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Southeast: Unwrapping some pleasant surprises

Friday, 11.27.2009 / 3:00 PM / Division Notebooks

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

Now that the turkeys have been carved and the leftovers wrapped, perhaps it's as good a time as any for respective general managers, coaches and fans of the Southeast Division to give thanks to a few unsuspecting performers this season.

We're not talking the obvious -- players like Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis, Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, Washington's Alex Ovechkin, Carolina's Ray Whitney and Florida's Tomas Vokoun. They're the usual contributors within the Southeast.

Instead, let's take a look at players who were off the radar at the start of the season, but are now playing a vital role in the early stages of 2009-10.

The Capitals are shooting for their third straight divisional title, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to see coach Bruce Boudreau's club atop the standings with 14 wins and 34 points. Then there're the surprising Atlanta Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lighting, currently second and third in the standings. Both clubs are seeking their first playoff appearance in three seasons.

The Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes, each hit hard by injuries, round out the division in fourth and fifth, respectively. Both have been playing better of late and will only improve once some key performers return to the lineup, namely Tuomo Ruutu, Scott Walker and Cam Ward for the Hurricanes and David Booth, Gregory Campbell and Cory Stillman of the Panthers. Carolina center Eric Staal just returned to the lineup on Wednesday following a 10-game absence due to an upper-body injury.

So here's are snapshots of a few players, perhaps unheralded at the start of the season, having an impact this season.

Washington  -- Remember during the offseason when the Capitals learned forwards Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov would not return? There was talk they would be hard to replace. But the play of free-agent acquisitions Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble have eased the concerns.

Sure, Morrison and Knuble are veterans, but we'll make an exception for these two since they are on a new team. After all, they've had to tweak their games to conform to the Capitals' system. Unfortunately for Knuble, who had 5 goals, 15 points and a plus-10 rating through 19 games, a broken finger will sideline him another month.

Morrison, meanwhile, has 9 points (4 goals) in his last 10 games and 19 points in 25 games. Don't forget, Morrison is coming off a season in which he finished with just 16 goals, so he's already halfway to that point with the Caps. His 0.76 points per game average are the most he has had since a career-best 71-point season in 2002-03.

"I didn't really know much about Brendan, personally, before he got here" Capitals forward Brooks Laich told NHL.com. "I just knew him from watching him as a fan of hockey. When he got here, the first thing I noticed was how good a skater he was. He's got a great stride and, other than that, he reads the play very well and moves the puck. He's a very easy guy to play with so, for us, it's been a seamless transition."

Runner-up  -- Goalie Semyon Varlamov.

Tampa Bay  -- There's no question second-year forward Steven Stamkos deserves a ton of credit for the turnaround in Tampa this season with his team-high 15 goals and 26 points. But it's tough to ignore the contributions made by goalie Antero Niittymaki.

Niittymaki is 6-2-3 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .932 save percentage this season. He's 4-1-2 in his last seven starts, making 30 or more saves in four of those games. At this point, he wouldn't even be considered a backup as both he and incumbent starter Mike Smith have split time equally.

"I guess we assumed (Mike Smith) would get the bulk of the games early on, but it hasn't happened that way but we knew Nitty was a good goalie, so we're not overly surprised and we're very happy about it," Lightning General Manager Brian Lawton said. "Having two quality goalies is needed if you want to be competitive. That's why we went out and got another veteran guy (Niittymaki)."

Niittymaki, incidentally, has won 15 straight against Southeast Division opponents.

Runner-up  -- Defenseman Victor Hedman.

Atlanta  -- With all due respect to forward Rich Peverley, who leads the team with 24 points, goalie Ondrej Pavelec has been just what the Thrashers needed in the absence of injured starter Kari Lehtonen. Pavelec has made 38 or more saves in his last four starts (2-0-2) entering Friday's match with the Hurricanes.

For the season, the rookie is 7-5-3 with a 2.76 GAA and .923 save percentage, including an eye-opening 40-save, 2-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings Wednesday. On top of that, how could you not award a goalie who even blocks pucks with his face after losing his goalie mask.

Yes, it did happen.

"I was thinking to myself, this is not fun," Pavelec said of his mask-less save against the Ottawa Senators' Alex Kovalev earlier this month. The 22-year-old Czech Republic native finished with a season-high 50 saves that night en route to a 3-1 triumph.

"We always knew Ondrej could become a No. 1 goalie in this League and be a No. 1 for a long time," Thrashers GM Don Waddell said. "Here's another player, who, entered camp not knowing his situation but when given an opportunity, he's taken the ball and run with it. Sometimes, we don't always have a fit for a guy, but there was a job there for the taking and he scraped and is still running with it."

Runner-up  -- Forward Rich Peverley.

Florida  -- Center Steven Reinprecht, 33, was signed to a three-year deal in the offseason to upgrade the club's team speed and face-off winning percentage. He's done much more.

Sure, the ninth-season forward is second on the team in faceoff-winning percentage (49 percent), but he's also first in goals (10), plus-minus rating (plus-5), second in points (17) and second in shooting percentage (23.8) among players with 15 or more games under their belt. He's picked up 10 points (5 goals) in his last 13 games alongside Rostislav Olesz and Radek Dvorak.

"You don't play until you're 35 in this League with the wear and tear in your body, the travel. … I know people say it's for the money, but these guys aren't here for the money," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said. "They've got more money than them and their kids can spend. They're here, like the Bryan McCabes, because they love the game."

After three seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes, Reinprecht's negotiating rights were traded to the Panthers last June in exchange for forward Stefan Meyer.

Runner-up  -- Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov.

Carolina  -- Without the services of goalie Cam Ward, Carolina coach Paul Maurice has had to rely on an even stingier defensive approach during which seventh-year veteran blue liner Joe Corvo has been up to the task.

Corvo averages 26:31 of ice time per game -- third highest in the League. He also ranks first on the team with 3 power-play goals, is second in blocked shots (35) and fifth in points (11). Since the recent return of defenseman Joni Pitkanen to the lineup, Corvo has been paired with Tim Gleason.

"I showed up at camp in good shape and I proved I could play those type of minutes -- you just have to manage your time out there a little better," Corvo said. "It's not that hard."

Right now, Corvo is just hoping the Hurricanes can continue to inch their way up the Southeast Division standings -- they're 3-2-2 in their last seven after snapping a 14-game winless streak.

Runner-up  -- Forward Brandon Sutter.

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com




Quote of the Day

I'm just excited about the opportunity. I've been on the ice earlier than usual and in the weight room, pushing around a little more weights than usual. Every day I go into a workout with a smile on my face and ready to go. When you do have a little more responsibility, you want to take your lunch pail and get ready to work.

— Brian Elliott to Jeremy Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch on being the Blues' No. 1 goalie