Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
The NFL is widely considered to be the pinnacle of parity in the sports world, but changes are brewing in the NHL that has it approaching that level.
A year ago, the Southeast Division was arguably the worst in the league. Its only playoff representative, the Washington Capitals, won the division by a whopping 38 points over the Thrashers, and the Caps were dispatched from the post-season in the first round by the Canadiens.
The Habs may have only been the eighth seeded team, but they were one of four teams that qualified for the playoffs from the Northeast Division. When you consider that only eight teams from each conference make the postseason, it’s remarkable that half of them can come from the same division.
This season has represented a seismic shift in the Eastern Conference. Perennial powerhouse New Jersey has fallen by the wayside, and NE Division champ Buffalo is currently 10 points out of a playoff spot. In addition, the Ottawa Senators, the fifth seed in the playoffs a year ago, are 13 points out.
With all of the turnover occurring in the East, the much-maligned Southeast Division has vaulted itself into consideration as the strongest top-to-bottom division in the NHL. The Pacific and Central Divisions both certainly have an argument, but the transformation of the Southeast from “Washington and Friends” into an extremely competitive group has been a sight to behold.
The Capitals have remained fairly strong, even with an eight game losing streak on their ledger earlier this season. Alex Ovechkin is still having a solid offensive campaign, and they have managed to survive the ups and downs of this season with some great play from youngsters like Semyon Varlamov and John Carlson. Old stand-bys like Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom have also kept the Caps afloat.
The team that has vaulted past the Capitals in the standings this season is the Tampa Bay Lightning. They are buoyed by the dynamic offensive production of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, and they also are getting production from players like Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell as well. This team may not be the strongest squad in terms of net presence (none of their goalies have a GAA of less than 3.00 this season), but they are an offensive machine on par with the explosiveness the Capitals bring to the ice, and they are a viable threat to Washington’s dominance in this division.
The Atlanta Thrashers are a team that took some observers by surprise this season. After losing their most dynamic player last season, they have re-tooled into one of the most exciting young teams in the game. Captain Andrew Ladd has given the team a great boost in production, and their blue line is manned by two players in Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom that can provide offensive punch whenever needed. Throw in sizzling hot goaltender Ondrej Pavelec to that mix, and you have a recipe that has the potential to make some noise come April.
When it comes to darkhorse teams, perhaps no team has flown more under the radar this season than the Carolina Hurricanes. A year after they were an also-ran and dealing with injuries to several key players including Cam Ward, the Canes have stormed back into NHL relevance. They are currently on pace for 91 points, and that would put them eighth in the East. With leadership from Eric Staal, the superb goaltending of Ward, and the surprising season being turned in by youngster Jeff Skinner, this team looks a lot like the squad that made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009.
Last but not least, the Florida Panthers are beginning to claw their way out of obscurity. New General Manager Dale Tallon has really put his stamp on the team, and they are responding well to the changes. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun continues to impress with his stellar play in net (five shutouts and a .922 save percentage), and he has helped them to one of the best GAA in the league this year. Toss in a little scoring touch from Stephen Weiss and David Booth, and you can see why this team has risen to 10th in the standings.
So how many of these teams will actually make the playoffs this season? Looking at the points pace that the teams are currently on, it appears as though the odds of having four teams make the postseason are slim. The Thrashers and Hurricanes are currently locked in a battle for the eighth seed (Thrashers are ahead right now but the Hurricanes are on pace to outduel them for the spot), and both Washington and Tampa seem like they are comfortably in. It would be perfectly reasonable to assume that the Southeast and Atlantic will both get three teams in, while the Northeast has to settle for Boston and Montreal.
What will the determining factors be in the ultimate success or failure of these teams? What storylines will dominate the headlines as we speed toward the All-Star break and beyond? To help answer those queries, here are five questions that will be resolved the next 12 weeks.
Question 1: Can Tampa Bay end Washington’s reign atop the division?
With both teams deadlocked atop the standings, it is apparent that the Bolts are serious about taking the Capitals down this season. During their four regular season meetings this season, Tampa has won two of them by shutting down Washington’s offense, and the other two games displayed the worst facets of the Lightning’s game with the Caps netting six goals in each of the two blowout losses.
The differences between those contests are stark and definitely cast a doubt over whether or not Tampa has the defensive chops to end the Caps’ run. The biggest issue has certainly been the amount of shots that the Lightning are allowing. They are currently third in the league in fewest shots allowed per game, but even still they are allowing the fourth most goals per game. This number absolutely has to come down for Tampa to have a shot at the division crown, and it’s going to be up to one of Tampa’s goaltenders to step up and shine. Whether it be Dan Ellis, Dwayne Roloson, or Mike Smith, someone in pads needs to be this team’s savior.
