Southeast Division: As wide-open as it is pathetic

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In the bigger picture, the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers are one of the most pleasant surprises of the season.

Yet after the Anaheim Ducks shut them down 2-0 to give them their third consecutive loss, the Panthers helped to paint a larger picture of a group so weak that they might make the sixth seed worth fighting for.

Portrait of putridity

If division titles didn’t guarantee a team one of the top three seeds, the Panthers would be the only playoff representative at seventh place, with the Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning taking spots 9-11.

Anyway you break them down, these teams are underwhelming. No squad has a positive goal differential. The two teams that seemed like potential contenders have been somewhere between depressing (Capitals) and a disaster (the Lightning).

There’s one saving grace for the Southeast, though: the race to find a winner could be downright fascinating.

Handicapping the Southeast

The Carolina Hurricanes (55 points in 59 games played) have been hot lately, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll rule out the East’s bottom team. Here’s a real quick look at the rest of the division, as the streaking Lightning have a semi-reasonable chance now:

source: AP1. Florida: 27 wins, 65 points (24 regulation-OT wins) in 58 games played; 12 home and 12 road games left
2. Washington: 29 wins, 63 points (28 regulation-OT wins) in 58 GP; 12 home and 12 road games left
3. Winnipeg: 28 wins, 62 points (24 regulation-OT wins) in 60 GP; 13 home and 9 road games left
4. Tampa Bay: 26 wins, 58 points (24 regulation-OT wins) in 58 GP; 13 home and 11 road games left

Honestly, all four teams have interesting prospects.

  • The Panthers have the division lead and for all their flaws, they’ve fought through some tough injuries.
  • With Mike Green seemingly circling a return, tiebreaker advantages in the “wins” categories and all that talent, the Capitals are still my best guess for the division champs.
  • Winnipeg’s Games Played gap worries me a bit, but they started a lengthy homestand that could very well catapult them into serious contention. The Jets aren’t going to be as insignificant as many assume.
  • Speaking of dark horse candidates, the Lightning could be in a remarkably similar situation to the one the Jets face – especially if they get the four points necessary to tie them up via shootouts on the road. Tampa Bay’s been dreadful, but that could be a blessing in disguise; if the Bolts get better in their own end, they might have that “everything’s coming together” feeling.

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Kind of a fascinating situation, right? With a surprisingly intriguing race in mind, I cannot resist asking what you think. Who’s your choice for the division-winner? And could any of these teams actually do damage in the playoffs?

Note: despite the fact that they have basically zero chance, I included Carolina in the poll to be nice – and so people won’t yell at me.

Here are highlights of the Ducks’ blanking the Panthers:

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PHT’s Three Stars: Vasilevskiy, Callahan lead Lightning in Game 5

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1st Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Vasilevskiy’s great play continued in Game 5 after a bit of a stumble to start the series. In making 28 saves, he helped the Lightning beat the Washington Capitals 3-2 to take a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final. He’s now stopped 100 of the last 106 shots he’s faced. Tampa can clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final with a win Monday night in Game 6 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

2nd Star: Ryan Callahan, Tampa Bay Lightning

Callahan had his biggest game of the playofs with a goal and an assist in the Tampa win. He first assisted on Cedric Paquette‘s opening goal 19 seconds into the game and followed that up with an early tally himself in the second period. His goal, which would end up standing as the game-winner, came just 33 seconds into the middle period.

3rd Star: Dan Girardi, Tampa Bay Lightning

The blue liner logged 19:34 during Game 5 and blocked a game high four shots, including one in the final minute on Alex Ovechkin to help preserve the lead.

[Quick-striking Lightning on verge of Stanley Cup Final berth]

Highlight of the Night:

John Carlson might have nightmares about this save by Vasilevskiy with seconds to go:

Factoid of the Night:

Sunday’s schedule: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, 3 p.m. ET, NBC, live stream (Vegas leads series 3-1)

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Quick-striking Lightning on verge of Stanley Cup Final berth

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You can’t spot a team a 3-0 lead and expect to win in the playoffs.

