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Southeast: Where division stands in final days

by Mike G. Morreale
The window of opportunity for clinching a playoff berth is slamming shut on the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Atlanta Thrashers and Carolina Hurricanes, meanwhile, are plugging away, while the Washington Capitals have earned their third straight Southeast Division title and the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Thrashers and Hurricanes are embroiled in a six-team race for the final three spots in the East. Heading into play Friday, the Flyers, Canadiens and Bruins are tied with 82 points for the sixth through eighth seeds. The Thrashers are ninth with 80 points, followed by the Rangers (78 points) and Hurricanes (76 points).

Though the Caps officially locked up the top-overall seed on Sunday following the New Jersey Devils' 5-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, coach Bruce Boudreau isn't at all satisfied with the fact his club has lost three of its last four games.

Here's a look at all five Southeast Division teams and where they stand entering the final week of the regular season. The clubs are listed in their order of rank in the division.

Washington Capitals (112 points) -- With five games left on the regular-season schedule, the Capitals are on the verge of clinching their first Presidents' Trophy in franchise history. In the last two seasons combined, Washington has an 8-1-1 record in April, including a 6-0-1 mark in games at Verizon Center.

The Capitals lead the East with 22 road victories in 39 games this season -- their highest total since 1993-94 when they finished 22-19-1 away from Washington.

The Caps have improved in each of the last three seasons. They finished with 94 points before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Conference quarterfinal round in 2007-08 and racked up 108 points before dropping a seven-game series in the Conference semifinals last season.

Boudreau told's Corey Masisak this week that his team is in a different situation from last season heading down the stretch.

"The difference between last year and this year is last year we were playing teams that were out of the playoffs, so our level of play came down," Boudreau said. "I think the teams we're playing now are fighting for something."

In his weekly column on the Capitals' Web site, Boudreau talked about the importance of finishing first in the Conference.

"Finishing first gives us home-ice advantage in the playoffs and we always love to play at home, but we also think we are a team that can play at our best no matter where we are playing," Boudreau wrote. "We love the fans and everything that comes with playing at Verizon Center, like how the guys can sleep in their own beds and we have the last change during the game. Those things are very important to us, but we do believe that we are very capable of going on the road and winning."

So what can we expect from a team considered the "Beast of the East" this campaign?

"I think we're hungry," defenseman Mike Green told "Our mindset two years ago was just making the playoffs and, in the second year, we made the playoffs but weren't as experienced as we needed to be and now we are. We have that confidence that as long as we play the way we can, we're going to win most nights and that'll set us up for a Stanley Cup. I think we're learning how important every game is and how important it is to follow your system and play as a team because one guy is not going to win it for you."

Atlanta Thrashers (80 points) -- Here's the thing. If the Thrashers capture their first playoff berth in three seasons, they would have definitely earned it.

The Thrashers play Pittsburgh twice and New Jersey and Washington once each over the next eight days to close out the regular season. Atlanta has gone 6-3-1 over its last 10 games to pull within two points of a playoff berth in the East.

Contributing to the late-season surge is forward Nik Antropov, who has 12 goals and 28 points in the last 28 games, and defenseman Ron Hainsey, who has produced 7 assists and 11 points in the past 12 games. On top of that, Atlanta's penalty kill unit is suddenly one of the League's best, not having allowed a power-play goal in nine straight games (0-for-25).

Much of the credit has to go to Atlanta coach John Anderson, who kept the fires burning following the trade of perennial 30-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils in February.

The acquisitions made by General Manager Don Waddell have proven their worth, too. Forward Niclas Bergfors has 8 goals, 16 points and a plus-1 rating in 23 games since the trade and defenseman Johnny Oduya has 8 points and a plus-9 rating in 23 matches. And, don't forget, Waddell also added prospect Patrice Cormier and an additional first-round draft choice in June in the Kovalchuk deal.

"It's been a must-win for the last month or so it feels like," Thrashers forward Colby Armstrong said. "We know what the schedule is. We've got some tough teams coming up so we're going to have to get rested up here as best we can for this last push.

"It's really close."

Carolina Hurricanes (76 points) -- Despite some key injuries, the Hurricanes continue to make a late push to make the playoffs -- having gone 19-9-2 since Jan. 21.

"You never can say never and obviously the standings don't look like they're in our favor but mathematically we're not out of it and you've got to come to the rink and compete," Carolina goalie Cam Ward said. "At the end of the day this is what we get paid to do and you've got to wear that jersey with some pride and compete."

The Hurricanes are six points behind Boston for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference with four games remaining. Playoffs or not, General Manager Jim Rutherford was an extremely busy man this season, stockpiling numerous assets while dealing away pending unrestricted free agents who might have been difficult to keep anyway.

With 10 picks (and possibly 11) over the first seven rounds in the June Entry Draft -- including three second-round selections -- Rutherford might even be setting himself up for additional moves.

Carolina fans should also be encouraged by the play of several prospects, who proved their value. Forward Zach Boychuk has 3 goals and 8 points with a plus-2 rating in 27 games for the 'Canes this season. Defenseman Jamie McBain earned an assist in his NHL debut on March 16 against Boston and notched assists in the team's next three games to make him the first player in franchise history since Bernie Johnston (Jan. 17-24, 1980) to earn points in his first four games. The last NHL defenseman to earn points in each of his first four NHL games was Ryan Whitney with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nov. 1-7, 2005. McBain hasn't let up either, notching 3 goals and 7 points in 10 matches with the big club.

