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Capitals among East contenders; West race too tight to call
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Alex Ovechkin’s familiar gap-toothed grin has returned with the Washington Capitals in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

Hardly anyone’s smiling in the West, where the standings are far more convoluted heading into the post-All-Star break of the NHL schedule, which opens with 11 games Tuesday.

“It’s hard,” St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said during the All-Star festivities in Columbus, Ohio, over the weekend. “If you lose three, four games in a row, it’s scary because you find yourself in eighth place when you were in first a week ago.”

It’s a tale of two conferences.

In the West, seven points separate the fourth-place San Jose Sharks from the 11th-place Dallas Stars. Don’t count out the 12th-place Minnesota Wild, who rode a 23-10-7 second-half surge to clinch a playoff spot last year.

And then there’s the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings who are a single point out of the postseason picture at the moment.

“We’ve had some spurts where we played pretty good,” Kings forward Anze Kopitar said. “But we also had some moments where we didn’t play very good at all.”

In the East, the Capitals (24-13-9) are seventh, but part of a top-eight group of contenders that have begun separating themselves from the bottom eight.

And that, so far, is fine with, Ovechkin who is feeling much better after one his most trying years.

“Before the season, I said, it’s a very important year for us, for me, for the whole group of guys on the team,” said Ovechkin, who made his fifth career NHL All-Star Game appearance. “We all wanted to come back and show last year was maybe a little bit of no luck.”

The Capitals not only missed the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, Ovechkin’s frustrations were compounded on the other side of the Atlantic. That’s where he and his fellow Russians wilted under immense national pressure by failing to even sniff an Olympic medal on native soil at the Sochi Games.

The Capitals have successfully made the transition under new coach Barry Trotz, and shored up their defense by adding Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.

Ovechkin’s production has barely slowed, and put him in contention to win his fifth career and third straight scoring title. His 27 goals are one off the league-lead shared by Dallas’ Tyler Seguin and New York Rangers’ Rick Nash.

And Ovechkin’s defensive numbers are markedly improved. After finishing third-last in the NHL with a minus-35 rating, he’s currently 40th with a plus-12.

Steven Stamkos, captain of the East-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, isn’t exactly rooting for Alex The Great’s return to the playoffs. But, he noted, it would be good for hockey to have such a high-profile player competing well into the spring.

“It’s great that he’s having a great year,” Stamkos said. “Any time you have a top player playing well it only adds to building our game.”

The East teams outside the playoff hunt have plenty of catching up to do. The youth-laden Florida Panthers — whose roster includes rookie No. 1 pick, defenseman Aaron Ekblad — are ninth. Ottawa and Toronto are next with 47 points, and shown few signs of consistency even after both Ontario rivals changed coaches over the past two months.

The West is filled with intrigue, which shouldn’t come as a surprise after many top teams spent last summer stocking up on high-profile free agents. Still, there are three teams — San Jose (fourth place), Winnipeg (seventh) and Calgary (eighth) — that are in the hunt despite not making many offseason splashes.

Chicago and St. Louis both find themselves looking up in the Central Division at Nashville.

“It’s a tough division to be in, but it’s also a good division to be in,” Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “We’re all playing meaningful games down the stretch, getting ready for the playoffs.”

Not all will make it.

There is a race to watch at the other end of the standings. Buffalo (14-30-3) and Edmonton (12-26-9) have been locked in a battle for futility and, more important, the right to land the top draft prospects — Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid and U.S.-born, Boston University freshman Jack Eichel.

The Sabres are suddenly gaining the “edge” for last place and, with it, a guaranteed top-two selection. They entered the All-Star breaking having lost 11 straight in regulation — the NHL’s worst streak since Pittsburgh lost 13 in a row from January to February 2004, according to STATS.