Thursday, March 27, 2008

Surprise! A Race In the Southeast

The Southeast Division is the weakest division in the NHL. For much of the season, it looked as though the Southeast Division champion would back into the third seed in the East Conference with such a poor record they would not have otherwise qualified for the playoffs. However, as we are in the stretch drive in the NHL season, some of the hottest teams in the league are in the southeast. The Carolina Hurricanes look like the probable champions and have won 14 of their last 19 games (with two of their losses counted as regulation ties). They have needed to play this well to stay ahead of the Washington Capitals and the Florida Panthers. Washington has won 10 of their last 14 and Florida 8 of their last 10 (with one loss counted as a regulation tie). If these teams could all have played this well all season long, they would all easily have qualified for playoffs and the Southeast Division would not be the butt of jokes.

In the month of March so far, some of the hottest players in the league have come from the Southeast Division. Alexander Ovechkin of Washington is the highest scorer in the league so far this month and Eric Staal of Carolina is third (Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins separates the two). Cam Ward of Carolina and Tomas Vokoun of Florida have been two of the hottest goalies in the league in March. Washington has split their games between Cristobal Huet and Olaf Kolzig and both have played well. Even Florida backup Craig Anderson had a remarkable shutout streak recently.

The Southeast Division has been a very week one this season, but as the season is ending three of its teams have become very hot in the race for the playoffs. Likely, only Carolina will secure a playoff berth (though a second southeast team making the playoffs is not impossible). Hopefully, this is a sign that the Southeast Division will be more competitive next season.

1) Looking ahead to next year season we'd bet that the Caps and Hurricanes will be a playoff contenders. The caps after their coaching change in November have been the best team in the SE. Carolina is too talent laden to fall by much
2) Atlanta and TB will probably continue to struggle because their underlying problems stem from poor managing/coaching
3) The wild card are the Panthers. On paper they should be better. We have never been big fans of Martin as a coach, and think a new man in charge could be the key to ignite them back into the playoffs after a decade
The Panthers have an impressive amount of younger talent, some of it with a good amount of veteran experience - guys like Horton, Weiss, Bouwmeester, Olesz - they're held back by an overall weak blueline and an overburdened coach. Jacques Martin should either do that, or move to GM full-time.

Vokoun's a decent keeper, but he isn't Roberto Luongo. They'd have won the division with him in net, I think. Speaking of goaltending, the Caps should make every effort to sign Huet or they won't go very far next year, either.

I can see all three of those teams pushing next season for playoff spots, and nudging out some of the weaker entries from the other divisions, such as Toronto or Philly.
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