Originally written on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 12/17/11

As unlikely as it is that Minnesota is leading the Northwest Division, no one could have predicted that the Florida Panthers would be looking down on the Southeast in mid-December. Are they favorites to win the division, or are the high-powered Capitals still the team to beat? Alexander and I debate…

Florida Panthers
By Ryan Porth

There are many reasons why the new-look ‘Cats are on top of the Southeast Division. The biggest reason is that they aren’t your usual Florida Panthers anymore.

Many people still believe the Panthers are going to come back to earth – because they are the Panthers. But over the last two years, GM Dale Tallon has changed the whole look and attitude of the team, top to bottom. Only five players on the current roster are still around since Tallon took over in May of 2010.

Tallon stabilized the defense this past off-season with the acquisitions of Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski. Campbell has been rejuvenated by the move from Chicago to Florida and ranks second in points from defensemen. The addition of Jovanovski has provided a lot of leadership and character to a locker room that didn’t have much of it last season. Additionally, youngsters Dmitry Kulikov and Jason Garrison have enjoyed breakout seasons thus far.

The improved defense has enabled the Panthers’ goaltending to be a lot more consistent than years past. The goals-against average (2.44) is ranked eighth in the NHL. Jose Theodore wasn’t exactly an improvement over Tomas Vokoun in net, but the team’s netminding has made big saves when needed – whether it’s Theodore, Scott Clemmensen, or Jacob Markstrom in the crease.

The Panthers’ top line of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann has been difficult for opponents to slow down. The trio has combined for 94 points through 32 games. Though they probably won’t keep up at their current pace, it’s only a matter of time before the team’s depth starts stepping up.

With all of this being said, will the ‘Cats be able to hold off the Capitals? Dale Hunter’s gang has been the definition of inconsistent this season. Their goaltending, viewed as a strength before the season, has turned into a weakness. They will probably catch fire at some point, but will they be able to break through the mojo the Panthers have going on right now? That remains to be seen.

These Panthers are reminiscent of the 2009-10 Phoenix Coyotes – a small-market club with no stars and low expectations coming into the year, with league-wide pundits just waiting for them to fall apart. Though the Coyotes didn’t win their division that season, they finished with 107 points and never went away.

The rats are back and better than ever in Sunrise. With Kevin Dineen’s new philosophy behind the bench and a fresh attitude in the room, the Panthers have what it takes to stay on top of the Southeast until April.

Washington Capitals
By Alexander Monaghan

The Washington Capitals entered the 2011-12 campaign as the clear-cut favorites to win the Southeast Division. After winning the division title in each of the four seasons, it sounded only logical that the team would cruise into a fifth consecutive title.

Their competition was bleak. An inconsistent Carolina Hurricanes team that has regressed from last year's surge. The Florida Panthers that were perennial cellar dwellers and comprised of mostly castoffs and unrestricted free agents. No one thought the Winnipeg Jets would contend mainly due to their horrendous travel schedule and lack of improvements from their Atlanta Thrashers days. The lone challenger appeared to be Guy Boucher's Tampa Bay Lightning, whose 1-3-1 trap was able to stifle former Caps coach Bruce Boudreau and his up-tempo offensive system.

However, GM George McPhee made strides to improve his team. He stole the top UFA starting goalie Tomas Vokoun, and also added quality heart-and-soul players like Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Jeff Halpern, while re-signing Brooks Laich.

The division was won on paper.

Nevertheless, the Caps have failed to meet expectations. Vokoun's play has spiraled to below-average levels where Michal Neuvirth may once again become the number one. Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin have both been experiencing down seasons. Boudreau and his ever-changing system was canned for Caps legend Dale Hunter. All these changes have placed doubt on the Capitals and their ability to succeed.

Yet not all is lost. This week, the team was able to dig deep and defeat the surging Jets 1-0 on the back of an inspiring 26-save effort from Neuvirth, marking their third win in four games. While they sandwiched those wins over an embarrassing 5-1 loss to the Flyers, their recent efforts may be good enough to defeat the teams in their division and catch the Florida Panthers.

Ovechkin now has two goals and three points over his last four, while his center Nicklas Backstrom has elevated his game to superstar levels. Furthermore, All-Star defenseman Mike Green just resumed traveling with the team and should give them more offensive firepower when he gets healthy. Should Neuvirth be able to stabilize the efforts between the pipes then the Caps once again have a winning recipe and one that could not only capture the Southeast title, but that could also contend for the Stanley Cup.

Under head coach Dale Hunter, the attitude of this team has changed. No longer are they allowed to goof around the play the game the way they want to. Hunter is demanding and has a strict and regimented system that, once implemented, should make them a true contender – one that can compete with any team in the League.

The big question is not if they can put all these pieces together – it's when.

Photos credit: Getty Images

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