Kukla's Korner

Bolts, Caps Will Aim for Stanley, While ‘Canes, Cats and Thrash Hit the Links

For a time, it looked like four teams from the Southeast Division would at least have a fighting chance at a playoff spot. As late as the end of January, while Tampa Bay and Washington remained comfortably among the top half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff-bound teams, both the Atlanta Thrashers and Carolina Hurricanes teeter-tottered in and around eighth place, making a quartet of Southeast clubs fighting to advance through the Stanley Cup playoffs a distinct possibility.

Alas, Atlanta was in freefall mode soon enough, winning just twice in the entire month of February, the Florida Panthers never contended, despite having a better showing this year than many expected, and Carolina’s impressive fight for the eighth and final playoff spot fell just short yesterday, though the final round of that battle last night left much to be desired, losing to Tampa Bay 6-2 at home in a win-and-in setting.

So, it will be the Capitals and the Lightning only representing the Southeast in the NHL postseason, which is about what most pundits put forth in preseason predictions. Flip-flop Atlanta and Carolina in the Southeast’s final standings, and the actual finish is exactly what I’d expected, though I won’t boast that as a feat deserving any sort of special recognition. By and large, the end result in these here parts was an easy call.

That being said, there were some twists and turns and surprises along the way.

While they did miss the playoffs for the tenth consecutive season (ouch, a decade!), the Panthers did themselves proud, for the most part, giving opponents a formidable adversary more often than not. They also held on to goaltender Tomas Vokoun at the trade deadline, something few expected from the onset, as there wasn’t much of a goaltending market at the time. Whether he factors into their plans moving forward, however, remains to be seen. Vokoun becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. Florida has the luxury of several primo prospects coming up the pike, with 2010 first-round pick Erik Gudbranson heading that list, slated to be a mainstay on the Panthers’ blueline for a long time to come.

Atlanta showed a lot of promise under first year head coach Craig Ramsay and their successes this year were highlighted by the breakout performance of defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (shoving it in the faces of those of us who questioned is return to the blueline), as well as the establishment of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec as a clear-cut number one netminder. Atlanta looked to be a good bet for a playoff berth at times this year but deficiencies at both ends of the ice eventually caught up to them. The Thrashers will need to ramp up their game in the goal-scoring department looking ahead and that won’t come as shocking news to anyone but shoring things up all-around is in order as well, as Atlanta’s minus-43 goal differential will finish second only to Ottawa for worst in the Eastern Conference.

While the Hurricanes failure to take advantage of the win-and-in opportunity afforded them by way of the New York Rangers falling to Atlanta in the tune-up to their regular season finale leaves the hockey-mad Cainiacs in Raleigh downtrodden, their battle mentality in staying alive in the race to the very last day, when many had counted them out on multiple occasions, will provide some consolation – eventually. (Just not yet… I imagine the hockey hangover will hit the Carolina faithful quite hard, starting this morning.) But the ‘Canes are set up well for future success, with the emergence Jeff Skinner the foundation of a wave of productive youngsters ready to take on bigger roles for Carolina as early as next season. And Cam Ward in net is back to as sturdy a backstop scenario as they come. It’ll hurt for a bit down Carolina way but there were plenty of positives for the Hurricanes this season that will eventually soften the blow.

Expectations from the masses for the Tampa Bay Lightning in year one under general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher were centered around fighting for a playoff spot and, if a few things fell in their favor, returning to the postseason for the first time since 2007 – a good first step, as part of a well-orchestrated, long-term vision to bring the organization to world class status. For much of the season, the Bolts made it look like they were offended at such an unflattering barometer, apparently. Tampa Bay was in control of the Southeast Division (and darn near all the Eastern Conference) through early March and, despite Washington’s ultimate reclamation of Southeast supremacy, the Lightning under Boucher and Yzerman can hold their heads high with a 103-point regular season that few can honestly say they expected – just don’t expect anything resembling complacency on those laurels alone. They’re in as a five-seed with an unenviable matchup in the Pittsburgh Penguins (with or without Sidney Crosby, as their performance this year has indicated) but no task has proven intimidating for this bunch and they’ll be as well-prepared as any of the league’s playoff teams, undoubtedly.

As for the Capitals, who finish this season in what has become their usual spot atop the division (and the conference, for a second consecutive campaign), the end result may be old hat but the path taken to get there this year was anything but. As predicted (here, anyway), the Lightning were good enough to give Washington a serious push all year and, eventually, that push brought the best out of the Caps, who surged past Tampa Bay in the division and shot up the conference standings with a 16-3-1 run down the stretch. Offensive numbers for captain Alex Ovechkin and others fell short of the spectacular totals we’ve come to expect in recent years but that, Washington will tell you, was anticipated collateral damage, by way of a total team buy-in and a commitment to the betterment of the group. The measuring stick for the Capitals remains playoff success and anything short of an extended run toward the Cup this year will be seen as a failure. Of course, they might want to concentrate on getting out of the first round first, no easy task for this bunch, with nightmares of Jaroslav Halak in last season’s ousting by Montreal still fresh in their minds, and the Rangers, despite only squeaking into the playoffs, thanks to Carolina’s stinker last night, present a matchup that Washington best not take lightly.

That’s it for a look back and, early this coming week, we’ll shift gears and glance forward, sizing up first round series for both Washington and Tampa Bay in much more depth.

While only two of its five teams ended up qualifying for the NHL’s second season, from a collective perspective, improvement shown this season gives reason to believe the Southeast can be one of the league’s top divisions in short order – and for some time to come.

One thing is certain, Atlanta, Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay and Washington make up the Southleast no more.

***

A final reminder on our first inaugural #BeardOff here at KK, orchestrated by yours truly, who will also take part as an active participant.

We’ll keep the instructions simple from now on and anyone needing more detail can feel free to consult the original announcement or hit me up on Twitter or via email with questions.

1) You’ll need to be following me on Twitter to announce your entry.
2) To do just that, you must send a clean-shaven pic @JonJordan, along with your playoff team of choice any time between the completion of tonight’s Dallas/Minnesota game and 11:59 PM ET tomorrow night. This will enter you as an official participant in the #BeardOff BUT
3) …In order to be eligible for a $25 gift certificate to IceJerseys.com, you must be a registered Kukla’s Korner member. If you are not, you can first sign up here. Be sure to include your KK user name along with your picture to ensure prize eligibility.
4) After that, it’s all pretty much on me. I’ll be soliciting beard photo updates from all participants throughout, as well as sad face/I had to shave/my team’s been eliminated shots as well.
5) One IceJerseys gift certificate will go to the participant judged to have the competition’s best beard and the other, fittingly, I believe, will be awarded to the person with the worst. (This means nobody has any excuse for not participating! You can win for being bad at something! How about that?)

For more information or, if there are any questions, please let me know. But remember, to become an official entrant in the #BeardOff, I’ll need your photo submission after the regular season ends this evening and before midnight tomorrow.

Happy bearding…

JJ
jj@kuklaskorner.com
JJ on Twitter

Filed in: Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | Beasts of the Southeast | Permalink
 

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