Halfway through the 2008-09 regular season, one thing is perfectly clear -- the class of the Southeast Division still resides in Washington.
After winning the Southeast Division with 94 points in 2007-08, the Capitals are second in the conference at the midway mark this season with 27 wins and 57 points.
"It really started coming together last year," Capitals General Manager George McPhee
told NHL.com. "In addition to having a great player to watch (Alex Ovechkin
), fans want you to win as well and when the team took off and started to win games, it created momentum with our fans and within this market. We're basically sold out the rest of the season and it's been a fabulous experience for all of us associated with the franchise to take it from where it was to where it is. It's really neat to know that anything is possible."
While the Capitals were 10 points better than second-place Carolina through 41 games this season, it should also be noted that the Florida Panthers
had registered their highest point total through 41 games in eight seasons with 44; Carolina coach Paul Maurice
had posted a 9-4-3 record in his second tenure with the Canes at the midway point; the Thrashers (13-23-5) were 10 games below .500 for the first time this season and the Tampa Bay Lightning
were tied for the fewest wins (12) and fewest home victories (4).
Here's a recap of the Southeast Division at the halfway point:
Player of the First Half: Alex Ovechkin, Washington
-- Is there any doubt that Ovechkin is not only the best player in the Southeast, but perhaps the entire League?
The 23-year-old Russian shared the NHL lead in goals (27) and ranked second in points (54) at the midway mark. He also led the League in shots (245), was tied for fourth in game-winning goals (5) and was sixth in hits (138). He was also tops among all NHL forwards in average ice time (23:15).
Ovechkin, who was named to his third All-Star Game last week, has led the Capitals to their best first-half start to a season in franchise history at 27-11-3. As crazy as it sounds, the man who won the Hart, Maurice Richard
, Lester B. Pearson and Art Ross
Trophies in 2007-08, could be even better this season. After becoming the first 60-goal scorer in 11 NHL seasons in 2007-08, it isn't too far-fetched to think 'Ovie' could reach 70 -- a feat that hasn't happened since 1992-93 when Teemu Selanne
and Alexander Mogilny
tied for the League-lead with 76 apiece.
Ovechkin led the NHL in goals in December (12) and ranked tied for fourth in points (19). The Caps are 28-1-1 in the last 30 games when 'Ovie' scores (18-1-1 this season).
Perhaps veteran NBC and TSN analyst Pierre McGuire said it best:
"The thing that Alex Ovechkin
does is he attacks the people that are trying to attack him. He will not be intimidated. A lot of guys need other players around him, but he can make himself great and make this team win because of the physical nature of his game. You give him a stick and a puck and he doesn't even need gloves. He's virtually indestructible. I would call him a cyborg."
Coach of the First Half: Bruce Boudreau, Washington
-- With all due respect to Florida Panthers
first-year coach Peter DeBoer
, who certainly has his team headed in the right direction, the job that Boudreau has done is nothing short of remarkable.
Despite losing more than 200 man-games to injury in the first half, the Caps were still able to maintain their perch among the Eastern Conference elite, which speak volumes about Boudreau's leadership.
Caps General Manager George McPhee
"He knows the game very well and knows how to coach very well," McPhee told NHL.com. "Despite not being in the NHL very long, he is an experienced coach so he's pretty clear on what works and doesn't work."
The Capitals closed out the first half with a seven-game winning streak while winning 12 of their last 13 games. The average attendance at Verizon Center is up 30 percent from this time last year and is the highest attendance through 21 games in franchise history.
"Winning is it; I have a hard time thinking of doing anything without the ultimate goal - victory," Boudreau told NHL.com. "It doesn't always come true but if that's not your goal than you're looking to be mediocre. As a player, maybe I didn't learn that early in my career. But over the last half of my playing career and now in coaching, it's all about winning."
Boudreau won the Jack Adams
Award last season despite coaching only 61 games, the second fewest by any Adams-winning coach. After being named coach on an interim basis Nov. 22, 2008, Boudreau led the Caps to a 37-17-7 record and concluded the regular season on a seven-game winning streak to capture the Southeast Division. Boudreau led his charges to 15 wins during the final 19 games of the regular season in 2007-08 en route to the division championship.
