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Southeast: Caps happy to be on top, but don't feel secure

Friday, 03.13.2009 / 10:00 PM / Division Notebooks

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

Don't think because the Washington Capitals sit comfortably atop the Southeast Division standings coach Bruce Boudreau is feeling good.

Entering the weekend, the Capitals held a 12-point advantage over the surging Carolina Hurricanes and a 13-point lead over the improved Florida Panthers in the Southeast. And, yes, Boudreau has taken notice.

"I know what they're doing on a minute-by-minute basis," he said when asked if he'd been following those other Southeast opponents.

"Of course it concerns me," he continued. "No lead is comfortable, and the best example is by looking at what we did last year. Carolina was 10 points ahead of us with 14 games to go and we caught them, so it would be pretty foolish for me to say they can't do that. Experience is a great teacher and hopefully it teaches us."

Washington defenseman Mike Green knows the Capitals must continue to improve down the stretch, particularly since the club has two games remaining with the Hurricanes (this past Saturday and March 21) and the Panthers (March 17 and April 11).

"The Southeast has always been an open division and it's good that it's that way," Green told NHL.com. "It keeps things exciting. I've followed what the other teams have been doing and we just have to make sure we don't slip up because we know what could happen."
 
Hurricane warning -- Since acquiring Erik Cole on March 4, the Carolina Hurricanes have gone 3-1-1 while outscoring their opponents, 22-10.

Cole has scored 1 goal and 6 points in his 5 games since returning to Raleigh. And center Eric Staal, Cole's linemate, was named the NHL's First Star of the Week on Monday after posting 5 goals and 9 points in wins against Washington, Calgary and Tampa Bay. Staal has 9 goals and 21 points over the last 14 games. The Hurricanes are 18-2-1 this season in games when Staal scores and 24-8-3 when he earns a point.

Staal had 4 goals and 6 points in a 9-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 7 to tie franchise records in both categories set by current associate coach Ron Francis in 1984 with the Hartford Whalers. It marked the first time in team history a player had 4 goals in a road game.

"It was one of those nights that don't happen very often," Staal said. "I was finding those areas and it was a good win. As a group we're feeling pretty comfortable and confident. Obviously, (linemates) Erik Cole and Tuomo Ruutu are two guys who are big and strong and can skate and hit. The chances we've had, we've really cashed in and that's the difference."

Triumphant return -- Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik returned to HSBC Arena in Buffalo on Thursday for the first time since having his carotid artery severed in a collision with a teammate just 13 months ago.

Zednik, who had life-saving surgery performed by Dr. Sonya Noor the night of the accident, received a warm welcome from the Buffalo fans. There's no question Zednik has been one of the finest comeback stories in the League this season.

"I thought about it for one second, what happened last year," Zednik said. "Then it was like any other game."

The Panthers lost 3-1 to the Sabres.

"For me it's rewarding to be playing in the next game and, this year, to have a chance to possibly play in the playoffs would be so great," Zednik told NHL.com. "It's wasn't that difficult getting back into action. I had the whole summer to prepare for the season, so it wasn't like I was coming back in the middle of the season. I was skating back home, so when I got here I was ready. Maybe my first game was sloppy since I hadn't played almost a half-year, but I felt mentally ready."

Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester feels Zednik's story is inspirational.

"I was on the bench when the accident happened so I didn't actually see it first-hand, but when I saw the blood on the ice and saw Richard ... it was the scariest thing I've ever seen," Bouwmeester said. "We were on a big road trip at the time and when we arrived back in Florida, he was already in good spirits and wondering when he could play again. It's a good story. He's excited to be playing this year and I think the hockey world was pulling for him from the start of the season, that's for sure."

Zednik, who entered the weekend with six multiple-point games this season, has 14 goals, 29 points, and a plus-7 rating in 57 games.

Playing for pride -- The Tampa Bay Lightning have no intention of going down without a fight to the finish.

With 14 games remaining heading into the weekend, Lightning interim coach Rick Tocchet expects his club to battle not only for pride, but job security.

