In the final year of its existence, the NHL’s Southeast Division is living up to its mocking moniker of “Southleast” — and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Washington Capitals.
Despite getting off to one of the worst starts in franchise history and an uneven first half of the season in which they couldn’t win more than three games in a row, the Capitals could take comfort in the knowledge that beating up on inferior opponents from their underwhelming division could pave the way to a sixth consecutive playoff berth.
After all, some team has to win the worst division in hockey — taking the third seed in the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage with it — and it might as well be Washington, which is 12-3 against Southeast foes and 9-14-2 against everyone else.
“It’s been our saving grace this year,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It’s been lucky that we’ve got to play those teams so much, but at the same time, we’ve done a good job with them and we haven’t taken a lot of those games lightly because we know how important they are.”
The five Southeast teams are 50-65-9 against the rest of the East this season. Three of its members — Tampa Bay, Carolina and Florida — represent the three worst teams in the conference as this shortened regular season draws to a close, and it’s likely only the division winner will reach the postseason.
The hunt for the inglorious Southeast title is down to two teams. The Capitals, who have won six straight against the division, sit in first place with 44 points. If the NHL didn’t seed divisional winners in the top three automatically, they would fall to
eighth seventh in the East.
Washington is two points ahead with a game in hand on the Winnipeg Jets, who are in ninth place in the East and are the only other potential contender for the top spot in the Southeast.
“We’ve got to keep pushing ahead,” Eric Fehr said. “We’re in a good position now, but we’ve earned it, we’ve fought for it and we don’t want to give that up.”
Heading into a game on March 14 against then-division leader Carolina, the Capitals were 10 points behind first in the Southeast and seven back of a playoff position. Even facing a daunting climb up the standings, players knew that the lackluster division could provide a straightforward route to the postseason.
“A long time ago when we were seven, eight points out we still knew that the division was gonna be our key to get into the playoffs,” Troy Brouwer said. “We’ve had a lot of tight games, a lot of good games. But we know the magnitude of every game that we play within our division.”
Beginning with a 3-2 win in Carolina that day, the Capitals have gone 12-3-1, finding a rhythm as the rest of the Southeast crumbled.
The Hurricanes are 1-12-1 in their last 14 contests and have been unable to find suitable replacements for goaltender Cam Ward, who suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee in March.
Winnipeg, which took a turn atop the division in March, has lost seven of its last 11, including two games to the Capitals. The Lightning — who fired their coach in late March, and the Panthers — who have been plagued by injuries — fell by the wayside early on.
“Our division hasn’t been that solid this year. We can’t argue that,” Matt Hendricks said. “But for the most part we tried not to be too focused on the outside, more looking at our games, our video clips, focusing on the ways we could get better and start climbing the ladder.”
The Capitals actually lost their first two games against divisional foes this year, but since then they haven’t looked back.
“You looked at [the situation] from where we put ourselves before,” Holtby said, “And it was hard to not look and say, ‘It’s going to take a bit a miracle for us to come back.’”
A miracle, or simply the ability to take advantage of the Southeast one final time.
Capitals notes: Brooks Laich will see another doctor following a consultation with groin specialist Dr. Michael Brunt this week, Coach Adam Oates said Wednesday, but didn’t offer any additional update on the health of the Capitals forward. Oates declined to comment when asked whether surgery is being considered for Laich, who has missed three games since suffering a lower-body injury that is negatively affecting his groin.