The Southeast Division has really gone through some twists and turns in its final year of existence. At the beginning, it looked like the Tampa Bay Lightning had control of things, then the Carolina Hurricanes soon took over their spot. After these two teams drifted out of the picture, the Winnipeg Jets then swooped in and appeared to take hold of the division after getting hot for two weeks. Now that they have cooled down, the Washington Capitals have stepped up and are now sitting at the top of the division with a four point lead after winning nine out of their last ten games, earning points in all of them.
We all know what happened to the Hurricanes and how their season quickly fell apart, but what's the story for the rest of the division? Some crazy things were bound to happen this year with there being a condensed schedule, but I can't remember the last time the division was this shifting. That's probably because I'm so used to the Caps sitting at the top while the rest of the division fights to even stay alive for the playoffs, sans last season, but it seems like the Southeast this year will be decided by whichever team gets hot at the right time and that team currently appears to be Washington. The Jets are also still in the mix and they have a bit of an "easier" schedule down the stretch, so it's very likely that this race could come down to the last day. Still, the Caps look like they are in the driver's seat right now since they are the "hot" team and have four points on Winnipeg with the same number of games remaining.
A reason why the Caps have been able to claw their way up the ladder is that they have gotten the best of their divisional counterparts. It's also a reason why the Canes have fallen so hard over the last month.
Some might say that the Caps have taken advantage of weaker opponents because they've tallied over half of their wins against the lowly Southeast Division, but this is actually pretty important in regards to their chances of making the playoffs. They may have gotten off to a horrendous start, but taking 28 out of a possible 34 points from Southeast teams gives them a sizable advantage when it comes time to make the playoffs. Compare that to the Hurricanes only winning four out of 16 games against divisional foes and it's easy why the teams have gone in different directions over the last month. That being said, the Caps only have one game left against the Southeast Division, so they will need to continue to improve their record against the rest of the Eastern Conference to pull off their playoff run. That final game is also against Winnipeg so I can imagine that it will go a long way into deciding who wins the division.
This is where we are at now but how did it all get here? In a shortened season, puck luck is likely going to play an impact into who makes the playoffs and this is especially true for the Southeast Division since four teams have been taking turns at the top spot for most of the year. I mentioned how the carousel has gone and each team's PDO timeline tells a similar story.
It's funny how much puck-luck at even strength can influence the standings in a year like this. You can see here that Tampa Bay started off hot but soon cooled down once the percentages caught up with them. After that, the Hurricanes began to emerge as the favorites and came crashing back down to earth around Game 26-30 and have continued to plummet down as the season has gone on. It's possible that this might continue since more players keep getting hurt and impacting the overall talent on the team. Then you have the Washington Capitals, who started off the year with nothing going their way but that soon picked up around Game 16. They began to see a few more bounces go in their favor after that point and just about everything has gone their way since Game 26 or so. Winnipeg is the only team that hasn't experienced that great of a PDO shift, presumably because their goaltending has been below average for most of the year while their even strength shooting percentage has been slowly improving. However, this changes when you look at each team's PDO over five game segments.
Now it's easier to tell where each team went through a hot and cold stretches and the Jets' luck has been on-and-off when you break it down like this. That's been the case for most of the division except for the Canes, who have had nothing go their way and have been on a downhill trend since segment five. I've talked about how injuries and luck have played a role in the Hurricanes recent woes and they have really gotten out of control lately. Meanwhile, the Caps have been seeing just about everything go their way over the last month and have gotten seven wins against the Southeast during that time. The door is still open for the Jets but they are going to need to hope that things start to go South for the Caps before their game on the 25th.
In a condensed schedule, things like hot goaltending and high shooting percentage are going to have an impact in who makes the playoffs and who wins their division, but those eventually normalize in a full-season. Since every shot is a save or a goal, most team PDO's regress toward the mean of 1. That doesn't mean it always goes to it, but this is often the case in the salary cap era of the NHL. There have been cases where teams with elite goaltending or shooting talent can maintain a PDO north of 1 while a team with AHL-level talent would likely all have a PDO well below the mean for a full season. However, those instances are rare and a team's shooting and save percentage at even strength tends to regress toward 1 over the course of a full-year.
This is why I usually use possession metrics such as Fenwick or Corsi as a way to predict success in a full-season rather than their goal differential at even strength. Going by that, who would have the best chances of winning the Southeast? The result might surprise you.
In close game situations, the Hurricanes have been the best team in their division at controlling the shot battle at territorial game. Going by this, it means that the Hurricanes would have a better chance at staying in the division and playoff hunt and their recent problems are indeed nothing but terrible luck. The numbers also indicate that the Caps recent success is built on a house of cards and are due for a fall similar to what Tampa Bay experienced at the beginning of the year.
I don't completely agree with this since Carolina's terrible penalty kill and injury woes obviously limit how high their ceiling is, (it also takes a special kind of bad to win only two out of 15 games or whatever it is now), but I do agree with the notion that this team isn't as bad as their record shows. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter in a 48-game schedule when there is only so much time to make up for lost ground and your roster is as beaten up as it is. All they can really do now is wonder what could have been and hope for better things next season.
How the Hurricanes organization reacts to this season is going to be interesting, that's for sure.