As they head for home, who's got the horses to win the Southeast?
By E.J. Hradek
No need to wait for the Derby to catch a thrilling horse race. The chase for the title in the wide-open Southeast Division, the tightest in the NHL, could come down to the first Saturday in April, when four of the five rivals hit the regular-season finish line. The team that gets hot will win it and become a top three seed; the others will probably be postseason scratches. The clubs hit the top of the stretch on March 1, so with that date in mind, here's a cheat sheet for the race, complete with odds.
Ross/Richard/Hart Trophy candidate Alex Ovechkin (league-best 48 goals) is a horse no one should bet against. Stallions AO, D Mike Green, and F's Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, along with new coach and Slap Shot extra Bruce Boudreau, rank among the NHL's top feel-good stories this season. After a brutal 6—14—1 start, Washington went 22—13—6 in its next 41 games. If the Caps can survive a six-game road wing in late March, they could win the Southeast crown in a photo finish. ODDS: 8-1
In 2006, coach Peter Laviolette basked in the winner's circle. Last season, his team spit the bit and missed the playoffs. This year, after a fast start, the Hurricanes have come up lame. Versatile captain Rod Brind'Amour and speedy wing Justin Williams are done for the year due to torn ACLs. That leaves top pivot Eric Staal (30 goals in 65 games) to supply the finishing kick. Because the Hurricanes the season a day before their rivals, they might learn their playoff fate watching TV. ODDS: 9-1
The Panthers remain a long shot—but are still dangerous—because of top stopper Tomas Vokoun. In his first season in South Florida, the 31-year-old Czech has notched 25 W's and a .917 SP in 56 games. Playing behind a defense that allows the most shots (33.4 pg) in the league, however, might cause Vokoun to wilt before the wire. Remember, he played just 44 games last season for the Preds. To have a chance, Vokoun & Co. must make hay during a seven-game homestand in mid-March. ODDS: 18-1.
After an 0–6 stumble out of the gate, the club responded to an early jockey change (GM Don Waddell for Bob Hartley) by going 29—24—4. If the Thrashers are to defend the division title, the stellar play of Ilya Kovalchuk (40 goals) and stopper Kari Lehtonen (.916 SP in 35 games) will be the reason. Atlanta plays 11 of its final 17 games in the division, including four against Florida. That's good. Through Feb. 21, the Thrashers' 12–8–1 division mark is tied (with Carolina's) for best in the Southeast. ODDS: 22-1.
Tampa Bay Lightning
It's been four years since coach John Tortorella rode the Bolts to the Stanley Cup. Back then, the Lightning had solid goaltending. Now, Johan Holmqvist (.890 SP) and Karri Ramo (.892) are the least of the East—a serious handicap. The Bolts also have a tough finishing schedule, with 18 games in the final 36 days. What keeps them in the running? The entry of Vinny Lecavalier (78 points) and Martin St. Louis (71 points). Still, the lack of a reliable stopper makes Tampa Bay the longest shot on the board. ODDS: 40-1.