Southeast: Division could again produce a lone playoff team

By Cory Lavalette

Photo: Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby was unable to stop this shot by Buffalo Sabres forward Drew Stafford in the Capitals’ 5-1 loss to the Sabres on Tuesday (courtesy of

Mark Goldman/Icon SMI)

The Washington Capitals‘ 5-1 loss Tuesday to Buffalo moved the Sabres ahead of the Capitals for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, leaving just Southeast-leading Florida in the postseason picture with only a handful of games remaining in the regular season.

For the division sometimes referred to as “The Southleast,” sending just one team to the playoffs has become commonplace. Since the 2000-01 season, the Southeast has sent a lone representative to the playoffs four times, while the rest of the NHL’s divisions has done that just once, when Vancouver won the Northwest last season and no other team from their division earned a playoff berth.

The Capitals will need to outpace the Sabres — now winners of five straight — if the division is to avoid the same fate. Buffalo and Washington face a similar schedule in the season’s final five games. Both teams have three road games left vs. two remaining at home, and they also each face three current playoffs teams.

The Capitals will meet all three of the Eastern Conference’s division leaders — the Bruins, Panthers and Rangers — down the stretch, with Montreal and Tampa Bay filling out the remaining two games. The Sabres get struggling Toronto in consecutive games, but the other three are against playoff-bound Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Boston.

If the Southeast is to avoid sending just one team to the playoffs for the fifth time in 11 seasons, the Capitals will need to outperform the Sabres down the stretch.

Southeast Division Notes

Carolina Hurricanes Cam Ward earned his 21st career shutout in Tuesday’s 3-0 win in Toronto, passing Arturs Irbe for the franchise mark. Ward now holds all of the franchise’s major goaltending records, including games played (411), wins (203) and saves (10,914).

Florida Panthers
The Panthers extended their division lead to five points with a 3-2 shootout win in Montreal Tuesday. With a game in hand on Washington and just six remaining on their schedule, Florida is poised to reach the postseason for the first time since 1999-2000 and earn their first division title. The Panthers have not won a playoff series since they went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, losing in four games to Colorado.

Tampa Bay Lightning
Steven Stamkos scored twice in Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to Boston, pushing his total to 55 goals on the season. That is the sixth-most prolific number by any active player, with Teemu Selanne’s 76 goals as a rookie in 1992-93 ranking first. The current NHL players with more goals in one season are Alexander Ovechkin (twice: 65 in 2007-08; 56 in 2008-09) and Jaromir Jagr (62 in 1995-96). Jonathan Cheechoo, who had 56 goals with San Jose in 2005-06, is also still active but plays in the AHL with the Blues’ top affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen.

Washington Capitals –
The Capitals signed undrafted free agent defenseman Cameron Schilling to an entry-level contract Tuesday. Schilling, who played NCAA hockey the last four years with Miami (Ohio), will join Hershey for the balance of the season on an amateur tryout contract. His new two-year deal will kick in starting next season.

Winnipeg Jets
The Jets signed former seventh-rounder Will O’Neill Tuesday. O’Neill, a defenseman who played the last four years at the University of Maine, was selected 210th overall by the Thrashers in 2006. He will report to St John’s of the AHL and play the rest of the season on an amateur tryout.