Daily Debate: Caps take over division lead

Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun discuss the Southeast Division race, the Blackhawks trying to make a move by Feb. 27 and the Senators struggling since the All-Star break.

Custance: Good morning, Pierre! Some incredible performances last night. Evgeni Nabokov was outstanding in shutting out the Philadelphia Flyers, adding to the intrigue that will surround him as the trade deadline gets closer. But if the Islanders keep winning, can they really deal him?

But I wanted to start with the performance turned in by Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. Huge win over division rival Florida, a convincing 4-0 shutout that puts the Capitals back in first place in the Southeast. Tomas Vokoun played great again against his former team, making 42 saves, and Ovechkin scored twice in the kind of game we used to see all the time from him. Perhaps most impressive was Brooks Laich, who showed leadership and heart in gutting out 9:28 of ice time despite a knee injury. It's safe to say only one Southeast team will make the playoffs. You feeling better about the Capitals?

LeBrun: Well, I feel better about the Caps at home, that’s for sure, where they improved to 19-7-1 on the season. It’s on the road that concerns me, where Dale Hunter’s crew is 9-14-3. That’s where there remains work to be done for the Caps. But I do agree that last night's performance was as good as they’ve looked in a while.

The Panthers, a terrific story this season, are beginning to fade, winning only three of their past 10 games (3-4-3). You have to think the inevitable is beginning to happen here, the favored Caps finally pulling ahead and perhaps distancing themselves from the Cats.

You mentioned the streaking Islanders, who have points in eight of their past 10 games (6-2-2). I really don’t think GM Garth Snow is shopping Nabokov at all at this point, because he believes his team still has a shot at making the playoffs. And frankly, I don’t blame him for thinking that, given how well his team has played and the fact the eighth-place Senators in particular are fading big time. The Isles are nine points back of Ottawa with four games in hand, although Florida and Winnipeg are also ahead of the Long Island club. Still, it’s not impossible.

Custance: That's the thing about this trade deadline. Nobody feels they're out of it right now, and the teams that are, aren't exactly selling off parts. Carolina signed Tim Gleason to an extension and Jim Rutherford hasn't ruled out doing the same with Tuomo Ruutu. Columbus just signed Vinny Prospal to a one-year, $2.5 million contract extension, removing another potential rental forward from the mix.

I spoke with Chicago GM Stan Bowman about it yesterday, and while he wasn't outwardly frustrated, he wondered how much things would change between now and Feb. 27. He didn't exactly sound optimistic.

"There are fewer players available," he said. And he pointed out that teams are already planning for next season rather than gathering young assets. That means teams on the trade market aren't necessarily looking for prospects and picks, complicating things for a contender like Chicago.

"We're looking to add but I'm not going to create one hole to fill another," Bowman added.

The Blackhawks lost again last night as they continue to struggle on their West Coast trip. That's now six games in a row without a win for the Blackhawks. Bowman said he won't be overreacting.

"You just go through times where you don't play your best," he said. "We just have to put it together consistently."

Another team that has hit a rough patch is the Ottawa Senators. They were a great story in the first half of the season but haven't won since Jan. 19. They have now dropped to No. 8 in the East despite playing more games than anyone in the conference. Maybe that's a team that will lose its way into the sellers category.

LeBrun: I spoke with Senators GM Bryan Murray yesterday and, when asked about his current outlook for the trade deadline, he figured "status quo" was the likeliest outcome given his team’s slide in the standings.

The surprising Senators are winless in their past seven (0-6-1) and the critics will certainly claim that their bubble has burst.

"It just looks like we hit a wall on the latter part of the road trip last month and then we had the All-Star break," Murray told ESPN.com on Tuesday afternoon. "We came back from that an unfocused hockey club. We have to get that turned around."

I think if the Senators can turn it around and gain more space above the danger zone in the East, they might look for a forward come Feb. 27. But regardless of what happens, they’ve got the eye on the big picture, which remains building for the future around their young core.

Custance: That's exactly how they should approach this season. If they make the playoffs, great. But this is a talented young team that head coach Paul MacLean is still molding. If I'm Murray and the losing continues, I'm taking advantage of the lack of sellers and seeing what I can get in return for a guy like Filip Kuba who has 18 points this season.

As for tonight's games, it's a light schedule, but I'm headed downtown in a minute to take in the morning skate at Joe Louis Arena. Sounds like I'll be back downtown on Thursday morning for some Winter Classic news.

The Red Wings host the Oilers tonight in the first game of a six-game homestand after their trip West. Detroit GM Ken Holland will get a really good idea as to whether or not he needs to add a goalie as insurance for Jimmy Howard during this stretch of games. Spoke with an NHL source this weekend and he said it was a "coin toss" as to whether or not Detroit would add a goalie. Since then, the backups have done nothing to solidify their status. Should be an interesting stretch.

LeBrun: I personally would be surprised if the Wings added a goalie. The bottom line is that the Wings only win the Cup if Howard is in goal. Who the backup is for the ride matters zero to that reality.

Speaking of the trade market, I should mention that I exchanged emails with Jackets GM Scott Howson in lieu of the Prospal announcement and he confirmed the obvious: he will not be trading Prospal now that he’s signed him to an extension. I think some people will be surprised that he decided to keep the veteran forward instead of trading him along with others as the Jackets retool following a nightmare season. But my take on this is that Prospal is valued for his leadership in the dressing room.