by Jon Jordan on 03/06/11 at 03:05 PM ET
In an early evening engagement with the host Florida Panthers later today, the Washington Capitals have a chance to take over first place in the Southeast Division for the first time in the calendar year of 2011.
Amazing, really, considering the countless “What’s wrong with Washington?” stories that have been written this season, coupled with about as many accounts of how surprisingly powerful the Tampa Bay Lightning have been from the start.
After all, weren’t the Caps supposed to have packed it in by now?
Weren’t they supposed to have conceded that their window of opportunity with this group of players and this particular head coach has closed?
Weren’t we all supposed to have accepted that this supremely talented bunch just didn’t have that “it” that any team aspiring for significant achievement is supposed to have?
So much for foregone conclusions.
Yes, beyond any shadow of doubt, with 17 games left on the docket for both the Capitals and the Lightning, we have ourselves a good, old-fashioned two-horse race for the Southeast Division crown that should, at this point, go right down to the wire.
Fitting, it is, that after nearly eighty percent of the season’s gone by and many have been ready, for some time now, to hand the Southeast title to someone other than Washington for the first time since 2006-07, we’re right where we expected to be from the onset.
Tampa Bay, sturdy and stabilized under its new regime, was to push the stalwart Capitals this year – challenge, that is, for the top spot in the division. And Washington, after several years of regular season greatness followed by post-season disappointment, would get the chance to answer the bell, with its first worthy division rival since Carolina ran with them in 2007-08.
Make no mistake, the Lightning are as good as their record shows them to be. What they’ve done is by no means a fluke. Head coach Guy Boucher deserves all the accolades bestowed upon him in his first year behind the Tampa Bay bench, up to and including a Jack Adams nomination, as his club has been focused, committed and consistent from the onset.
Still, despite the lack of any real downtrend for the Bolts all season – their current three-game skid is only the second such pointless swoon all year – and Washington’s steady offensive woes – an 0-6-2 run in December and heavy criticism from all angles throughout – here are the Caps, with 17 regular season games to play, on the cusp of reclaiming what they still believe is theirs.
The lesson’s in place already, though. No foregone conclusions. Even if Washington does topple the Panthers today and leapfrogs the Lightning in the standings, there’s still a lofty task at hand, beginning tomorrow night when they swap coasts and meet the Bolts head-on here in Tampa in their final face-to-face showdown of the season.
But with things shaping up as they are, wouldn’t the telling of this tale, if it does play out in Washington’s favor, have the potential to be that classic external push for a team in need of just that for years?
Recent struggles, including some sustained offensive difficulties of their own and, namely, the first four-game scoreless streak of the season for Steven Stamkos, the Lightning aren’t about to fade away, one would have to figure. To say otherwise would be completely discounting what the club’s done all year long in avoiding slumps and showing an unwavering penchant for responding to adversity.
With the race suddenly as close as it is, however, and a shift in the balance of divisional power only a Washington win later today away, maybe the threat to the Capitals’ Southeast reign that Tampa Bay has proven to be will also go down as exactly what this Caps bunch has needed all along.
One thing’s for certain, the Capitals/Lightning punch/counterpunch battle throughout the final 17 will be one of the league’s more intriguing storylines down the stretch.
With the Lightning idle, Washington can strike a vicious blow to kick things off with a win in Sunrise today.
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