Rookie of the First Half: Michael Frolik, Florida
-- The 6-foot-1, 185-pound center, who will participate in the NHL YoungStars Game presented by Upper Deck on Saturday, has remained among the top 10 in rookie scoring despite not getting his first goal until Nov. 20.
After signing an entry-level contract with the Panthers in May, Frolik had an impressive training camp and eventually was inserted into the starting lineup Oct. 11. He continues to prove why he was the team's first pick (No. 10) in 2006, posting 15 points (7 goals) in his last 18 games.
"Michael has been able to step into the top two lines and is getting better with every game," Panthers GM Jacques Martin said. "I'm impressed by his speed, his vision and his smartness."
Frolik leads all rookie scorers in the Southeast Division and ranked seventh on his team after playing 38 of the Panthers' first 41 games. He ranks among the top 15 in average time on ice (14:10) of all rookie forwards in the League and is first among all first-year players competing in the Southeast.
"It's a nice thing to be playing in the NHL since it was my dream when I was young and now that it's happening I'm just so happy I can be here and be with experienced guys like this," Frolik told NHL.com. "It's fun and exciting."
Surprise of the First Half: Craig Anderson, Panthers
-- Backup goalie Craig Anderson
has certainly played an integral role in Florida's quest to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.
In 21 first-half appearances, Anderson went 9-4-5 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. He also posted a career-best three shutouts in support of Tomas Vokoun
"If you're not working hard at practice I think you create bad habits and it carries over to the games," Anderson said. "You learn starting in the minors to be prepared. You learn it's a matter of being consistent. In your first couple call-ups (to the NHL) you learn so much. You learn discipline, you learn to be ready every night."
"In addition to having a great player to watch (Alex Ovechkin
), fans want you to win as well and when the team took off and started to win games at the end of last season, it created momentum with our fans and within this market. We're basically sold out the rest of the season and it's been a fabulous experience for all of us associated with the franchise to take it from where it was to where it is." -- Capitals GM George McPhee
Anderson was actually second in the League in save percentage through 41 games and, while Vokoun (11-12-1, 2.81 GAA, .915 save percentage) remains the team's starter, Anderson has certainly gained the confidence of all his teammates.
-- Tampa Bay Lightning
General Manager Brian Lawton
has denied reports that All-Star center Vincent Lecavalier
could be traded prior to the March 4 deadline: "To suggest we're engaging in conversations to trade him or we're shopping him to all teams in the NHL is completely inaccurate," he said. ''It's false, egregious and it's abusive toward the player. I can tell you if a player of that stature were ever going to be traded, I would go meet with him, face to face, and discuss the situation and that has never happened." Lecavalier, whose 'no-move' clause within his 11-year contract doesn't kick in until July 1, confirmed Monday that he had not been approached. ... The Atlanta Thrashers
named All-Star wing Ilya Kovalchuk
the team captain Jan. 11. Kovalchuk, who served as an alternate the last two seasons, becomes the seventh captain in team history and only the fifth Russian-born and trained player in League history to wear the 'C,' joining Alexei Zhamnov
, Pavel Bure
, Alexei Yashin
, Alexander Mogilny
. "We all know this team is Ilya's team and he's the face of the franchise," Thrashers GM Don Waddell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Obviously, I'm not going to trade him. I've squelched those rumors 100 times. This puts the final straw on the camel's back." ... Although Washington's nine-game home winning streak was snapped by Columbus on Jan. 9, their 18 home victories are already more than they had in any of the three seasons from 2003-07 and just five shy of last year's season total (23-15-3). The Capitals are 39-11-4 on home ice under coach Bruce Boudreau
. ... Florida center Gregory Campbell
was honored as the NHL's Third Star of the Week after posting 2 goals, 6 points and a plus-6 rating in three victories for the Panthers last week. He's already established career highs in goals (8) and points (20). ... Carolina coach Paul Maurice
was up against his former team, the Toronto Maple Leafs
, last Thursday. During his first stint in Carolina (1997-04), Maurice's teams posted a 10-11-5 regular-season record against Toronto and also eliminated the Leafs, 4-2, in the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. In his two seasons as coach in Toronto, the Leafs went 4-2-2 in eight games against Carolina.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.