The race for the Southeast Division crown may be like watching sea slugs perform Swan Lake. But whatever this competition lacks in artistic beauty is more than made up for in pure drama.
As of Monday morning, all five Southeast Division teams have at least a modicum of optimism regarding their chances for being the only team left standing when the dust clears on April 6.
The reality of the situation may be painful to teams like the New York Rangers, Boston or Buffalo, at least one of which will likely miss the postseason even though they'll likely have more points than the Southeast Division champ. But that reality -- that the division is likely to qualify just one team for the postseason, and that team is going to start the postseason with the third seed and home-ice advantage at least for the first round -- is what has set the table for a seven-week rollercoaster ride.
Quibble if you will with the vagaries of the NHL playoff setup, but no other division promises the thrills and spills the Southeast is promising.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, for instance, a team that on Sunday was 29th in NHL standings, last in the Eastern Conference standings, was buoyed by the fact they are just seven points back of division-leading Washington with a game in hand.
Imagine that. A team that right now would be a draft lottery team with a decent shot at the first overall pick in June's draft can actually talk division crown having just completed a 2-0-1 road trip.
The Lightning have 10 divisional games remaining on their schedule, including eight straight to close out the regular season. True, they will have to jump over four teams to earn the division crown they last owned in their Stanley Cup-winning season in 2003-04, but in many ways they control their own destiny, which is more than they probably have a right to say at this stage of the season.
What about the Florida Panthers? A team synonymous with irrelevance, the Panthers have surged back into the division playoff picture with four wins in their past five games before being topped 5-3 by Buffalo on Sunday. The team figured to be better defensively this season with the acquisition of Tomas Vokoun at last June's draft. But the Panthers are starting to light it up offensively with 27 goals in their last six games, including an 8-0 pounding of Toronto last week.
Atlanta continues to hang tough having won four of six and are playing inspired defense, giving up just 11 goals through that stretch.
Carolina looked like it was ready to seize control of the division when it won its first two games after the All-Star break, but now has lost three of four including a 6-1 whipping at the hands of the News Jersey Devils on Saturday. The Canes, along with the Thrashers, have played more games than the rest of their Southeast Division colleagues -- 58.
Of the five teams, Washington may be the most exciting to watch and has played the best over the longest stretch of time since firing Glen Hanlon and replacing him with Bruce Boudreau on Thanksgiving. But even the Caps' strong play (they beat the Rangers 3-2 in overtime Sunday) is relative and has been marked by stutter steps of late. Of course that "one step forward, two steps back" lament to which each team is moving has played havoc with Southeast GMs' plans as the Feb. 26 deadline approaches.
Does Tampa GM Jay Feaster entertain offers for free-agent defenseman Dan Boyle with Boyle lighting it up as he has since returning from wrist surgery?
Atlanta GM Don Waddell has been trying to sell soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Marian Hossa on the team's future as a contender and the more wins his team can pile up before the deadline, the better Waddell can make his case.
Florida captain Olli Jokinen has long been rumored to be on the trade block, but with the Panthers back in the mix, maybe Jokinen and GM/coach Jacques Martin can put aside their differences for the common good.
This is the kind of race that drives some observers crazy because it highlights complaints that the game has been reduced to its lowest common denominator -- five flawed teams capable of delivering inspired play or stinkers on any given night. True enough. But darned it's going to be fun to watch.
Not only does Evgeni Malkin get a visit from his parents, he also continues to emerge as a bona fide NHL leader. The second-overall pick in the 2004 draft continues to jump up the NHL scoring list as he added four more points in Sunday's 4-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers and is now just three points back of Alexander Ovechkin, the player selected just ahead of him in 2004. Perhaps more impressive is that Malkin, who has 15 points in his last five games, has been helping keep the Penguins at or near the top of the Atlantic Division standings while captain and defending NHL MVP Sidney Crosby recovers from a high ankle sprain. The Pens are now 6-2-2 without Crosby and raise your hand if you thought that was likely? Crosby's injury may have cost him a chance at a second straight MVP award, but Malkin is making a case for his own spot in the ballot.
