BY NATE GOSSE
Since its inception into the NHL’s Eastern Conference in 1998, the Southeast Division has struggled mightily. It has struggled to attract fans, struggled to dispel “non-traditional hockey market” stigmas, struggled to post winning records and struggled to send teams to the playoffs.
“Legitimate contender,” “perennial favourite,” and “winning hockey” aren't terms regularly attributed to Carolina, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Florida and Washington. But this season, for the first time ever, the division could send three teams to the playoffs.
Its two recent Stanley Cups aside, the division has unquestionably been the weakest in the Eastern Conference - if not the NHL - since the conference realignment that took place prior to the 1998-99 season. In nine seasons it has sent 14 teams to the playoffs and never more than two at a time. To put that in perspective, the Northeast and Atlantic Divisions have each sent 29 teams to the post-season over that period, and only once has either of those two divisions failed to send less than three teams (the Northeast sent two in 2006-07).
But the punching bag division with the worst record and lowest attendance figures in the East over the past 10 years is changing.
In the Washington Capitals, the division has found its crown jewel and a team with long-term powerhouse potential. The Caps are young, dynamic, they win a lot of games and the core of the team can be held together for years to come. If Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom aren't household names alongside Alex Ovechkin yet, they will be soon.
Florida and Carolina are proving themselves to be well-balanced teams this season with reasonable depth, something of an anomaly for Florida especially. Though it's too early to read much into the present standings, these two teams are in a four-way race with Pittsburgh and Buffalo for what would be the last two playoff spots, with a drop off following them to the 10th place Maple Leafs. Crazy as it might sound, we could well be seeing rats on the ice in lieu of Crosby and Co. this spring.
While the average NHL fan is likely to cringe a little at the thought of watching Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton or Rod Brind’Amour and Ray Whitney instead of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby this post-season, Carolina and Florida sure could use the boost. They sit 24th and 25th in average league attendance this year and the playoffs would be an enormous help in improving those figures, not to mention laying the foundation for yet another seemingly improbable Southeast Stanley Cup.