At the start oflast season the Tampa Bay Lightning's arena finally got wired to receiveCanadian sports networks TSN and Sportsnet, throwing the organization atechnological lifeline that was as significant, in its way, as the bullettrains linking Paris with France's provincial capitals or the World Wide Webconnecting China to the West. Even after winning the Stanley Cup in 2004,Lightning players still sensed they were working in a far-flung hockey redoubt,away from the sport's hot stove, and that by hooking up with Canada they werefinally coming out of the cold or, more precisely, into it. "So at last weget TSN and we're all pumped," Lightning defenseman Cory Sarich says."Then we're listening to all the hockey commentary from there, and it'slike they hardly believe we have teams down here in the SoutheastDivision."
The NHL'sred-haired stepchild, a division that Carolina Hurricanes center Kevyn Adamssays is "still the best-kept secret in hockey," can be neglected atyour peril. Having metamorphosed from an all-inclusive winter vacationdestination--complimentary breakfast buffets and two free points in thestandings!--to a tough place to win, the home of the last two Cup winners (andthe only division with four teams that have reached the finals in the past 10seasons) has it all: six of the NHL's top eight goal-scorers through Sunday; asexy young superstar in the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin; adangerous shooter in the Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk; a nonpareil leaderin Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour; one of the NHL's most complete forwards inAtlanta's Marian Hossa; a 22-year-old franchise center in the Hurricanes' EricStaal; and the fabulous Tampa Bay trio of superb center Vincent Lecavalier,2004 NHL MVP Martin St. Louis and former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards.
"That's apretty good Murderers' Row of offensive talent in that division," saysformer Capitals defenseman Ken Klee, now in Colorado. "Personally I'm gladI face them a lot less now."
From top (theThrashers, one of the league's blossoming powers) to bottom (the FloridaPanthers, an Augean stable that coach--general manager Jacques Martin isshoveling out this very minute) the five-team division is a whirligig ofaction--a style dubbed "redneck hockey" by the Hurricanes' marketingdepartment. Spurred by coaches like Carolina's Peter Laviolette and Tampa Bay'sJohn Tortorella, who insist on relentless forechecking and up-tempo play, andaided by leaky defenses and often ordinary goaltending, Southeast games are,Thrashers coach Bob Hartley says, "like watching the saloon doorsflapping" in a cowboy movie. At week's end the Southeast was the onlydivision in which each team had surrendered at least 150 goals and also theonly one in which each team had scored at least 145. Says Tortorella, "Inthis division all the teams are chasing [the puck], sending the [defensemen],taking a chance. Teams are going for it."
If they don't,well, fans tend to notice. When the Lightning, apparently suffering a StanleyCup hangover, temporarily misplaced its brio last season, its suddententativeness disappointed the market almost as much as a first-round playoffdefeat to Ottawa did. There is a different ethos in the nontraditional hockeymarkets of the Southeast, where a regular-season game is a diversion, not acivic event. Not that the citizenry is indifferent; Tampa Bay had a streak of64 announced sellouts that ran until Nov. 28, and Atlanta has had its bestattendance numbers since its expansion season of 1999--2000, averaging nearly300 more tickets per game than last season. Even if congressional hearingsabout ethanol on C-Span seem to get better ratings than the Capitals,Washington's flagging attendance is no more embarrassing than the underfilledarenas in St. Louis, Boston and Long Island. Still, hockey feels grafted to theSoutheast cities. A game in Florida is like a passing summer squall: Tenminutes after it's over, you'd never know it happened. Fans of Southeast teamsare a subset in their towns. They might as well be 15,000 chess aficionados ormembers of a book club who convene to discuss Jonathan Franzen's latest novelonce or twice a week.