Dan Cleary has made it clear this season that he has indeed turned that giant corner from top prospect washout to bona fide NHL star. The native of Carbonear, Newfoundland, and 13th overall pick in the 1997 draft was the second-leading goal-scorer with the NHL's best team, having notched 20 goals in 57 games for the Detroit Red Wings. But Cleary, who has fulfilled a variety of roles for coach Mike Babcock, will be out of action indefinitely with a fractured jaw after taking a slap shot from teammate Mikael Samuelsson in Saturday's overtime loss to Toronto. The loss of Cleary may press GM Ken Holland to step up his search for secondary scoring between now and the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
Stuck in neutral
Interesting dynamic developing in Ottawa where it's believed defenseman Wade Redden, once one of the fair-haired boys among Canadian defensemen, has been twice asked to waive his no-trade clause to facilitate a trade to another team (first Edmonton and most recently San Jose). Redden, as is his right, has declined saying he wants to win a Stanley Cup in Ottawa. Fair enough. But regardless of how focused Redden is, the fact that he and his teammates know management figures they'd be better off without their $6.5-million defenseman has to change things a bit. Of course it didn't seem to bother Redden and the Sens as they crushed Montreal 6-1 on Saturday putting an end, at least for the moment, to discussion about which is the Eastern Conference's best team.
Our top story lines of the week
1. You can call it the domino effect or, to throw in a rare Samuel Beckett reference, call it waiting for Godot; either way it means there's lots of talk but nothing being said on the trade front. Some believe the trade drought will end when Peter Forsberg makes his long-awaited decision on which team he will play for (assuming that team antes up). Once Forsberg is off the market, the theory is that GMs will then start to move to try and fill holes in their lineup more quickly in advance of the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Although Forsberg is expected to sign somewhere this week, we'll believe it when we see it.
2. Well, it took three-quarters of the season, but it appears the New York Islanders have finally fulfilled most experts' predictions and have fallen and can't get up. The Isles hung around the playoff picture far longer than people expected, a tribute to the coaching skills of Ted Nolan, but have now lost seven in a row (0-6-1) following their 4-3 loss in overtime to Minnesota on Saturday. The Isles are one of the league's lowest-scoring teams (they ranked 28th in goals-per-game before Sunday's games) but look for a couple of their forwards to be on the move come deadline time. Mike Comrie will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and while he leads the team in scoring with 41 points, the skilled center probably doesn't fit into the team's long-term plans. Miroslav Satan, who had 62 goals in his first two seasons on Long Island, has just 11 and could be on the move. He has been bothered by a knee ligament problem, but played 16:29 in Saturday's loss to the Wild.
3. Here's why you can't put too much faith in stats: Before the Anaheim Ducks defeated the NHL's best team, the Detroit Red Wings, 3-2 Sunday afternoon, they ranked 29th in the NHL in goals per game with 2.35. The Ducks have just laid waste to the three New York area teams and the Red Wings in putting together a tidy four-game winning streak in the Eastern Time Zone this week. Still, offensive depth is an issue for GM Brian Burke even with the return of Teemu Selanne to the fold, but his need isn't as dire as the stats would suggest.
4. We find it curious that so many folks seem to be up in arms about the return of Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne to Anaheim midway through the season and the prospect of Forsberg returning just before the trade deadline. The fear, according to these fear-mongers, is that quality players will simply sit out for long portions of future NHL seasons and return for the stretch drive. Well, that wouldn't make a whole lot of financial sense would it? And unless you're a future Hall of Famer like Niedermayer, Selanne or Forsberg happen to be, the law of supply and demand suggests there simply won't be many teams willing to bring in a player halfway through the season in the hopes he might help the team get over the hump. Much ado about nothing.
5. All of this ogling of Swedish free agent Fabian Brunnstrom puts us in mind of The Natural. Brunnstrom apparently appeared out of a puff of smoke this year and is now being described as the best player not playing in the NHL. That sometimes means little, as Jiri Dopita learned. But the buzz surrounding Brunnstrom, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound forward who doesn't even show up in the NHL record and guide book's list of prospects, is more than a little curious. Now, if half the reports are accurate, most if not all of the NHL's 30 teams are in pursuit of his services for next season. Just goes to show you that the scouting business is very much an imprecise science.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.