There’s no race in hockey bigger right now than the Southeast Division, where Florida and Washington are tied with 61 points apiece. The winner of the race grabs the #3 seed automatically and the loser is on the fringe of the playoffs, with 62 being the baseline number for getting in the top eight as of today. So as we go into the weekend it could be a rare win-or-go-home division race in the Southeast, and on Sunday that race comes to the Big Apple.
Washington will be in Madison Square Garden (12:30 PM ET, NBCSN—formerly Versus) to face East-leading New York. The story around the Caps all year has justifiably been the sluggish play of Alex Ovechkin. For years, the criticism of Ovechkin mirrored that of this team—he could come up big in the regular season, and then fizzle in the spring. This year they both have seemed to have gotten some consistency, although perhaps not the kind the faithful Caps fans—as underrated a fan base as there is in sports—would like to see.
The Capitals are going to depend on two things on Sunday, beyond the general “any given day” variables. Going against an elite goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, the Caps need to play a great defensive game and that means staying out of the penalty box, as other teams have feasted on them in the power play. Furthermore, Washington is one of the NHL’s best in straight five-on-five-play, giving them an edge if they can just go even up with the Rangers. The second variable is how much focus their opponent will have—New York plays at Philadelphia on Saturday, with both teams within four points in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference overall. If the Rangers are going to go all-in on one game this weekend, it’s probably Saturday and not Sunday. Either way, an Ovechkin battle with elite New York scorer Alex Ovechkin in a big game is good Sunday afternoon fare, and I like the Caps to find a way to win and keep their season turned around.
On the New York undercard, is Florida-NY Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. I really don’t understand why the Islanders can’t get into playoff contention (they’re 10 points out). They have decent goaltending and a good center in John Tavares. I’m not saying they’re a burgeoning Cup contender, but they should be playing meaningful hockey right now. If nothing else, they’re good enough to play spoiler to a team fighting for its life like Florida. Both of these teams are decent at getting shots, but terrible at turning them into goals, a stat that leads one to wonder if the shots are just wildly launched at the goal, or if they’re properly set up with screens, followed by the less flashy, but more effective rebound shots. Neither team executes in the 5-on-5. Florida’s better on the power play, but the Islanders are better on the penalty kill. I lean the Isles to win at home in this spot and put Florida into second place by weekend’s end.
Sunday night NBC steps in with a nationally televised game between Philadelphia and Detroit at 7:30 PM ET. Like the Rangers, I would expect the Flyers to leave it on the ice against a division rival on Saturday, but the Red Wings are missing elite goaltender Jimmy Howard for a couple weeks, so this one’s anybody’s game.
If we move backward through the rest of the weekend, we see the aforementioned Saturday game between the Rangers and Flyers, along with a Nashville-Boston game in the Garden. Nashville’s playing pretty good hockey right now, while Boston is coming off a bad 6-0 loss to lowly Buffalo. The NHL Network game at 7 PM ET is Montreal-Toronto, with the Leafs hoping to capitalize on Boston’s struggles and make it a race in the Northeast. Then on Friday, while Anaheim-Detroit is the NHL Network game, the best game of the night is Chicago-San Jose. Earlier this week, TheSportsNotebook chronicled Chicago’s recent struggles, while San Jose is holding a narrow two-point lead over Los Angeles for the lead in the Pacific Division.