This geo-culturalconsideration forces general managers to approach their jobs differently thantheir peers do. Division teams have to deliver more bang for the buck--eitherwith discounts (four Lightning games for the price of three), gimmicks (thePanthers still get calls almost daily from fans wondering if the franchisecould bring back the plastic rats that became the team's talisman in itsunlikely run to the finals in 1996), that unapologetic attacking style orsometimes actual banging. Tampa Bay G.M. Jay Feaster says one of the signaturemoments at the Lightning's rink this season came on Dec. 5, when repatriatedenforcer André Roy, in his first game back in Tampa Bay after being claimed onwaivers, threw a heavy body check and then fought Buffalo's Andrew Peters. Asthe crowd roared its approval, Feaster, looking down from his private box,turned to assistant general manager Claude Loiselle and goalie coach Jeff Reeseand deadpanned, "I don't think fans like this fighting stuff."
"It's not justabout fighting in the Southeast Division," Feaster said two nights later,"but this is still football country. And it is still NASCAR country. And itisn't NASCAR country just [because fans want] to watch cars go around a track.They like the crashes. That's why playing a physical brand of hockey iscritical in this division."
It's also a brandthat might travel well, but it remains hidden by the NHL's unbalanced schedule.The schedule, in which each team plays each divisional opponent a whoppingeight times, is also less than ideal in these relatively new markets, whichrely on fan bases made up heavily of transplants from the Northeast. Accordingto a team executive, the Southeast is the only division in whichintradivisional games draw worse than other games. For Florida, Cup-championCarolina doesn't move the needle, but the Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs andNew York Rangers do. "A lot of Canadians come down here for the winter, andthere were a lot of Buffalo fans in our building the other night," Pantherschief operating officer Michael Yormark said last month. "The teams thatare appealing for us are based on [a different kind of] geography."Washington, which joined the NHL in 1974, still has emotional ties to oldPatrick Division rivals like the Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and PittsburghPenguins, a team it met in the playoffs seven times between '91 and 2001. Whenasked to identify its biggest rival, most Lightning players named Philly, whichTampa Bay faced in its first playoff series, in '96, and again in the '04Eastern Conference finals. Rivalries are best simmered in a playoff cauldron,but since the Southeast was formed in '98--99, only once have divisional teamsmet in the postseason (Washington and Tampa Bay in a '03 first-roundseries).
This year, though,three Southeast teams--the Thrashers, Hurricanes and Lightning--have beensolidly in playoff position, with the Capitals and the Panthers both withinreach of the East's final spot. The increased competitiveness had led toincreased heat, including, in November, the NHL's Brawl of the Year. That scrapbetween the Capitals and the Thrashers in D.C. produced 176 penalty minutes, 10fighting majors, seven game misconducts, three suspensions and $40,000 in finesto the coaches, the Capitals' Glen Hanlon and the Thrashers' Hartley, whoalmost came to blows in the aftermath.
With 82 secondsremaining, Atlanta leading 4--2 and the teams skating three-on-three, Hanlon,still smarting from a high hit that the Thrashers' rugged 6'6" defenseman,Andy Sutton, had delivered to 6'1" Washington rookie Mike Green, sent outroughnecks, including enforcer Donald Brashear, who touched off a melee on theensuing face-off. Hartley said, "I was glad to see those three guys on theice because [Hanlon] threw the game away."
As the brawlswirled, the coaches screamed imprecations at each other, and Hanlon was solivid that he did a funky version of the Chicken Dance. Hartley left the benchfollowing the win and nearly bumped into Hanlon, who had hustled through acorridor to get near the Atlanta dressing room in case Hartley wanted to makethe tiff even more personal. "This guy is quicker than Carl Lewis,"Hartley said. "Getting around to our room, that had to be a world record.But what were we going to do, act like two clowns and get suspended? I got whatI wanted, the two points." If the incident was, as Washington captain ChrisClark said, "an accumulation of everything and nothing," it alsodemonstrated why the industrious Capitals may well sneak into the postseason.Washington is an old-time team--led by general manager George McPhee, a littleguy who was pound-for-pound the NHL's toughest player in the mid-1980s--thattakes no guff and sticks together like a mob family.
