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Keep an eye on Caps, Bolts down the stretch

The Capitals and Lightning are headed for a collision course down the stretch, you just know it. 

Which team will have the best record after the All-Star break?

Scott Burnside: I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, it’s been a challenge without captain Steven Stamkos, but the Bolts have played 28 road games already, so that means they’ll finish up the season with a home-heavy schedule. I am trusting that goalies Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy will both return to form in spite of an uneven and — in the case of Bishop — injury-marred first half. I’ll also add that Nikita Kucherov has a chance to put heat on the rest of the league’s top point producers down the stretch.

Pierre LeBrun: Like Scotty, I love the idea of Tampa getting on a run. Maybe if only because I refuse to believe my preseason Stanley Cup pick could miss the playoffs! Seriously though, it’s too good a roster not to get something going finally, and let’s face it, the Atlantic Division isn’t exactly a juggernaut.

Craig Custance: The easy answer is the Washington Capitals, but I’m going to pick a bit of a dark horse: the Anaheim Ducks. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry haven’t been great this season and I suspect that as the games start to get more meaningful and the playoffs get closer, those two will find another gear. That will give the Ducks a push. Ryan Kesler has been great and has emerged as the Selke favorite. The defense is one of the deepest in the league, and if GM Bob Murray can spin some of that depth on defense to add firepower up front before the deadline, that will help push the Ducks, too.

Joe McDonald: Since the New York Islanders made a coaching change, right or wrong, the players have responded with Doug Weight behind the bench. The Islanders created an exciting playoff push last spring and many thought it would carry over into this season. A coaching change sometimes has a short shelf life when it comes to success, but we saw last season what happened with the Pittsburgh Penguins after Mike Sullivan took over in December. Pittsburgh is a talented team with a ton of depth, which is completely different than the Islanders, but I would still like to see New York go on a run and earn a postseason berth.

Matthew Coller: The Nashville Predators have started to show signs of life, winning seven of their last 10 heading into the All-Star break. They have played very good hockey at even strength, with only the Minnesota Wild putting up a better 5-on-5 goals-for percentage in the Western Conference. With P.K. Subban back after missing more than a month, he can develop some chemistry with his relatively new teammates and boost the Predators’ middle-of-the-pack power play. Keep an eye out for a Philadelphia Flyers hot streak, too. Philly’s goaltending has struggled, but both Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth are capable of catching fire and leading their team down the stretch.

Corey Pronman: Hard for me to bet against the Capitals. They’ve got a deep forward corps of players who generate a high volume of chances and convert those chances. And they’ve got great goaltending and a good defensive unit, even if it’s not as elite as their forward group. They’re the favorite to win it all. As an aside, I don’t think they’ll be the best team, but I think the Boston Bruins could surprise. Patrice Bergeron has played a lot better than his stat line suggests, and I think the Bruins could create separation from the pack in a tight Atlantic Division.

Rob Vollman: As I predicted even as they sat in fifth in the Metropolitan Division in early December, it was inevitable that the Capitals would surge back to the top, where they will likely stay for the balance of the season. The only point of hesitation is that virtually any team with the right combination of factors can get really hot and outperform superior teams for extended periods of time. From that perspective, I would keep an eye on the Bruins in the East and the Los Angeles Kings in the West.

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