The only desirable place to be in the Southeast Division these days is first. That distinction, claimed by even the slimmest of margins or tiebreakers, can mean the difference between a guaranteed postseason berth and scrapping with a pack of five to six other teams for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
The Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers know this pendulum swing well, as they’ve swapped places in the standings five times in the past three weeks and their proximity makes every meeting between the two franchises all the more important.
Heading into Tuesday’s showdown at Verizon Center, Florida holds a one-point edge in the standings (59 to 58) and in the Southeast lead while the Capitals reside in ninth — out of the Eastern playoff picture. It offers a reminder once again that finding a way to capture the division and the prize of an automatic trip to the postseason may offer the best route to ensuring it won’t be an especially long offseason.
“Pretty much however you look at it, it’s going to be tough,” Tomas Vokoun said. “We’re not in very comfortable position not at all. It looks like just one team may make it from our division, we need to keep that in mind here.”
Nothing seems to come easy this season to Washington, which grew accustomed to capturing the division crown with relative ease in each of the past three years. The top three teams in the Southeast — the Panthers, Capitals and Winnipeg Jets, who visit Thursday — are separated by five points and the Tampa Bay Lightning sit only eight points out of first.
Meanwhile, injuries are mounting. Already without Nicklas Backstrom (concussion) and Mike Green (sports hernia), Washington may need to move forward without Brooks Laich, who suffered a left knee injury on Sunday in a 4-1 loss to Boston. The severity of the injury is unclear as is how much time Laich, who has appeared in 397 of Washington’s past 401 games, will miss, but it seems unlikely that the versatile forward will be ready to face the Panthers.
“It’s not like we can tell another guy to be a Brooks Laich. Guys have to try to pick up where he’s missed. It’s everyone’s cumulative responsibility,” Troy Brouwer said. “It shouldn’t be too hard to look around the room and find guys who want to fill that void, especially at this time of year.”
Despite the tight standings and injuries to key players, though, with 30 games remaining in the 2011-12 regular season the Capitals still have plenty of opportunity to move up in the standings, including 10 contests against division foes. But Washington can’t wait too long to take control of its own fate.
A win on Tuesday would allow Washington to leapfrog the Panthers, who have a game in hand, and overtake first place in the division. A loss in regulation would drop the Capitals behind Florida by three points, and fall in overtime or a shootout and it’s a two-point deficit and they’re still sitting outside a postseason spot.
“The last two years, winning the division has been a layup; getting in the playoffs a given, this year it’s going to be more of a battle,” Mike Knuble said. “Everybody’s controlling their own destiny right now; everybody’s in the same boat. Everybody’s got a say in what their future is right now and you want to keep it that way. Nobody wants to not have a say.”
In the 12-year history of the division, there have been five seasons where only the Southeast winner made the playoffs. While it’s impossible to tell if that will be the case this season, the bottom half of the Eastern Conference standings are tight enough that a team can’t rely on receiving help from other teams.
It’s up to the Capitals to take advantage of the opportunity they still have to move up the division and conference standings, beginning with Tuesday’s tilt against Florida.
“This is the time where you make or break your season,” Jason Chimera said. “If there’s no urgency tomorrow then we have a big problem. Guys are talking about it right today, though, guys are ready for it. It’s a huge game, we have to be ready for it.”
Capitals notes:Green did not skate for a third consecutive day but Coach Dale Hunter said it was not a setback. “He’s on track,” Hunter said. “He’s just working out in the gym.” . . . Rookie defenseman Dmitry Orlov said his broken nose is a little sore, but he was in good spirits after taking a puck to the face in each of the Capitals’ back-to-back games this weekend. He said he expects to be ready to face Florida but that he’ll be sporting a full cage for the contest.