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Barring an unanticipated collapse, the Washington Capitals are going to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second straight time. Last season, they were the lone representatives from the Southeast Division, as the Carolina Hurricanes finished two points behind the Boston Bruins despite having two more victories than the No. 8 seed. It all worked out, however, because no one in Montreal would have burned a cop car for the Hurricanes.

The Southeast has produced only one playoff berth, via the division champion, three times since the Atlanta Thrashers made it a five-team division in 1999-2000.

At the all-star break, the Hurricanes currently reside in the eighth seed at 51 points with the Florida Panthers right behind them at 50 points, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Tampa Bay Lightning (42 points) and Atlanta Thrashers (39 points) have battled through their own adversities to hang close to the playoff standings.

Will the Capitals once again represent the Southeast by themselves? Or will one of their four division-mates make the cut?

Scouting the Southeast field, based on their current points ...

Carolina Hurricanes

(Eighth place, 51 points, 18 home games/16 road games left)

The Canes are 11-9-3 under Coach Paul Maurice, which isn't much of an improvement over their 12-11-2 start with Peter Laviolette, at least on paper.

Offensively, Carolina is still a conundrum, raked 23rd in the League in goals scored. Then again, witness Eric Staal's improvement since Maurice took over; at least for him, the change has worked.

The Hurricanes' special teams are both ranked 25th overall, and Cam Ward has been as inconsistent as his team on most nights.

What does all of this tell you? That despite really underachieving this season -- Rod Brind'Amour's minus-29 could be the eye-popping stat of the year -- they're still in a playoff spot as of this morning.

Fans are wondering if the Canes should be buyers or sellers at the deadline; maybe it's a little of both. They don't have the best shot at the postseason, but they certainly have a shot.

Florida Panthers

(Ninth place, 50 points, 20 home games/16 road games left)

Logic dictates that the Panthers have the best chance to be the second representative from the Southeast, for two good reasons.

First, the team has 20 home games, and it's been better at home (10-6-5) than on the road (11-11-3) this season. The closer the Panthers are to the postseason picture, the more likely it is that the fans who have been repelled from the arena (a sparse 11,200 announced for the Dallas Stars last night) will hitch up to the bandwagon. The Panthers actually have two separate five-game homestands down the stretch. That's huge.

Second, Florida has the best goaltending in the division. Both Tomas Vokoun (2.68, .916) and Craig Anderson (2.47, .930) have the ability to get on one of those stonewalling streaks where they pitch multiple shutouts in a week. That's a game-changer.

The concern is offense. Sixty-two of Florida's 127 goals this season have come from four players: David Booth, Nathan Horton, Cory Stillman and Jay Bouwmeester. An injury to any of them is a serious blow, as was evident when each of the forwards missed a little time this year. Radek Dvorak isn't turning into Jagr anytime soon.

Oh, and then there's that Bouwmeester thing. Trade the impending free agent, and you trade one of the vital reasons the team is in contention. Keep him, and risk losing him for nothing. This, more than anything else, could determine whether Florida makes the cut.

Bottom line: You think the Senators could have used Peter DeBoer behind the bench this season?

Tampa Bay Lightning

(12th place, 42 points, 19 at home/16 on the road)

The division's most confounding, confusing, frustrating yet ultimately compelling mess of a team. One night it appears they have enough to climb back into the race; the next game it looks like a patchwork collection with the chemistry of oil and water.

But after Martin St. Louis spoke up about the lackluster performances from his teammates, things started to turn. Erik Erlendsson of the Bolts Report sees a team that is 9-5-1 in the past 15 games, and thinks the playoffs aren't out of the question:

"I'm proud of this team. The last three or four weeks, this team has faced a lot of adversity and they passed the test. They've done a great job,'' Lightning interim coach Rick Tocchet said.

Not sure what it's going to mean once games resume as any talk of getting into a playoff race still must be tempered, even with 19 of the final 35 games at home and Tampa Bay nine points out of the No. 8 spot right now. But you have to admit, being tied for 11th place and to be within single digits of a playoff spot is a long way removed from where this team was sitting around Thanksgiving, eh?

True, but they're also still as far away from the playoffs as the St. Louis Blues are in the West. And while some of the numbers are looking better than before, it's still a team of underachievers underachieving.

The season will be decided from Feb. 7-19, when the Lightning have six straight home games. That's when a move up the standings will be made, if at all.

Hey, at least we know Koules/Barrie/Lawton are good for about a baker's dozen more moves on the blue line before the end of the season. Let the Igor Ulanov watch begin in earnest.

Atlanta Thrashers

(14th place, 39 points, 17 home/17 away)

The Thrashers are another team that's shown flashes of potential, especially up front where the scoring's been much more balanced than expected. But the hole is too deep, the competition is too steep and the Thrashers just aren't built for a prolonged run to get back into this thing. The schedule doesn't help, either: They've got an Anaheim/Los Angeles/Phoenix/San Jose trip in February, and Colorado/Edmonton/Buffalo jaunt in March. Yuck.

There will be a level of intrigue approaching the deadline, as the Thrashers dangle some players for picks. Or maybe Don Waddell will attempt some Hail-Mary, reverse-Hossa trade to appease Ilya Kovalchuk ... before, hopefully for Thrash fans, he's canned this summer.

Prediction: The Southeast sneaks a second team in, as either the Buffalo Sabres or Pittsburgh Penguins finish outside the Top 8. Dollars to doughnuts, the Panthers appear to be in the best shape. But the Hurricanes have so much room for improvement, it's hard to picture them failing to bring this thing down to the wire for the second straight season.

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