Southeast: Panthers maintain hold on first place

By Cory Lavalette

Photo: Long-time Florida Panthers forward Stephen Weiss and his teammates are closing in on their first playoff appearance in several years (courtesy of

Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI)

The Florida Panthers continue to hold on to the Southeast Division lead, maintaining a three-point margin on the second-place Capitals with a game in hand and seven to play.

But five of those seven will be away from the Bank Atlantic Center, including the first of four straight starting Tuesday at Montreal. The Panthers have held their own on the road, going 16-15-5 away from Sunrise, Fla. In fact, they are the only team in the Southeast with a winning record away from home — the division’s other teams populate four of the NHL’s bottom six spots in road performance.

It also helps that three of the four teams they will face this week are at the bottom of the league standings. After facing 29th place Montreal, the Panthers travel to Minnesota Thursday trying to avenge a February shootout loss to the league’s 27th-place team. The next night Florida will face the NHL’s worst team in Columbus before closing out the road trip in Detroit against the Red Wings, the league’s second-best home team.

Carolina Hurricanes
Back-to-back losses in Columbus and Detroit extinguished any hope the Hurricanes had of making a last-minute push for the postseason. So they will play out the string hoping to build on the progress they made with new coach Kirk Muller.

They will face the Maple Leafs for possession of 12th place — or for a higher draft pick, depending on how you view it — Tuesday in Toronto, then have two days off before hosting Southeast rival Winnipeg at PNC Arena. Carolina finishes the week with another home game the next night, welcoming visiting New Jersey to close out the month.

Tampa Bay Lightning
With Steven Stamkos’’s four-game point drought over following his two-goal, one-assist night Saturday against the Islanders, the Lightning will look to play spoiler this week against three playoff-bound teams and one battling to reach the eighth spot.

Tampa Bay has road games at Philadelphia and Boston on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, then plays in New Jersey Thursday. They then return home to host 10th-place Winnipeg, whose playoff hopes are slipping away as Washington and Buffalo maintain a steady pace ahead of them in the standings.

Washington Capitals
There probably isn’t a bigger game in the Southeast this week than Tuesday’s Buffalo-Washington match-up in D.C. The teams are tied for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot with 84 points and are being carried by their respective leaders. Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin has seven goals in his past five games, scoring at least one in each. And Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller has had an amazing February and March for the surging Sabres, going a combined 16-3-5 the past two months. The winner will grab sole possession of eighth-place.

The Capitals will then travel to Boston to face the Bruins Thursday before hosting the Canadiens Saturday.

Winnipeg Jets
The Jets managed to knock off the Capitals for the second straight Friday, but that was their only win in their last four as Washington and Buffalo pulled away in the race for the final playoff spot in the East. Winnipeg has one game in hand on both but trails each team by six points with only seven games remaining.

Winnipeg plays at home against the playoff-bound Senators and Rangers on Monday and Wednesday, respectively, before playing back-to-back road games against Southeast foes Carolina (Friday) and Tampa Bay (Saturday).