January 05, 2011
On Jan. 5, 2010, the Washington Capitals had 14-point lead in the Southeast Division over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Taken within the context of previous seasons, it could have been considered the norm.
On Jan. 5, 2011, the Lightning lead the Capitals in the Southeast by one point, having done what might have been unthinkable one year ago: Skating into Verizon Center and leaving with a shutout win over Washington -- the first 1-0 overtime loss in Capitals franchise history.
The Capitals having come back to the pack, mostly through their rotten 5-5-3 December, is a significant story; but the Southeast Division's assault on the Eastern Conference standings is just as significant.
We've said since the start of the season that the Southeast would send three teams to the playoffs this postseason; could they Make It Four?
Aided by the collapse of some teams and the disarray of others, the Division Formerly Known As The Southleast currently holds five of the top 10 spots in the conference.
At this time last season, there was one Southeast Division team in a playoff seed (Washington) and three in the Top 10.
It's not exactly difficult to see how the changes occurred, year-to-year:
The Yzerman Effect. Steve Yzerman takes over the Lightning, convinces Guy Boucher to be his bench boss instead of the Columbus Blue Jackets' next coach, cuts some roster fat and adds a few key pieces (the latest being goalie Dwayne Roloson(notes)), and the Lightning have gone from 42 points in their first 41 games last season to 53 in their first 40 games in 2010-11. Steven Stamkos(notes) and Marty St. Louis are the best tandem in hockey at the moment.
The ThrashHawks. While the impact of Craig Ramsay behind the bench can't be overemphasized, the infusion of talent from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks (including captain Andrew Ladd(notes) and inexplicable Norris contender Dustin Byfuglien(notes)) have Atlanta in a playoff seed. Oh, and having Ondrej Pavelec(notes) go from literally unconscious to start the season to figuratively playing the same way through 28 games hasn't hurt, either.
Hurricane Warning. In horse racing, it's called stalking the field. The Carolina Hurricanes have 41 points in 38 games this season, up from 29 in 41 games last year. They've proven to be a better second half team under coach Paul Maurice, going 25-14-3 from Jan.-April 2010. They're a wildly inconsistent team that's asking a lot out of a kid like Jeff Skinner(notes), but they're in the mix.
The Conference Is One-Third Terrible. The New Jersey Devils have been checking tee-times since mid-December. The New York Islanders are playing well, but will have traded everything but John Tavares(notes) and the light fixtures in the dressing room by February. The Toronto Maple Leafs have shown more spark in the coach's press conferences than they have offensively. The Ottawa Senators can't stay healthy and are inept to the point where they can't even properly fire a coach. So even though the Florida Panthers are 10th in the conference, one assumes there's a better chance the rise than fall down those standings with the putrid cushion beneath them.
We're at the midpoint of the season. No more "it's too early" for idle chatter about playoff seedings. The Lightning sent a statement last night. The Capitals are a playoff team. Barring injury, the Thrashers have shown no indication they won't be. If the Carolina Hurricanes make another second-half run, it's not out of the question they could challenge the Montreal Canadiens or the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers for the final seeds in the conference.
It used to be that the best argument against calling it the "Southleast" was that one of its representatives would occasionally win (or play for) the Stanley Cup. Now, it's because they could make up half of the East's playoff representatives.