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Despite Win Over Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals Know The Southeast Division Is Improved

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Washington Capitals defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night, 5-3, to extend their winning streak to six games. The win was also the Capitals third straight within the Southeast Division after falling to the Atlanta Thrashers on opening night at Phillips Arena.

The Capitals have breezed through their Southeast division schedule the last few years, compiling a 35-11-2 record. Three times in the last two seasons, the Capitals have swept a division opponent (Tampa Bay in 2008-2009, Florida and Atlanta in 2009-2010) and have won the divison by an average of 24.5 points.

However, this season the Capitals have endured tight games within the division. In four games against the Thrashers, Lightning, and Carolina Hurricanes, the Capitals have scored 14 goals while allowing 10.

"The Southeast doesn't get a lot of respect around the league, and it's usually knocked as being the worst division in the league," said Capitals forward Mike Knuble, who scored his second goal in as many games Thursday night. "But, you see [Tampa Bay] is an improved team, Carolina is a decent team they can beat some teams too. We haven't seen Florida yet, but Atlanta's a better team, too. So, I think our division's better."

They needed overtime to beat the Thrashers on October 23, led the Hurricanes just 1-0 entering the third period of their game in Raleigh four nights later and only led the Lightning by one with five minutes to go last night before an Alex Ovechkin goal put the game out of reach.

In a lot of ways, Tampa Bay controlled last night's game. The Lightning outshot the Capitals 41-26 and took a 1-0 lead into the second period. The score could've been more lopsided, but several Lightning shots hit the post. One Vincent Lecavalier shot 54 seconds into the game stayed in the crease for several seconds before Capitals' netminder Michael Neuvirth was able to clear it.

"Tampa will be there at the end. They're a playoff caliber team and they have a few guys banged up right now," Knuble said. "They probably deserved a little bit better tonight, at times the score was probably more lopsided then what it should've been. So, they probably deserved a couple more bounces tonight."

One reason the Capitals have enjoyed such a stranglehold the last several seasons is because of the lack of overall talent throughout the division. That changed this offseason, as several teams made significant changes. The Lightning hired former Detroit Red Wings star Steve Yzerman to be their general manager. Yzerman hired Guy Boucher to replace Rick Tocchet as coach and traded for longtime Flyers forward Simon Gagne. The Atlanta Thrashers also made several high profile moves, as they acquired four former Chicago Blackhawks via trade during the Blackhawks fire sale.

"Every team kind of made a lot of offseason moves and each team has gotten a lot stronger from last year," defenseman Tom Poti said. "So, it's going to be a lot more competitive and a lot more fun too."

Some have wondered the last several seasons if the lack of competition within the division has hurt the Capitals come playoff time. Whether it has or hasn't, the Capitals feel stronger competition within the division can only help as the season goes on.

"Obviously we play a lot of other really good teams as well," said Poti . "So, those things will help us prepare and I think it will be a fun division this year."