It's the best time of year!
Posted by Ryan Porth Labels: Atlanta Thrashers, Southeast Division, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals
As you woke up this morning and took a gander at the standings, you found that the Atlanta Thrashers were leading the Southeast Division. Not the high-powered Capitals… not even Steven Stamkos’s Lightning. Yes, the Atlanta Thrashers. And if the Thrashers and Bolts can keep it up, it’s going to be one helluva battle in a division that has been one-team race in recent years.
Bruce Boudreau’s Capitals have run away with the Southeast the last two seasons; and they looked like they were ready to do so again before their recent eight-game lapse. Now Alex Ovechkin and company are in the thick of it with two upstarts.
For a team that won the Southeast by a combined 49 points the last two years, you have to think that maybe a little competition within the division will benefit the Caps down the road. Cruising to the finish line didn’t work for their postseason outlook… so maybe this will.
I also think the Caps will respond to the adversity they went through during the losing streak. On some nights, they looked like anything but the Presidents’ Trophy winners from a year ago. They looked awful. Under Boudreau, this is the first adversity Washington has gone through. Look for the offense to heat back up and string some wins together.
Before the season, I felt Tampa Bay could be that team to challenge the Caps (if they were to have company). Between the struggling Caps and surprising Thrashers, they seem to be forgotten in this talk. Aside from a bump in the road early in November, Guy Boucher’s crew has been as consistent as any other team in the league.
The duo of Stamkos and Martin St. Louis has been electric here in the first half. They are easily the highest-scoring tandem in the NHL this season with a combined 90 points (Stamkos 47, St. Louis 43). Together, they have catapulted the power play to the league’s top ranking.
A lot has been made about their goaltending in recent days/weeks. Whether it’s a flash in the pan or not is a different story, but Mike Smith and Dan Ellis have combined to surrender three goals in the last three games. (Smith will miss the next two weeks with a knee injury.)
If the Bolts’ offense can stay hot and the goaltending holds the fort, this is a team that can compete with the Caps and Thrashers.
Speaking of the Thrashers… the division leaders have been making waves in the last month. Since Nov. 19, Craig Ramsay’s gang is a staggering 12-2-2 (19-11-5 overall). And it hasn’t been one player leading the way; they are getting contributions from all around, which makes them so dangerous.
Two players that have been stealing the headlines, though, are Ondrej Pavelec and Dustin Byfuglien. I fully believe that they are in the running for the Vezina and Norris trophy discussion, respectively. You can also make a case that Byfuglien could be a darkhorse candidate for the Hart.
With the great story surrounding Byfuglien’s success, a guy like Tobias Enstrom has really been overshadowed. After Monday’s four-point performance in Toronto, Enstrom ranks fifth in the league with 27 points as a defenseman (Byfuglien is first with 35).
As it stands here on Dec. 21, I still have to give the nod to Washington to come away with the Southeast. However, like I mentioned earlier, it’s going to be a much tougher road as the season goes on. The one thing going for Atlanta and Tampa Bay is the fact that the Capitals' secondary scoring isn't as deep as last year, which could open the door one of those teams to ultimately win the division.
The Caps, Bolts and Thrashers are three of the more fun teams to watch in the NHL – and all three will be battling for Southeast supremacy from here on out.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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