On Feb. 17, the Washington Capitals faced Tampa Bay with the chance to build an eight-point lead on the Lightning and stake a major claim to the Southeast Division title.
The Capitals were cruising along after the all-star break and on a road trip against four largely undistinguished division foes, and the Lightning had won once in its last six games, was mired in a goalie controversy and playing with little confidence. Tampa Bay appeared ready to concede the division and most of its players had never played a meaningful game in the second half of the season.
Washington took a lead into the third period despite not playing particularly well, then yielded three goals in the final 20 minutes. The result was a 3-1 loss that has dramatically shifted the course of the division race. The victory has propelled the Lightning on perhaps the best run in team history, seizing the division lead by two points. Tampa Bay is on a 9-2-3 tear, putting the pressure on Washington, which is 6-4-1-2 since heading to Tampa for the last time this season.
"Tampa is a really good team, and if you look at the schedule, it lines up a lot better for them than what we have," center Jeff Halpern said. "But that's the cards you are dealt and we'll go on this trip and put our heads down and go to work and whoever comes out of these last nine games on top, we'll worry about doing our job and getting ready for whoever we play in the playoffs."
The Capitals have a six-game trip through Canada coming up and only three home games remaining; Tampa Bay has a more favorable path to winning its first division title and reaching the playoffs for the second time since entering the NHL in 1992. Both teams must travel to the West Coast, but the chore facing the Capitals is more difficult. Their all-Canadian trek over two weeks -- Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, in that order -- will test their will and stamina. The Capitals traditionally struggle against most of those teams -- they are 2-6-1 against them this season -- and the travel itself will be draining. After those six games, Washington will finish with Florida, Ottawa and Pittsburgh at home.
The Lightning also hits the road this week for games in Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Jose but finishes with four of its last six games at home. The Capitals will play five of their final nine games against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today and they have three games remaining against division leaders, including two with Ottawa, the NHL's best team. Tampa Bay faces only three teams that would be in the playoffs if the current standings hold.
Winning the division comes with ample rewards, although the significance of them is debatable. The Southeast Division champion will secure no worse than the third overall seed of the eight Eastern Conference qualifiers, even though Tampa Bay and Washington are highly unlikely to finish with more than the fifth-highest point total in the conference.
The third seed also ensures home-ice advantage through at least the first round and a first-round opponent from the bottom of the standings. It would allow Washington or Tampa Bay to avoid having to face a powerhouse such as Ottawa, New Jersey, Toronto or Philadelphia in the first round and increase the Capitals' odds of winning a series, at least on paper.
However, the Capitals, who were off yesterday and depart for Calgary today, were eliminated in the first round in 2000 and 2001 by lower-seeded Pittsburgh despite being Southeast Division champions, and the franchise has a history of losing to underdogs in the postseason. It would take a complete collapse for the Capitals to miss the playoffs, and it might take a significant winning streak to come away with their third Southeast Division title in four years.
"Everything rests in Tampa's hands," goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "They've got the lead. I think for us it's really important to just focus on playing good hockey, because if we get that third seed and we're playing up and down hockey we could easily be out in the first round. I'd much rather us get the seventh or sixth seed and play great hockey and upset a couple of teams along the way. You want to play good hockey going into the playoffs and it's not as much about home-ice advantage, because it isn't as big of an advantage these days having home ice. I think it's important to play consistently good hockey and confidence overcomes a lot of disadvantages you face on the road."