Need to know: Here come the Capitals

After a night that saw Jaromir Jagr score the winner in his first game as a Boston Bruin and Marian Gaborik duplicate the effort in his first go-round in a Columbus Blue Jackets jersey, we turn our attention to the Washington Capitals.

Remember when the Caps looked as though they might take a real run at the first overall draft pick as one of the worst teams in the NHL? Remember when people were wondering if GM George McPhee would survive the season? And how about rookie coach Adam Oates? Remember the collective head-shaking at what was obviously such an egregious error in hiring the recent Hall of Fame inductee, as the Capitals found ways to shoot themselves in the foot seemingly every night?

On Thursday, Washington beat the New York Islanders 2-1 in a shootout to move into first place in the Southeast Division. Alexander Ovechkin scored the shootout winner, and it’s interesting that we don’t seem to hear much of the "what happened to Ovie?" lament that dominated discussion of the Capitals as they stumbled around the first half of the season. Ovechkin has scored 11 times in his past 12 games (shootout goals don’t count, of course) and his 20 goals are five off the NHL pace set by Steven Stamkos.

Although Paul MacLean is pretty much a lock to win the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year for his work in Ottawa, it’s going to be hard to keep Oates off the ballot if the Capitals end up with the top spot in the Southeast. And does anyone think that isn’t exactly where the Capitals will finish in three weeks’ time?

The Winnipeg Jets, doing their best Atlanta Thrashers impression, have given new meaning to nosedive after they lost their fifth in a row, 4-1 to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night. The Jets’ minus-25 goal differential ranks 14th in the Eastern Conference and they are, in a word, cooked -- even though they are tied with Washington in points at 38. The Caps have two games in hand on Winnipeg. The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning are tied with 34 points and, oddly enough, it’s the Lightning -- a team that fired its coach two weeks ago -- that might provide the greatest challenge to a Capitals division title.

The Lightning whipped the fading Canes 5-0 on Thursday with newly acquired netminder Ben Bishop turning in a stellar 45-save performance. The Lightning are 3-0-1 in their past four. Still, credit goes to the Caps, who control their fate. Keep playing at this level and they’ll return to the postseason for the sixth straight year and win their fifth division title in the past six years. Imagine that.