Washington Rising: Can the Capitals Hang On?

KP Wee@kpwee1Senior Writer IFebruary 6, 2008

The Montreal Canadiens shocked the slumping Ottawa Senators earlier this week and have now climbed to within one single point of the Sens for the number one seed in the NHL's Eastern Conference.

Impressive run for the Habs, who are 7-2-1 in their past ten, and more struggles for the Senators, who are still dealing with the Ray Emery controversy.

However, because Montreal and Ottawa both play in the same division—the Northeast—the Canadiens are currently fourth in the Conference despite having more points than Philadelphia and Washington, who lead their respective divisions. The Habs can finish no higher unless they win the Northeast.

Wait a minute. Let's backtrack for a sec.


Division leader?

That's right. Your new Southeast Division leader is now the Alexander Ovechkin-led Capitals, who are only two games over .500 at 26-24-5, following their 4-3 victory over the Flyers in Philadelphia on Wednesday (Feb. 6th).

The Caps got two goals 64 seconds apart three minutes into the third period to break a tie, and Ovechkin added his NHL-leading 46th goal—the game-winner—just over four minutes later for a 4-1 lead. It was Ovechkin's eighth game-winning goal this season, and second in two nights.

The Capitals are red hot, 7-3-0 in their past ten, as are the Flyers (65 points), who could have padded their Atlantic Division lead over New Jersey (64), Pittsburgh (63), and the Rangers (60) in a tight four-way race, had they won.

And the Caps have also gone 20-10-4 since Bruce Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon behind the bench on November 22nd after they started the year in last place with a disastrous 6-14-1 record. Last season, the Caps were a disappointing 28-40-14.

The Flyers (30-18-5) themselves have been a comeback story in the 2007-08 season. The loss on Wednesday was only the fourth regulation loss in their past 19 games. And oh yeah, like Washington, Philadelphia has also spent time in last place earlier in the season. In addition, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the Flyers' suspensions for ugly incidents earlier in the year.

And let's not forget the Flyers finished 22-48-18 last season, dead last in the entire league—it was their worst record ever in franchise history. And now they could wind up winners in the Peter Forsberg sweepstakes, as the UFA is still pondering a return to the NHL.

Now the Flyers sit just three points behind Ottawa for the conference's top overall spot.

But getting back to the Canadiens and Capitals: Which team is more impressive?

While Montreal's rise to the top four in the Conference has been a feel-good story; Washington's jump—albeit thanks to the league's dumb rule automatically guaranteeing division leaders the conference's top three spots regardless of their records—has probably been, or will be, met with scorn from fans and media.

That is, if people actually notice in their morning paper that Washington has vaulted all the way to the number three seed.

Entering play on Wednesday night, Washington was tied for the tenth spot in the conference with Florida and Buffalo. All three had 55 points going in.

Can the Capitals sustain this good play and hang on to their position in the standings?

It comes down to two key players: Ovechkin and goaltender Olaf Kolzig.

Will Ovechkin continue scoring big goals and win the scoring race? Will Kolzig, who made 31 saves—17 of them in the final period—in the Capitals' net on Wednesday, provide the solid puck-stopping that Washington will need in order to continue winning?

Time will tell, but any slump or bad breaks—or a hot streak by anyone in the Southeast—will kill their playoff chances.

Take a look at the standings:

Washington, with its 26-24-5 record, is sitting atop the Southeast with 57 points, followed by idle Carolina and Atlanta, both with identical 26-26-4 records and 56 points. Even Florida is in it, with a 25-25-5 mark and 55 points. Tampa Bay, currently in the basement in the Eastern Conference, rounds out the Southeast Division with 49 points.

The injustice here is that despite the weak teams in the Southeast, one of them will make the playoffs and be assured of the number three seed and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Washington is ten points behind Montreal in the overall standings, but obviously those two teams are flip-flopped in the seeding.

In fact, Carolina and Atlanta, the second-best teams in the Southeast, would not make the playoffs if the season ended today. Both are now tied for tenth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind Buffalo, who beat New Jersey on Wednesday.

Ah yes... the Sabres.

Buffalo, with 57 points, is on the outside looking in, currently sitting in ninth place in the conference. And yet Washington, with the same number of points—but with inferior offensive and defensive numbers—is six spots ahead in the standings. And there is no tie-breaker between those two teams if they end the season with the same number of points.

While Montreal is proving to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender—and could continue their streak of having won a championship in every single decade since the NHL was established, if they win it all this year—Washington better hope that the other teams in the Southeast don't catch up.

Failing that, the Capitals' spot as the third seed will not last long.

Note: Elsewhere in the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers surprised once again, winning their second straight—with a 4-1 triumph over the Blackhawks—since learning that leading scorer Shawn Horcoff will miss the rest of the season.

We’re in for surprises all around in the league, for sure.

Any bold predictions from anyone out there as far as how the races will shape up from here on out? Any more surprises to come? 


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