For the last few years, the Southeast Division has been one dominated by the Washington Capitals with the rest of the teams fighting for wild card spots but things are very different this year. The Capitals haven't been their usual selves and the division appears to be up for grabs with the top three teams being separated by only five points and even the Hurricanes are only 10 points out at the bottom of the division.
The Southeast has been the weakest division in the NHL by far and it is looking like they will be producing only one playoff team this year. The question is which one will it be? The general consensus is that the Washington Capitals will get their acts together, get hot at the end of the year and take the division but the underlying numbers tell a completely different story. In fact, the underlying numbers for every team tell an interesting story and it isn't pretty for any of them. Only one team has a Fenwick close rate above 50%, every team has a negative goal differential and the clubs fighting for the division title would be bubble playoff teams at best if they weren't granted the automatic bid. The term "Southleast" has never been more true than it is this season.
Find out what they say after the jump
Just a note before we get into any of the numbers; I am not making a prediction for the division winner here. It is still too early and everything is really cloudy right now. What I'm going to do with these numbers is show what each team has done this year, what their strengths and weaknesses are and most of all, show how weak the Southeast is right now and why this division is still up for grabs.
Fen close = fenwick % in close games, SF/60 = even strength shots for per 60 mins., SA/60 = even strength shots allowed per 60 mins., GF/60 = goals for per 60 mins., GA/60 = even strength goals allowed per 60 mins., Sh% = ES on-ice shooting %, Sv% = even strength on ice save %, PDO = Sh% + Sv%, PPSF/60 = powerplay shots for per 60 mins, PKSA/60 mins. = penalty kill shots allowed per 60 mins.
What we have here are some underlying numbers courtesy of Gabe Desjardins' Behind The Net stat site and these should help us get an idea of who has the best chance at emerging from this logjam at first place. In addition to these, I will keep the team's "clear victory" records in mind, which are wins that come by more than a goal and are tabulated over at Copper & Blue. That will show which teams aren't benefiting from luck as much as others may be. (In case you were wondering, the Southeast has the worst clear victory record in the league).
- I am amazed at how poor each team is at controlling possession when the game is close. The best team is the Winnipeg Jets and even they are barely keeping their heads above water. The Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals were both good possession teams earlier in the season but they have both seen big declines since then. Florida has been teetering between above and below 50% for the past month, though.
- Carolina's playoff hopes are slim at best right now and the data here makes me even less confident that they will pull off the miracle run. They aren't controlling possession, are having trouble scoring and they've been riding the Cam Ward train for the past month, which isn't the most reliable method to win games. That isn't a knock on Ward because he has been terrific but you can't have your goalie stand on your head every night to win games like the Canes are doing now. The one thing they have going for them is the strong powerplay which is generating a lot of shots on goal but the terrible PK almost negates that. I know that I said that it's open season in the Southeast but you can probably bet on the Canes not making it.
- I don't know what Dale Hunter has done to the Capitals but it appears to be nothing good. A team that was once an offensvie dynamo is having trouble outshooting their opponents and scoring goals. To make things worse, a lot of their wins have come as the result of unsustainably high goaltending from Tomas Vokoun, who is an elite goalie but even the best are going to have trouble keeping up a .944 save percentage like he has for the last month. Their team shooting percentage is also relatively high so there's a good chance they could go on another losing streak and potentially miss the playoffs.
- The current division leading Florida Panthers are not without their question marks, either. For whatever reason, this team is having problems scoring at even strength and their 8th ranked powerplay has been their main weapon. However, their powerplay isn't that good in terms of getting shots on net (slightly worse than the Canes) so they could experience a slight drought there down the stretch. The good news is that their even strength scoring may pick up because they aren't getting much puck luck despite being a borderline positive team in terms of possession. Despite those issues, I see goaltending as their biggest Achellies heel. They've been receiving above average 'tending from Theodore, Markstrom and Clemmensen for most of the year and now two of those goalies are hurt and their current healthy goalie (Clemmsensen) is their weakest. With how many shots Florida gives up nightly, Clemmensen is going to need to be better than average to give them a better shot at the playoffs.
- Winnipeg could emerge as the dark horse in this race because they are currently outplaying their opponents when the game is close at a higher rate than anyone else in the division. They also are getting the least amount of puck luck in the division, so a winning streak could be just around the corner for them and they might get themselves back in the hunt for first place. There are a few problems, though. While Winnipeg is controlling possession better than anyone else, they aren't outplaying them by THAT much. Certainly not enough to determine that they will make the playoffs over another team. Another thing is their special teams are extremely mediocre, especially their powerplay. Great special teams can give borderline playoff teams an edge over others and Winnipeg doesn't have that right now. Their goaltending is very "Jeckyl/Hyde" right now, too. Also, the Caps and Panthers currently have two and three games in hand on the Jets respectively and that puts them at a disadvantage.
- Tampa Bay is awful. Bad goaltending, not controlling possession, their powerplay and penalty kill both stink and they aren't producing much offense. You would think that a team with the firepower they have up front would be able to outshoot their opponents more but it hasn't happened this year. They are actually preventing shots well and scoring at a good rate but their horrendous goaltending and special teams has got the Bolts in way too deep of a hole.
Unless a miracle run happens from Tampa Bay or Carolina, we're looking at a three team race here and I still can't determine a solid favorite out of those three because they all have their legitimate concerns. The chances of the Panthers making their first playoff appearance in over a decade is almost as likely as the Capitals winning their fifth straight Southeast title. It should be interesting to see how things unfold.