Need to know: Caps-Jets race hits stretch

April, 19, 2013
4/19/13
9:28
AM ET
The Southeast Division has been the subject of derision and ridicule as the uncontested weakest grouping of teams in the league, but it has not lacked for drama or entertainment value.

Perhaps the division title is a somewhat dubious honor, but the neck-and-neck race between the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets promises to be an exciting one, especially with the stage set for a head-to-head matchup between the two Tuesday in D.C.

The third-place Capitals and ninth-place Jets are separated by a mere two points heading into the penultimate weekend of the season, each team with four games left on its schedule.

Washington, whose eight-game winning streak was snapped by the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night, remains in the division lead with 50 points, but the Jets trail by two after edging the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime Thursday 4-3.

Though the Jets, winners of five in a row, are tied with the New York Rangers at 48 points, the eighth-place Rangers have a game in hand.

The two competing storylines are both compelling: one a team that has essentially risen from the dead after a dreadful start to the season, much in part to Alex Ovechkin's dynamic play; another club desperate to earn its first playoff berth since 2007.

Who has the advantage from here?

Three of the Caps' final four games are against playoff teams -- Montreal, Ottawa and Boston. The other game?

That's right, an all-important four-point match against the Jets at home Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Jets wrap up a six-game homestand on Saturday when they host the scorching New York Islanders. Next is a back-to-back road set against the Buffalo Sabres on Monday and Washington the next night, followed by their regular-season finale, at home against Montreal.

The Capitals, 8-1-1 in their past 10 games, appear to have all the momentum. But Hart Trophy candidate Ovechkin, who has 12 goals in the past 11 games, can't do it alone.

And if you are a Caps fan, there was one particularly troubling element from Thursday night's loss: the absence of top centerman Nicklas Backstrom in the latter half of the third period. Backstrom, regarded by many as the "straw that stirs the drink" for the Caps, did not return to the ice after taking Mike Green's slap shot off his arm.

Should Backstrom's injury be serious, that would be a monumental blow for the Caps, not just in terms of their title hopes but their chances for any success in the postseason.

Of course, both teams can make the playoffs with one taking the division title and the runner-up elbowing a team like the Islanders or Rangers out of the equation, but the battle for the third seed, and home ice, will be the one to watch.

Circle April 23 on your calendars, folks.
Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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