And while the Washington Capitals tried desperately to not fall victim to their own undoing earlier in the game, they simply ran out of time in a 3-2 loss on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning now lead the best-of-7 series 3-2 as the series shifts back to D.C. for Game 6 on Monday. Tampa is 7-0 all-time in Washington in the playoffs and has now won three straight in the series after falling behind 0-2.

In the first period and into the second, the Capitals appeared to be the same old disappointing playoff team — they just delayed their arrival this season for an extra round.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Vasilevskiy, Callahan lead Lightning in Game 5]

This does look like vintage Capitals collapse, no?

Giving their opponents a 3-0 lead in just over 20 minutes, including allowing goals at 19 seconds of the first period (Cedric Paquette) and 33 seconds of the second period (Ryan Callahan), isn’t a winning formula.

Nor is your superstar getting exactly zero shots on goal for the first 58 minutes of the game.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin hit the bar earlier in the third period, and once he did get shooting, he found twine on his second shot of the game with 1:36 left and the net empty, but it was all too late in the end.

Tampa is now a team on the verge of a berth in the Stanley Cup Final and the Capitals on the brink of their yearly disappointing exit from the postseason.

A silver lining: Evgeny Kuznetsov keeps producing. But you’re not winning a conference final riding on the back of one player, as Washington is figuring out.

The urgency displayed in the third period from the Caps would be better used spread out over all three periods.

But perhaps most concerning for the Capitals is how Tampa found their stride 5-on-5.

They didn’t manage to win the puck possession battle (as per usual in this series) but they did have a nearly 3-to-1 edge on high-danger scoring chances for at 15-6.

All three of their goals came at 5-on-5 and they didn’t have to rely on their power play to get their offense rolling.

That will be interesting to watch in Game 6. Giving the Lightning a man-advantage was a death sentence. But if they’re scoring 5-on-5 as well, Washington is going to be in a world of hurt.

This isn’t helping either:

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

NHL Playoffs 2018: Conference Finals TV Schedule

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The conference finals are now set with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals meeting in the East and the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets facing off in the West. The round to determine who will play for the 2018 Stanley Cup will begin Friday.

Here’s the full Round 3 schedule:

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Washington Capitals (Lightning lead series 3-2)

Friday, May 11, 8pm: Capitals 4, Lightning 2
Sunday, May 13, 8pm: Capitals 6, Lightning 2
Tuesday, May 15, 8pm: Lightning 4, Capitals 2
Thursday, May 17, 8pm: Lightning 4, Capitals 2
Saturday, May 19, 7:15pm: Lightning 3, Capitals 2
Monday, May 21, 8pm: Lightning @ Capitals | NBCSN
*Wednesday, May 23, 8pm: Capitals @ Lightning | NBCSN

Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets (Golden Knights lead series 3-1)

Saturday, May 12, 7pm: Jets 4, Golden Knights 2
Monday, May 14, 8pm: Golden Knights 3, Jets 1
Wednesday, May 16, 9pm: Golden Knights 4, Jets 2
Friday, May 18, 8pm: Golden Knights 3, Jets 2
Sunday, May 20, 3pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBC
*Tuesday, May 22, 9pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
*Thursday, May 24, 8pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBCSN

MORE:
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Paquette sparks quick-start Lightning in Game 5

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It took the Tampa Bay Lightning all of 19 seconds to get themselves into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals.

Yes, the Lightning scored on their first shot on goal as Cedric Paquette took advantage of a neutral-zone giveaway and then some questionable defending by the Capitals in response (and a nifty play by Ryan Callahan).

Tampa has been plagued by slow starts in this series, so getting a goal within the first thirty seconds of the game couldn’t have been scripted much better.

Ondrej Palat scored later in the period to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes.

Both of Tampa’s goals also came 5-on-5, which hasn’t exactly been their strong suit in the Eastern final.

Neither team has won at home in this series, but Tampa took two big steps in the right direction in Game 5.

• Stream here
Series preview
Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team

Capitals’ Burakovsky will be Game 5 scratch
Lightning survive barrage to even series with Capitals
• Baseball team to wear Washington Capitals-inspired jerseys (Photos)
Capitals confident in ability to continue road advantage vs. Lightning
Lightning power play, Capitals penalty kill will make or break series

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck