NHL Playoff Races Tighten While Capitals Struggle
The Washington Capitals are still the best team in the NHL, but they’re not playing their best hockey at the moment. They started March with just three wins in their first seven games, and while Washington was marking time, the rest of the league was playing catch-up. As we go to press, the Caps are still the leading favorites at +475 on the Stanley Cup futures market; however, the surging Chicago Blackhawks are right behind them at +500.
Chicago can’t rest, either. The Blackhawks managed to take over the top spot in the Western Conference standings, but the Minnesota Wild are still in their rear-view mirror, and now the San Jose Sharks are threatening to steal the No. 1 seed in the West. In what looks like a three-horse race, Chicago (+220) and Minnesota (+240) are in a virtual dead heat to win the conference, and San Jose is closing fast at +500.
It’s not panic time in DC just yet. True, the Capitals lost their first four games in March, but they didn’t lose three straight at any other point in the season. To be fair, one of those games was without Washington’s prize acquisition at the trade deadline, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. He was serving a two-game suspension for a charging penalty.
The Caps were also going through an unusually dry period from their top scorer, Alex Ovechkin. He went ten games without a goal – the worst stretch in his storied career – before scoring in Washington’s 4-2 victory over Minnesota (+135 away) Tuesday night. Ovechkin probably won’t win his fifth straight Maurice Richard Trophy after this drought, but he still has plenty left in the tank at age 31, and it shouldn’t take another ten games before he scores again.
Be that as it may, the other top Cup contenders have just about caught up to Washington in the standings. And many of the second-tier contenders are on a roll, too. Even the relatively weak Atlantic Division has caught fire, with the Montreal Canadiens (+1400 to win the Cup) and Boston Bruins (+2000) both enjoying success after their midseason coaching changes. The long-suffering Ottawa Senators (+2000) could win their first division title in over a decade. And don’t count out the Tampa Bay Lightning (+2000) just yet, either. Any of these teams could give the Capitals a serious run in the Eastern playoffs – and whoever represents the West in the Stanley Cup Final.