TAMPA, Fla. — For years, the Washington Capitals have been Southeast Division favorites. Even the Tampa Bay Lightning's Eastern Conference finals run last spring didn't dissuade most preseason predictions from anointing the Capitals as the class of the division.
Despite a coaching change and a roller coaster first half, many over the past couple of months still figured Washington could overcome weak competition and win the Southeast. The Florida Panthers were much-improved, but the Winnipeg Jets didn't seem to be a threat and the Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes were struggling mightily.
The Caps are in first place, but it's a tenuous hold that makes the post-All-Star break stretch of division games even more valuable because the teams chasing them could be primed for impressive second halves.
Starting with Tuesday night's game at Tampa Bay and Wednesday night's at Florida, seven of the Capitals' first 11 games out of the break are against division rivals.
"When you're facing them, those are points they can't get. If you get them, they can't come up with points," Capitals right wing Mike Knuble said. "We know they're important when you get down to the end. That's when you're scraping for them."
The points are magnified because the Panthers are on the Caps' heels, the Jets aren't far behind and the Lightning are much closer than anyone thought after a litany of injuries and a season's worth of goaltending that might lead some teams to last place.
General manager Dale Tallon pieced the Panthers together during a whirlwind offseason that included the acquisition of defenseman Brian Campbell and the signings of forwards Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann and goalie Jose Theodore. That Florida is a contender might surprise a lot of people, but not Campbell.
"We felt we'd be in a playoff position or being right there to make it to the playoffs. I know a lot of people don't believe — didn't believe — in our team, and that's fine," he said at All-Star weekend. "There's so many new guys, it's kind of hard to trust what's going on. We've put ourselves in a position to make it, and we've got to come up with a good second half here."
Florida's 11 shootout or overtime loss points lead the league, but Campbell acknowledged the Panthers can't settle for that.
"I think we just wanted to get rid of that attitude that finishing in ninth or 10th place is acceptable, and that's considered a good season. I feel that it's turned," Campbell said. "At times after 10 years of not making the playoffs, you get a little bit complacent. ... With the attitude being changed, it's been a positive thing."
Four straight wins before the All-Star break had coach Guy Boucher and the Lightning feeling optimistic.
Boucher is staying on an even keel, despite Tampa Bay being several points out of a playoff spot.
"Mountain-climber attitude: Don't look up, don't look down," he said. "You can't be afraid of heights because you're too high; can't be afraid of the height that's up there because it's the scary thing. That's the rock-climbing attitude."
Martin St. Louis, one of the few players left from the Tampa Bay team that won the 2004 Stanley Cup, said, "You have to train your brain to just worry about that one game" and never look at the standings.
That's good advice for the Jets, who lost three in a row going into the break to fall further back from the last playoff spot, and for the Hurricanes, who went into Tuesday last in the Eastern Conference.
But since the Capitals haven't been as good as prognosticators expected, there is plenty time for the other Southeast teams to make a run.
Even though the Hurricanes are long shots to make the playoffs, a hot second half isn't out of the question.
"Combining it all and working together, we're having a lot of fun and we work hard," coach Kirk Muller said recently. "I knew before I took the job it would be a lot of work. But the guys, I love their enthusiasm. I love the way they're trying. I see a lot of good signs that I think will keep us going in the right direction."
Not far up in the standings, the Lightning think they're going in the right direction, too. And last year's four-game sweep of the Caps en route to Game 7 of the conference finals serves as inspiration.
"We have a big mountain to climb to climb into the playoff spot," Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said. "... It's a big challenge, but those are the challenges that you rise within, and that's what this team is all about."
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