Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 01/04/11 at 03:09 PM ET
Roughly half-way through the 2010-11 NHL schedule, what was once known as the “Southleast” Division is no more. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Atlanta Thrashers are all slotted in playoff position presently and the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers are just below the eight seed cut line, in ninth and tenth place, respectively.
Tampa, Washington and Atlanta comprise half of the Eastern Conference’s top-six and all five Southeast teams together make up exactly fifty percent of the East’s top-ten. That’s no small feat and certainly worthy of some commendation therefore.
Tonight, the Lightning and Capitals will focus only on each other as they meet in Washington, even in the points department, with first place in the division and the chance to match idle Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s conference-leading 53 points on the line.
Having overcome shaky goaltending and several key injuries, the Lightning should be very proud of their stature thus far but the road to a division title still goes through Washington and, in the two previous meetings between these clubs this season, the Bolts are 0-2 and have been outscored 12-3.
Tonight, however, Tampa Bay is without excuses. They are healthy, with Steve Downie returning from an ankle injury and Simon Gagne in the lineup against the Caps for the first time as a member of the team, and they’ve been fortified in goal with the addition of Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders.
Roloson gave the Capitals fits while with New York, despite just one win in five appearances against Washington since the start of 2009-10. Save for a blip on the radar late last year, where he was pulled after a four-goal first period, Roloson the Islander held the high-powered Washington offense in check to the tune of a .908 save percentage and 2.95 goals against in four other meetings, including a 2-1 loss early this season. With the Caps averaging a hair under 3.6 goals per game in the 122 regular season games they’ve played between this season and last (and considering the defensive lineup the Islanders have had to work with during that same time), those numbers are more than impressive.
But tonight’s debut of Roloson for the Lightning is only the beginning of a story that’s just now starting to be told. Tampa Bay was expected to give the mighty Capitals a push this season but not many gave them a fighting chance to overtake the reigning division kings just yet. Nevertheless, as we approach the midpoint of the season, the teams are neck-and-neck and, if the Roloson move pans out for the Bolts, a glaring weakness has been rectified for the challengers.
As for the champs, this year has been far from the waltz toward a fourth consecutive Southeast title that many expected. They’ve had to endure an eight-game losing streak and the intermittent disappearing act of their offense, having been shut out four times already, as well as the added pressure of all of the buildup to last weekend’s Winter Classic, including the watchful eye of the viewing public thanks to HBO’s 24/7 cameras.
Captain Alex Ovechkin still leads his club with 42 points in 40 games but his 14 goals has him on pace for just 29 this season – light years away from the all-galaxy, 55+ average he’d posted coming into his sixth NHL season.
Like Tampa Bay, much was made of Washington’s prowess in net prior to the season but youngsters Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov have performed admirably, for the most part, with Neuvirth adeptly holding the fort during some injury early injury woes for Varlamov and the latter playing well since his return (if you can forget a mid-December, 7-0 pasting in Manhattan, that is). Varlamov, who shut out the Lightning when last these teams met, is expected to get the nod again tonight.
The Lightning’s addition of Roloson at this relatively early stage of the postseason posturing game suggests that team management and the coaching staff has seen enough to this point to want to avoid any potential pitfalls that could cost them not only a playoff spot anymore but, perhaps home ice and, realistically even, a division title.
The Capitals still have something to say about that last point, of course, and tonight’s matchup, the last of the year in Washington between these two teams before three more in Tampa down the stretch, sets the stage for a second half showdown for the ages.
Filed in: NHL Teams, Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | KK Hockey | Permalink
Tags: alex+ovechkin, dwayne+roloson, michal+neuvirth, semyon+varlamov, simon+gagne, simon+gagne, steve+downie
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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