The Washington Capitals, despite their lack of postseason success, earned many regular season accolades last season. The 2009-10 incarnation of the Caps earned the franchise its first President's Trophy, awarded to the team with the NHL's best record, and subsequently the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Lost among all of Washington's successes last year was its third consecutive Southeast Division championship. It is not surprising, however, that such a distinction did not earn as much praise because of the Southeast Division's reputation for being perennially weak. The Capitals ran away with the division title last year by 38 points, once again feeding into the disrespect towards what some have called the "Southleast."
But this year's Southeast Division, also featuring the Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, is providing some of the toughest competition for the Capitals and the rest of the NHL.
"Our division, I think, is really tough, so there's a big importance anytime we play somebody in our division," Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau said late last week. "It's not the weak sister everybody used to think it is."
Despite Washington's 7-2-0 record against their Southeast Division rivals this season, which was tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the most divisional wins in the NHL as of Monday, the Capitals have not had an easy time winning those games. Four of the seven wins have been by two goals or less and both losses have come at a combined score of 9-2.
Six of the Capitals' last 10 games have been against Southeast opponents, including the past three, all wins. The Capitals needed last-minute heroics to defeat the Hurricanes twice last week, especially in Sunday's 3-2 shootout victory over the Hurricanes that saw Carolina erase a two-goal deficit and tie the game with three seconds left.
"Even though it's early in the season, [Carolina] understood the magnitude of the game," Boudreau said. "It's a divisional game and they came out and played an awful lot better."
All of the Capitals' Southeast brethren have greatly improved. The Lightning have thrived thus far under the watch of new general manager and former Detroit Red Wing Steve Yzerman, especially center Steven Stamkos, who leads the league with 21 goals. The Thrashers, who have never won a playoff game in the franchise's 11-year history, benefited most from the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks' salary cap issues, picking up four of Chicago's top forwards. Within the first quarter of the season, winger Andrew Ladd has become team captain and forward-turned-defenseman Dustin Byfuglien leads all NHL defensemen with 25 points.
The Hurricanes, who started last season on a debilitating 14-game losing streak, already have a third of last year's win total and have also injected youth into what might be the division's most experienced roster. Meanwhile, the Florida Panthers are currently rebuilding their roster with players that will surely have an impact in years to come.
"I think it's way tougher," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. "It's tighter in our division."
If there is any doubt that the Southeast Division has not undergone a resurgence this season, a look at the NHL division standings will prove otherwise. The Caps, Lightning, Thrashers, Hurricanes and Panthers have a combined 135 points through Monday, the most of any division in the Eastern Conference and second-most in the league behind the Western Conference's Central Division, which has 138 points.
The Southeast Division has a healthy mix of youth and experience, which should lead to many more years of competitive hockey.
"We have to stay focused every game," Backstrom said. "Every year [the division] becomes better, so it's a mission."