For the last few years, the Southeast Division has been referred to as the “Southleast” Division, and not without good reason. The Capitals have blown their competition out of the water and virtually won the division before Christmas the last two years. Maybe two teams from the division make the playoffs each year (if even that), and the fact that they play in the Eastern Conference (thought to be the lesser of the two conferences) doesn’t help their case much either.
While that argument may have had traction in the past, it no longer does. If the playoffs were to start today, three Southeast Division teams would make the playoffs, with a fourth (Carolina) in the 9th seed. Florida currently holds the 10th seed as well. Washington, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta have all spent some time at the top of the division standings. Currently, Tampa Bay and Washington are tied at 51 points apiece, with Tampa winning in the tiebreaker.
This makes tomorrow night’s matchup in DC a surprisingly meaningful intra-division mid-season game. With stars like Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Steven Stamkos, the Lightning have the potential to become a true divisional rivalry with the Capitals. The last two years, the Capitals have played on a level all their own when compared to the other four teams, but Tamp Bay has always been the closest opponent.
Animosity built up between the two last January, when tempers boiled over in the third period of a 7-4 Lightning victory. It would be the third time in a row the Capitals had lost, and would be the last time they would lose for another month. During that came, Alex Ovechkin and Steve Downie were eyeing each other coming out of the penalty box. They squared off to fight when Matt Bradley infamously stepped in for his captain to take the punches. There would be another fight in the game, and numerous scrums and roughhousing to leave a sour taste in the mouth of both teams.
The Atlanta Thrashers have also elevated their play since their off season tampering. After Rick Dudley was promoted from Assistant General Manager to GM, he aggressively pursued players of the Chicago Blackhawks who would become salary cap casualties. This group of players included Dustin Byfuglien, now Thrasher captain Andrew Ladd, and defenseman Brent Sopel. This instantly filled the hole left by Ilya Kovalchuk and put the Thrashers back in the playoff conversation for the first time since 2007.
The Southeast Division now has a total of 226 points between the five teams. That’s tops among the Eastern Conference divisions. The two teams not currently in the playoff picture (the Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers) both have a stockpile of young, promising prospects, particularly the Panthers. While not making a lot of noise now, these teams will in the new few years.
This could end up being viewed as a turning point for the division. With all of the teams strengthening, the Capitals can’t expect to win every game anymore. They can’t take a division title for granted—they’re being forced to earn it. Hopefully successful teams in non-traditional hockey markets like Tampa, Miami, Raleigh, and Atlanta will generate new interest in the sport.
It will take some time before the hockey world is willing to shake the reputation, but the truth is the Southeast is the “Southleast” no more. These are tough teams to play against, and its finally making the division race one to watch out for.