Monday, January 7, 2008

Let's Talk About the Southeast

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Let's talk about a division where:

  • Each of the five teams has been outscored by its opposition for the season
  • The division leader is on pace to finish with 86 points (85.7 actually), a total that would have been tied for 12th in the Conference in 2006-07 and have put them in fourth in each of the Conference's three divisions
  • More teams have starting goalies with save percentages of .890 or worse (two) than .903 or above (one). For reference, .903 would put a goalies in a tie for 26th in the league in save percentage
  • Only one team is over .500 in games outside the division, and they are 12-11-3 in said games
  • No team in the division is .500 against teams outside the division when overtime losses are counted as losses
  • The division is a combined 50-64-13 against the rest of the NHL

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Southeast Division, home of your Washington Capitals...and their opponents in 15 of their remaining 40 games (37.5%). The Caps actually aren't playing a Southeast-heavy schedule right now and after February 1st the Capitals play Southeast foes in 14 of 30 games (46.7%). The NHL is dropping the extremely unbalanced schedule next season, and it's the right decision. But Caps fans are very lucky they'll get to play almost half their games down the stretch, when continued development and better health should mean the team is playing its best hockey, against what is inarguably the worst division in hockey.

It's quite possible that only one team from this division will make them playoffs; indeed that would be the case if the season ended today. So the question is: who's going to go on a tear and run away with this division? Atlanta's too inconsistent and has too many holes and Tampa Bay is just...bad. Carolina looked like they were going to easily be the class of the division at the season's outset but they've been inconsistent on the offensive front (though still quite good) and Cam Ward's save percentage has gone down each month. Florida clearly has the best goalie in division with Tomas Vokoun but the team is 27th in the NHL in scoring despite playing in the division with weakest set of starting goaltenders you'll find this year and their long-heralded crop of young players, with the possible exception of Nathan Horton, are not showing the kind of skill a lot of people thought they would. Although it's still possible Florida could have a good number of its youngster have a great second half and become a good team, Carolina is the team to beat at this point.

Right now the Capitals are seven points behind the Hurricanes for the division lead, and have played two fewer games. If the Capitals can get wins (or even a win and overtime loss) in those two games they have in hand they could easily make up the remaining ground on Carolina just in the head-to-head games the teams have remaining.

Given this, that the Caps have been the best team in the division for the last six weeks or so and that the Capitals have a ton of very good young players who seem to be getting better almost by the game, would it be unreasonable to call Washington the favorite to be atop this division when all is said and done?

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