Originally written on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 2/8/12
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As the stretch run draws closer, the Southeast Division is becoming more and more of a crapshoot. Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are still the team to beat; but if they can’t snap out of their prolonged funk, the division is anyone’s to win.

Through Tuesday’s action, the Capitals lead the division by a single point. Their 60 points are good enough to have a miniscule edge over Florida as we speak, but are actually the eighth-most points in the conference.

At this point in the season, unless the Caps catch fire or the Panthers tank, no one looks primed to run away with this division. So with three, maybe four teams vying for the Southeast crown, how will the rest of the season shake out in the NHL’s weakest division of 2011-12?

As mentioned, Dale Hunter’s club has to be considered the favorites despite their Jekyll and Hyde-like ups and downs. The Caps trounced Florida 4-0 on Tuesday night to take the temporary lead atop the division, and will host Winnipeg on Thursday. The biggest question mark for the Caps is which team will show up on a nightly basis. They have the best home record in the East, but the worst road record among playoff teams. Consistency will be the biggest key for the Caps down the stretch.

Kevin Dineen’s Panthers keep fighting, even though they are ever-so-slowly fading back to earth. With Jose Theodore affected by a bum knee, the goaltending is average at best. Does anyone expect Scott Clemmensen to lead the Panthers to their first playoff berth since 2000? Moreover, the top line’s production hasn’t been as consistent as it was in the first three months of the season. The Panthers are one point back and have a game in hand on Washington, but they must improve on their 6-8-5 mark since Dec. 20.

Washington and Florida are viewed as the two most likely to win the Southeast, but there are a couple of sleepers to keep an eye on.

The first sleeper is a Winnipeg Jets team that is quietly four points behind Washington. They are difficult to beat at the MTS Centre (16-8-2), but are a completely different team on the road (9-16-4). For the Jets to make a late-season push, not only will they have to improve away from home, but Ondrej Pavelec is going to have to put the team on his back and play the way he did early last season in Atlanta. Scoring more goals wouldn’t hurt, either.

Another team in the rear view mirror that you can’t push aside just yet is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who sits nine points behind Washington. Guy Boucher’s squad, who came within one game of the Stanley Cup final last spring, is starting to play their best hockey of the year (6-1-1 in their last eight) after a rough first half.

We all know they possess a dangerous offense, led by NHL goal-scoring leader Steven Stamkos. But their veteran netminders, Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon, have to stop more pucks. If they do that, and the team takes advantage of a home-laden home stretch, they could make things interesting.

Every year we see a first half underachiever really take off in the second half. Could the Lightning be that team this year? If neither Washington nor Florida takes full control of the division, I don’t think you can count them out.

The current pace to win the division is 93 points. Could the Bolts accumulate 42 points in their next 30 games to reach that checkpoint? Additionally, could the Jets pick up 37 points in their final 27 games? With many head-to-head meetings remaining between the four teams, it’s not impossible.

Especially since the Southeast Division is completely up for grabs here in early February.

Photo credit: Getty Images
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