"If you're here to punch the clock, it's not Groundhog Day; you don't show up for 15 minutes and leave," Tocchet told Damian Cristodero of the St. Petersburg Times. "That's not going to happen on this club. We need competitive people around here. We have to get the fans to believe in what we're doing for them to come to the rink and actually watch a product they can be proud of."

Tocchet, who vividly was upset following Tampa's 9-3 loss to the Hurricanes on March 7, has seen his club go 2-2-2 in its first six March games.

"You can use the excuse of new players, trade deadline, guys don't know if they're going to be here or not, but those are excuses we're not going to let slip in here," Tocchet said. "We're trying to find out who wants to play in the NHL and who wants to be here."
"No lead is comfortable, and the best example is by looking at what we did last year. Carolina was 10 points ahead of us with 14 games to go and we caught them, so it would be pretty foolish for me to say they can't do that. Experience is a great teacher and hopefully it teaches us." -- Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau
There has been speculation out of Tampa that General Manager Brian Lawton will offer Tocchet an extension to become the team's full-time head coach at the conclusion of the season. Tocchet was promoted from assistant coach following the dismissal of Barry Melrose, who had led the club to a 5-7-4 mark. The Lightning entered the weekend 17-25-10 record under Tocchet.

Little means a lot -- After going pointless in 10 straight games, Atlanta Thrashers second-year center Bryan Little is on fire.

Little, who entered the weekend second on the team with 29 goals and fourth with 47 points, has 8 goals and 5 assists in 12 games prior to Saturday's game with Buffalo. Behind his offensive uprising, the Thrashers come into this weekend with six wins in their previous eight games.

"I think we want to prove to ourselves that we can play against and beat teams like Calgary and the better teams in the League," Little said. "We're winning these games for us and our fans."

The Thrashers have a victory against not only the Flames, but also the Montreal Canadiens, Carolina Hurricanes, and Edmonton Oilers over their current 8-3-1 stretch.

Former Edmonton center Marty Reasoner also has been rolling recently for the Thrashers. On Thursday, he matched his career high with his 11th goal this season while also reaching the 200-point mark for his career when he scored on a breakaway 4:10 into overtime to give his team a 4-3 victory against his old club.

"It was definitely nice," Reasoner said after the game. "I had a few chances and (Edmonton goalie Dwayne Roloson) had gotten the best of me there, but I figured going in there, worst case, I throw it into his pads and start backchecking, but it squeaked in there."

Ice chips -- Thrashers captain Ilya Kovalchuk left the ice with an upper-body injury in the first period of a 4-3 victory over the Oilers on Thursday and didn't return, bringing to an end his seven-game point-scoring streak (6 goals, 9 assists). ... Lightning coach Rick Tocchet told Damian Cristodero of the St. Petersburg Times he was disappointed the League's General Managers did not recommend players keep their helmets on during fights. "I understand when a guy has a visor on. He's trying to show character and say I don't want that much of an advantage," Tocchet said. "But I've been in fights where helmets have come off, and I've seen guys hit their head on the ice. That's scary." ... Carolina's nine goals against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 7 marked the most goals for the team since its relocation to Carolina in 1997. The Hurricanes had scored eight goals in a game three times prior to that. ... Panthers forward Nathan Horton will miss 2-4 weeks after undergoing surgery on his left ring finger and defenseman Bryan McCabe likely will return this week after having surgery to repair a broken right orbital bone last week. Both players were injured in a victory against St. Louis on March 7 ... Panthers forward David Booth became the fourth Florida player to record two hat tricks in a season March 7 when he struck three times in a 5-3 victory against St. Louis -- the 30th hat trick in franchise history. The other Panthers to record two three-goal games in a season were Ray Sheppard (1996-97), Pavel Bure (1998-99, 1999-2000 and 2000-01) and Olli Jokinen (2006-07).

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.




Quote of the Day

There's no discouragement in that room. There's no issues there at all to be honest with you. It's more about, 'Hey, it's opportunities for players.' And if we become that bad of a team because of one player, it's not a real good sign for our hockey club. So this is part of sports. It's part of hockey.

— Bruins coach Claude Julien on the loss of Zdeno Chara to injury
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