The Southeast Division has been a textbook demonstration of inconsistency all season long. The goaltending woes in Tampa Bay had buried the Lightning near the basement of the Eastern Conference, where Carolina had renovated that basement into a near-permanent residence.
But a pleasantly surprising Florida Panthers team, who held a six point lead in the division on Christmas, seemed to be the squad that would take charge of the league's weakest grouping, with an uncharacteristically soft Capitals team lagging behind.
The Panthers lost that division lead and only recently, with a three-game winning streak and back-to-back Washington losses, have been able to regain a four point lead in the division.
For both the Panthers, the time to take charge of this mediocre division, gain momentum heading into April, and claim the East's third seed is right now.
Most obviously, Friday night's battle in Miami, the fifth showdown between the Caps and Cats, will be critical. A Panther win would give the Florida at least a six point lead on Washington, possibly eight if they're able to win the game-in-hand they hold over the Caps, which will be against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night.
Washington has struggled throughout the season, but a three game winning streak in mid-January put them right back in the conversation in the Southeast. Since that streak, they've only been able to win three of ten and five of thirteen.
The only reason the Capitals are still in contention is because the Panthers have allowed them to hang around, the dominant first-line scoring that carried Forida the first half of the season having dried up a bit and very little secondary scoring coming to the rescue.
Five goals in eight games from Mikael Samuelsson has been helpful, but he hasn't provided much else. Sean Bergenheim has four goals in the last six as well, but the Panthers certainly need their best line to be the dominant unit it was to start the season.
But with the four point lead and the game in hand, the Panthers are primed to take the division by the throat, or at least they will have every opportunity.
In their seven remaining games in February, the Panthers will only play two against teams currently in playoff position, and those are against Toronto(losers of four in a row) and Ottawa (two wins in their last ten). The Capitals have a similarly simple stretch, only seeing Ottawa and the Leafs among playoff-caliber teams. But they will play five of those games on the road.
Beyond February, the Cats will see the Flyers twice, and the Bruins, Red Wings, and Penguins once a piece. That comprises the greatest challenge they have the rest of the way, with their toughest travel stretch being a spin through the Central facing Columbus, Minnesota, and Detroit.
Washington will face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, the Bruins twice on the road, the Flyers twice, the Red Wings, and the New Jersey Devils. The Capitals will play 14 of their last 26 on the road, and three of their final five, where they have a record of 9-15-3.
Also, should the two teams still be neck-and-neck on April 5th when they meet for the final time in Washington, the Panthers are much better positioned heading into the final game to control their fate. In such an instance, the Panthers will finish the season at home against the Hurricanes,
while the Capitals' last licks will come in New York against the Rangers.
Both the Caps and the Panthers have nearly identical records against their own division, while Florida has handled the Atlantic division better, though slightly. A look at the remaining schedule falls decidedly in Florida's favor. Realistically, the Panthers shouldn't even need that help.
The Cats are on a three game high with lots of room to run over the course of February, while the Capitals have stumbled. If the Panthers are going to be a team that can have any playoff success, or if they are even capable of manning up and ending a post-season drought in Miami that has lasted since the 1999-2000 season, this is their test. This is their opportunity to assert themselves as a team on the rise, a competitor, a group worthy of attention for a fickle South Florida sports scene.
They will be given every chance. We'll find out this spring if the octopus in Detroit will be joined by rubber rats once again.