Question 2: What additions do the Capitals need to make at the trade deadline?
Considering that a month ago shouts were ringing through Verizon Center for coach Bruce Boudreau’s head, the fact that this team is currently tied for the division lead may be surprising to some. After their eight game losing streak, the team went on an eight game point streak, and has followed that up with two disappointing losses to the Canucks and Lightning. This roller-coaster ride has left a lot of Caps’ fans in the lurch and questioning whether it is time to make some radical changes or hold on for one more playoff run.
With how often momentum has seemed to shift with this squad during the 2010-11 campaign, it would be a smart move to acquire a couple of proven veterans for the stretch run. A proven goalie could be invaluable, as neither Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth has definitively grabbed the number one spot. Another potential addition could be a lower line center, much like last year when they brought Eric Belanger into the fold. He provided not only some veteran leadership but also some defensive responsibility to a team that isn’t exactly known for that.
General Manager George McPhee has shown that he isn’t one to panic in the past, but even his patience will be severely tested if this team doesn’t perform come playoff time. The trade deadline is going to offer him a shot to shore up this squad, and it will be interesting to see what he decides to do.
Question 3: Can Cam Ward carry the Hurricanes to the promised land?
Selected to the All-Star Game this season after an injury plagued campaign derailed him last year, Ward has been a steadying force for the Hurricanes in net. He has kept them in a slew of games already this year, and while his stats haven’t been tremendously impressive, his play on the ice definitely speaks louder than those numbers.
As one of only three rookie goaltenders (along with Ken Dryden and Antti Niemi) to win a Stanley Cup, Ward is familiar with big moments. He won a hard-fought Game 7 in the 2006 Cup Finals against Edmonton, and he has shown up to play when the Canes have needed him most.
The potential undoing of Ward this season could be the play of Carolina’s defense. With the offense humming along nicely, the defense has undermined their efforts at making the postseason by giving up an average of 34 shots per game, which ranks them third worst in the NHL behind only Anaheim and Atlanta. Championship contenders tend to prevent a lot of pucks from getting at their goaltenders, and this season has shown that the Canes aren’t really capable of shutdown defense.
It’s going to be a tough challenge for Ward to help carry Carolina into the playoffs, but out of all the goaltenders in this division, he has the most clutch game experience out of all of them. It’s going to be fascinating watching the man in the blue paint try to keep the Raleigh faithful energized down the stretch.
Question 4: Will the Thrashers overtake Carolina and snatch a playoff berth?
With their solid off-season acquisitions and the play of youngsters like Evander Kane, the Thrashers are looking primed to make a run at the playoffs. A ton of credit needs to go to Craig Ramsay and Rick Dudley for the job they have done in putting this team together, and also for knowing exactly what buttons to push as this squad has dealt with injuries and other challenges.
The real question going forward for this bunch is whether their defense can help them make the playoffs. Clearly they have the offensive chops with guys like Byfuglien, Ladd, and Enstrom shouldering the load, but their penchant for allowing tons of shots is going to make Pavelec’s job in the crease that much more difficult to handle.
Atlanta would be well-advised to try to pick up some blue line help before the trade deadline, and they also need players like Brent Sopel to step up their efforts to keep pucks from making it to the net. Needless to say, if they’re allowing 34+ shots per contest for the rest of the season, it won’t matter how many highlight reel goals Big Buff gets them. The name of the game when it comes to the playoffs is defense, and right now, Atlanta needs some work in that department.
Question 5: Which Southeast Division team has the best chance to hoist the Stanley Cup?
All four teams in strong playoff contention from this Division have their fair share of strengths and flaws. It is an offensively-loaded division, with every team except Florida sporting a championship-caliber scoring machine. The big question then is which team has the potential to step up on the other side of the puck and prevent other teams from matching them goal for goal?
While an argument could be made for any team in this regard, the safest bet at this moment is Washington. Yes, they still have their own fair share of issues to work out, including who is going to man the crease, but they have enough talent on the defensive side of the puck that it is entirely possible that their blue line corps could step it up in a big way. Add in the fact that they have three of the premier offensive stars in the game, and this team has the potential to explode at any moment.
Tampa, Carolina, and Atlanta may all be making huge strides forward, but until someone takes it from them, the Caps are still the kings of this division. Buckle your seat belts kids. We are in for a thrilling ride.