by Jon Jordan on 03/28/11 at 11:02 AM ET
Less than two weeks remain on the regular season schedule as of today and, for the teams of the NHL’s Southeast Division, the post-season picture is beginning to clear up.
First thing’s first: The Florida Panthers have missed the playoffs for a tenth consecutive campaign. Nevertheless, the Cats from Sunrise appear to be on track for marked improvement in the coming years with a solid nucleus in place and a wealth of young talent coming up the pike.
At the opposite end of the division standings are the Washington Capitals, seeded second in the conference presently, just two points in back of the Philadelphia Flyers for first overall, with Philly holding a game in hand over Washington. The Caps lead the Tampa Bay Lightning by seven points with six games left to play, with the Bolts possessing a game in hand on Washington as well.
While the division remains a longshot (after appearing to be anything but for much of the season), Saturday’s sorely-needed victory for the Lightning has put them in position to clinch their first playoff berth since the 2006-07 season tomorrow night when they host the Ottawa Senators. They’ll need just a little outside help in order to do so but to finally have that opportunity right in front of their faces after a recent string of losses that sparked all sorts of questions should be enough of a dangling carrot for the Lightning to pounce on the visiting Sens.
Should Tampa Bay take care of things on their end Tuesday night, and the Capitals knock off Carolina in regulation, the Bolts can punch their well-deserved ticket to the second season. If the ‘Canes survive with even a point, the formality will live to see another day…
Rest assured that Carolina won’t be thinking specifically of the Lightning, though, until they host Tampa Bay one last time to close out the regular season schedule a week from Saturday. The Hurricanes can only hope that game will still mean something, as they continue to chase eighth-place Buffalo, with a five-point deficit between the two as of now.
Both the Sabres and Hurricanes have seven games left to play but the gap between the two is looking increasingly difficult to bridge for Carolina with Buffalo winners of three straight and 9-3-2 in the month of March. They need not spend too much time scoreboard watching just yet – taking care of their own business will keep them alive for a while still – but, eventually, the ‘Canes will have to hope Buffalo falters at some point to set the table for an improbably playoff berth.
If things appear bleak down Carolina way, a bit further south in Atlanta, the outlook is downright grim. The Thrashers took care of Ottawa in overtime yesterday but still trail Buffalo by nine points with both Carolina and Toronto in the way in ninth and tenth. The Thrash will hold out hope that everything falls in their favor but the sad truth, according to Hockey-Reference.com is a 0.2% chance of a playoff berth this season.
The Caps are in, the Bolts are close, the ‘Canes still have hope and the Thrash can pray, I guess, while the Cats are mere weeks away from vacation.
And that, friends, is the playoff outlook, at a glance, for the Southeast Division.
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