot they gain.

You know, if they make it that far (which is a much smaller “if” after today).

Panthers might not win the Southeast after all

Tomas Fleischmann, Dalton Prout

When the likely sixth-seed New Jersey Devils face off against the eventual Southeast Division winner, they’re probably not going to be too intimidated. Still, the Florida Panthers at least carried the most inspiring story into the possible division crown and the third seed that comes with it, but that triumph suddenly is in some doubt.

The Blue Jackets gave the Panthers a sound 4-1 beating in Columbus tonight, holding Florida to 90 standings points – just four more than the ninth-place Washington Capitals with both teams having four games left on their schedules. (And come to think of it, the Caps actually hold the tiebreaker advantage at the moment, so one could call it the equivalent to a “three” point lead.)

Flopping down the stretch

On paper, the Panthers should have been socking away points lately, but they’re instead 1-2-3 in their last six games, needing a shootout win against the lowly Montreal Canadiens for their only victory. In that time, they’ve lost shootouts to the Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers, regulation losses to the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes and an OT defeat to the Minnesota Wild.

In other words, if Florida manages a seemingly unthinkable drop from the playoffs, they’ll blame other teams that are golfing early.

Setting up for a showdown against Washington

The schedule gets more interesting after tonight, so if motivation is an issue, half of Florida’s schedule will give them extra inspiration. It starts with an away game against the Detroit Red Wings, then a presumably “easy” home game against the Winnipeg Jets.

It gets really interesting on Thursday, April 5, however. They’ll visit the Washington Capitals in what could be the Southeast Division’s version of the New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins – a game that could have serious division title implications (especially if it ends in regulation). After that, the Panthers will face the Hurricanes at home – which very well might be a fight for their Southeast title – and maybe even playoff – lives.

Ovechkin, Capitals steal a strange one in shootout

Alex Ovechkin

If hockey was a sport based on merit alone – and thus devoid of bounces and luck – you’d have to think that the Boston Bruins would have creamed the Washington Capitals tonight. In a way, though, the teams’ strange game matched the flow of an old school professional wrestling match with Washington eventually gaining the 3-2 shootout win.

Caps hook the tights

Consider the Capitals in the role of the “heel” or villain – and not just because of a questionable hit by Jason Chimera on Adam McQuaid. They essentially snoozed through the first 40 minutes, managing just nine shots in that time yet keeping the score 0-0. Then one could say that Alex Ovechkin did his best Ric Flair impression, “hooking the tights” with two opportunistic assists to give him 14 points (10 goals, four helpers) in his last 12 games.

(Hey, you can say what you will about Ovechkin’s overall disappointments and the team’s tough season, but what about his work during the stretch run? It’s getting harder to say he isn’t “clutch” considering that he’s seemingly only being productive in clutch times in 2011-12.)

Naturally fitting in with the theme of the Capitals’ up-and-down season, the Bruins scored two quick goals to make it 2-2. Consider that turnaround the hockey equivalent to Hulk Hogan “hulking up” at what seemed like the brink of defeat.

Eventually Brooks Laich was the one who scored the “pin” by beating Tim Thomas with a beautiful backhand shootout move, but it was a wild one before that.

East bubble update

Regardless, the Capitals generated those crucial two points, although they technically remain in ninth place:

7. Ottawa: 88 points, 34 regulation/OT wins with five games left
8. Buffalo: 86 points, 31 regulation/OT wins with five games left

9. Washington: 86 points, 36 regulation/OT wins with four games left

The Capitals currently hold the tiebreaker advantage over Buffalo, which means the Sabres will likely need to finish with at least one more point to take the final spot (assuming that the Senators don’t stumble out themselves). It’s not an impossible request, but as we’ve discussed before, Washington is going to need some help to get in the playoffs. Especially since it appears that Tomas Vokoun aggravated his groin injury on just his first game back Thursday.

Luck was certainly on their side for most of Thursday night, though.