Then there's goalie Justin Peters, the likely backup to Cam Ward in 2010-11. Peters was 6-3-0 with a 2.83 goals-against average and .905 save percentage over his first nine NHL games. He stopped 34 of 35 shots in a 3-1 victory over the New York Islanders in his NHL debut on Feb. 6.

After missing 19 games while recovering from a back injury, Ward rejoined the team on March 29 to find four new faces manning the blue line in McBain, Brian Pothier, Jay Harrison and Bryan Rodney. Pothier came over from a trade with Washington while McBain, Harrison and Rodney spent much of the season with Carolina's American Hockey League affiliate in Albany.

Florida Panthers (74 points) -- The team might mathematically be still in the hunt, but, more than likely, the Florida Panthers will tie an NHL record having gone nine-consecutive seasons without a playoff berth by week's end.

Injuries played a major factor in their demise this season, particularly the loss of forward David Booth for 45 games and, ultimately, the remainder of the season. The Panthers entered the weekend with over 214 man-games lost to injury.

It's been another frustrating finish for many of the veterans on the team.

"Yeah, it sucks, but we've got no one to blame but ourselves," defenseman Bryan McCabe told The Sun Sentinel. "We put ourselves in this spot. Like I've said before, we've been very inconsistent this year. There's no other way to look at it."

Center Stephen Weiss, who has been with the Panthers for eight of the nine non-playoff seasons, has established career highs with 27 goals and 11 on the power-play this season. With five games remaining, he needs just three more points to surpass last season's career-high total of 61 points.

"I don't pat myself on the back for individual success. I do the best I can to help the team win and try to get this team to the next level," Weiss told The Miami Herald. "It's frustrating when you don't see results as a team. It gets to you over time. We've got to find a way to get this thing going in the right direction."

General Manager Randy Sexton has maintained a four-step process which, he believes, will pay dividends down the road. The second part of that equation is almost complete.

"The NHL trading deadline was the first of a four-step process and Step 2 was to have our players finish the year strong and then get ready for the draft," Sexton said. "Step 3 will be July 1 when we'll be active, but selective, in free agency. We want to build a Stanley Cup champion. Stage 4 is putting the finishing touches that we'd like to add to our team before the 2010-11 season starts."

One of those finishing touches might include signing goalie prospect Jacob Markstrom and have him become acclimated to the North American game.

Markstrom, who was selected No. 31 in 2008, was awarded the Honken Trophy as the Swedish Elite League's top netminder, as well as the league's rookie of the year. He posted a 20-10-10 mark with a 2.01 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in 43 games for Byrnas IF Gavle this season.

"Jacob Markstrom's contract in Sweden is up at the end of this year and the plan is to sign him and bring him to North America next year," Sexton told "We also have a young goalie named Marc Cheverie (a junior) at Denver University, who we'll move forward and sign as well. We think that combined with the other young guys we have in the organization, the future looks good for goaltending."

Tampa Bay Lightning (74 points) -- Perhaps one reason no one is really talking about another lost playoff season is the fact 20-year-old whiz kid Steven Stamkos is in a zone.

The Lightning's second-year center is bidding to become the youngest player to lead the NHL in goals since Rick Nash shared the honor with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk  in 2004 with 41 goals apiece. Stamkos entered the weekend tied with Washington's Alex Ovechkin with 46 goals and was one behind League-leader Sidney Crosby, with five games remaining.

"I'm just going out and having fun," Stamkos said. "It's definitely fun scoring goals and doing everything you can to help the team win. It's going to be a good race hopefully."

Stamkos already has the second highest single-season goal scoring mark in franchise history and, if he finishes at the top, would become the first Lightning player to win the Rocket Richard Trophy since 2006-07 when Vinny Lecavalier won the award after leading the NHL with 52 goals.

Despite the hype surrounding Stamkos, the reality is inconsistent team play throughout will force the Lightning to be on the outside looking in for a third straight year when the Stanley Cup Playoffs commence in less than two weeks.

You could probably sum it up this way: Whenever the defense was dominant, the offense stalled and when the offense found its groove, the defense took the night off.

"If you want to play for Tampa Bay, and all that kind of stuff, you are looking for character players, you are looking for guys with pride. That's what we should be striving for as an organization," coach Rick Tocchet told The Tampa Tribune. "And you are also looking for guys who are quitting."

That's how a frustrated Tocchet sounded following his team's dismal 7-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on March 27. But there are also glimpses of what could be, as evidenced in a 2-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday.

"When you're ranked 30th (in 2007-08) and 29th (2008-09) in the League, you have to walk before you run, so the key is patience," Tampa Bay GM Brian Lawton told "I'm not a guy who thinks he has to fix our team at the trade deadline. The way the world is shaping up with salary caps, free agency and things like that, you have to address your issues in the summer."

It'll be interesting to see the direction new owner Jeff Vinik takes at the end of the season. Back on Feb. 10, the team was in second place in the Southeast Division and sixth in the conference. They're now 12th in the conference and 26th in the League.

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