The Thrashers, fortheir part, just seem to rub, or rub out, people the wrong way--says oneHurricanes player, "It's not much of a secret that we don't like thoseguys"--at least in part because of Hartley's probably undeserved reputationas a coach of teams that play excessively hard-nosed hockey. Atlanta is one ofonly two NHL teams never to have qualified for the playoffs (Columbus is theother), but with 64 points through 52 games the Thrashers would have to derailto miss this spring. The difference is goaltending, namely 23-year-old KariLehtonen, who missed most of last season with ankle and groin injuries but isnow showing the potential to be among the league's five best netminders.
Big (6'4", 200pounds) and agile, Lehtonen, who at week's end ranked fourth in the league with1,174 saves, was the second overall draft pick in 2002. The draft has given ahuge boost to once-feeble Southeast teams in recent years; as Hurricanes leftwing Cory Stillman, who also won a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay, puts it, "Thissounds bad, but you need to be bad to be good." The year before selectingLehtonen, the Thrashers nabbed Kovalchuk (52 goals last season; 27 so far thisyear) at No. 1. The Hurricanes selected Staal (an NHL-high 28 playoff pointsduring Carolina's Cup run last year) No. 2 in '03. Washington landed Ovechkin(a 106-point rookie who is on pace to beat that this season) with the firstpick of the '04 draft. And the Lightning began its climb because itsincompetence translated into the No. 1 pick in 1998, Lecavalier, whom Columbuscoach Ken Hitchcock says "is a big-game player. [He] definitely helped putthat division on the map."
Nearly nine yearslater Lecavalier has a Stanley Cup ring and is an elite talent, but he may notbe the most highly regarded player on his own team (he and St. Louis had eachscored 30 goals this season), let alone in this carnival of a division. TheSoutheast, that red-haired stepchild who plays redneck hockey, is all grownup.
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Building a Division, Draft by Draft
The center, says Hitchcock, "put the division on the map" when he wentNo. 1.
Coming in as the NHL's top pick, the sharpshooter led all rookies with 29goals.
A season after going No. 2 he paid huge dividends, emerging as a playoffforce.
The No. 1 pick spent the lockout in Russia, then won the Calder in 2006.
Along with superstar Alexander Ovechkin (31 goals),left wing Alexander Semin (29 goals) has emerged as a top-flight scorer,boosting the offense. The Caps are ornery, too, leading the division with 28fighting majors.
There may be no better leader in hockey than36-year-old captain Rod Brind'Amour, who after helping the Panthers win lastyear's Cup remains a workhorse and one of the NHL's premier face-off men.
Buoyed by right wing Marian Hossa, one of hockey's mostcomplete forwards, Atlanta comfortably leads the division and seems certain toreach the postseason for the first time in its eight-year history.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Dynamic forwards Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards andMartin St. Louis are the highest-paid trio of teammates in the NHL ($19.9million), responsible for 48% of Tampa Bay's payroll--and 51% of the team'sgoals.
The goaltending duo of 41-year-old Ed Belfour and26-year-old Alex Auld (ugly .890 save percentage) has hurt the laggardPanthers, especially in big spots: Florida is 0--10 in overtime andshootouts.
Division-rival coaches Hartley (left) and Hanlon nearlycame to blows in the aftermath of the NHL's BRAWL OF THE YEAR.
ANDY MEAD/WIREIMAGE.COM (BRIND'AMOUR); RAFAEL SUANES/WIREIMAGE.COM (SEMIN); SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/GETTY IMAGES (HOSSA); GARY ROTHSTEIN/ICON SMI (AULD); CHRIS O'MEARA/AP (ST. LOUIS)
KEVIN WOLF/AP (LEHTONEN)
GOOD AND BUSY Lehtonen, who faces (and stops) an inordinately high number of shots, is the first top-tier goalie in Thrashers history.
GENE J. PUSKAR/AP (HARTLEY)
FRANK GUNN/AP (LECAVALIER); TONY GUTIERREZ/AP (KOVALCHUK); ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (STAAL); SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES (OVECHKIN)
Photograph by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
HAPPY CAP Ovechkin, whose 31 goals was tied for the NHL lead, has delighted fans with a personality as irrepressible as his game.
Photograph by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
GREASED LIGHTNING With 30 goals Lecavalier was on his way to a career high, thanks to Tortorella's fast, attacking style.