With the NHL’s Board of Governors approving realignment for next season, the Southeast Division as we know it is down to its final few months.
The Capitals have won six Southeast Division titles in 13 years, with the Carolina Hurricanes sitting atop the standings midway through the abbreviated 2013 season.
The Hurricanes have won three Southeast titles- 1999, 2002 and 2006- but have not reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2009.
Carolina appears to have turned the corner though under second-year head coach Kirk Muller and the first place Hurricanes can create a 12-point gap between themselves and the Capitals with a win tonight in Raleigh, NC [7 p.m., CSN].
Despite his team’s strong play this season, Muller sounded somewhat anxious when speaking to reporters Tuesday at Verizon Center about the planned realignment for next season.
Along with the Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Hurricanes would join the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins in a new eight team division that closely resembles the old Patrick Division from the late 1970s to early 1990s.
“It's going to be tough,” Muller said of the new division. “There are a lot of good teams in there. There are a lot of grinding physical teams so it makes you sit back and evaluate your team and organization and ask ‘are we the type of team that's skilled enough to go into certain arenas and get points or do you want to change your style to match up with your opponents?’
“We're obviously in the hunt this year but it will be something where you may have to sit back and look at everything and ask where do you fit in with your opposition and decide if you want to make changes or if you're comfortable with the group that you have.”
BANGED UP PANTHERS:
The Florida Panthers finally won their first Southeast Division title last season, but the odds of going out as a repeat champion are remote at best.
The Panthers enter play Thursday having lost four straight and seven-of-eight and 14-of-17 overall as they sit in last place in the Eastern Conference with 20 points in 27 games.
Florida’s latest setback came Thursday morning as the team announced that top-six forward Kris Versteeg will undergo season-ending knee surgery.
Versteeg was Florida’s third-leading scorer last season but he joins No.1 center Stephen Weiss (wrist surgery) as key cogs that have been lost for the season.
The Panthers injury list also includes captain Ed Jovanovski who has not played since Jan.31 (wrist), defensemen Dmitry Kulikov (wrist) and Mike Weaver (lower-body) and goalie Jose Theodore (groin) who is not expected back until mid-April at the earliest.
The Tampa Bay Lightning (2003-04) and Carolina Hurricanes (2005-06) are the only Southeast Division teams to have won the Stanley Cup, but this year’s Lightning club has an uphill battle just to return to the postseason for the second time in six years.
Like the Panthers, the Lightning have struggled of late losing seven-of-nine and 14-of-19 overall to drop to 12th place in the Eastern Conference, just three points up on last place Florida.
On Thursday the Lightning announced that they have also lost captain Vincent Lecavalier indefinitely. Lecavalier has been placed on IR with a lower-body injury and while he will be eligible to return to the Lightning lineup as early as next Tuesday, general manager Steve Yzerman told reporters in Tampa Bay that he expects club’s all-time leading scorer to be out longer.
“Lecavalier plays a lot of minutes," Yzerman said. "It's a big hole in our lineup. He's one of our key faceoff guys and power play guys. It's a difficult hole to fill, but we have to try to look at something positive. Someone's going to come down from Syracuse (American Hockey League) and get an opportunity."
Lecavalier has seven goals and 22 points in 26 games this season.