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The competitiveness of the Southeast Division is the surprise of the season’s first half

Going into the 2011-12 season, most assumed that Southeast Division would be a two-horse race. Every member of the Puck Daddy staff predicted the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning to finish 1-2, with the Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets, and Florida Panthers all presumed to be on their way to the basement, like a blogger after lunch.

Now, the season is still young, and things could indeed shake out that way. After all, the Minnesota Wild were on the top of the conference a month ago. Now they're one point up on 9th place, five points out of 12th, and falling fast. Things can change in a hurry.

Still, through the first half of the 2011-12 schedule, I'm of the mind that the Southeast Division has been the biggest surprise. For years, it's been the laughingstock of the league, known for housing the Capitals and little else of merit. Here are the standings as of this writing:

Southeast Division - NHL.com

Really, the only thing that's unfolded as predicted is Tampa Bay occupying the space just below Washington. The fact that Florida and Winnipeg are ahead of both of them, however? That's nuts.

We've discussed, in the past, the way that weak divisions tend to lead to one team jumping ahead of the pack in the conference. The games aren't taxing and the points flow freely. But when you're meeting your match in every divisional game, it can slow you down.

I think the sudden resurgence of the Southeast is something to keep in mind when discussing the subpar first half for both the Bolts and Caps. To be certain, there are other problems with both clubs, but the competitive of the Jets' and Panthers -- the fact that they're no longer a source of easy points -- has to take its toll.

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