Southeast: Five players to watch down the stretch

By Cory Lavalette

 

Photo: Florida Panthers forward Sean Bergenheim, shown here being stopped by Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer in a Feb. 28th game, could be a key player in the Panthers drive for their first playoff berth in a decade (

Nick Turchiaro/Icon SMI)

With the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes — the two teams from the Southeast that have won a Stanley Cup in the past decade — realistically out of the picture, the three remaining teams in the division are waiting to see which players will step up and lead the way to a top-three seed and perhaps even more.

The Florida Panthers have waited a decade to return to the postseason, while the Winnipeg Jets — in their first season back in Winnipeg — have whipped their fans into a frenzy with the prospect of being in the playoffs so soon. In Washington, the Capitals know all about the playoffs, they just don’t know much about having success in them.

Here are five Southeast Division players that could make or break these teams’ postseason hopes down the stretch.

Sean Bergenheim, LW, Florida Panthers

Bergenheim cashed in on his big postseason with Tampa Bay last year to earn a four-year, $11 million pay day from the Panthers. But the nine goals he scored in 16 playoff games last season looked like an aberration through January, with Bergenheim registering just seven goals and no assists in 28 games. But the player that opened eyes in the spring of 2011 may be back in a big way. Bergenheim doubled his goal output in February, finishing the month with seven goals and five assists in 14 games to help keep the Panthers in the playoff hunt. If he can stay hot, the Panthers could hold on to the division lead and make the kind of run the Lightning did last season with Bergenheim in the fold.

Mike Green, D, Washington Capitals

It’s been a rough season for Green, who has managed to play just 16 games and had all six of his points back in October. But even if he is rusty, getting Green back in the lineup for the balance of the season is the equivalent of getting a top pairing defenseman at the trade deadline. Furthermore, Green has been a good player late in the season, particularly in April where he has 15 points in 16 career games. His postseason struggles are well documented, but without the wear and tear of an 82-game campaign it’s possible Green could be fresh for a deep run.

Andrew Ladd, LW, Winnipeg Jets

With two Stanley Cup rings by the time he was 24, it’s hard to not consider Ladd a winner. But being captain of an NHL team is a lot different from being a rookie or a role player as he was during his Cup-winning seasons in Carolina and Chicago, respectively. If the Jets are to buck the odds and win the Southeast, chances are Ladd will be a big piece of the puzzle. For his part, Ladd is playing well as the league enters March, with nine points in his last six games. But Ladd’s worth goes well beyond statistics. On top of being the team’s leader, he is an all-situations player who is as likely to score a big goal as he is to help kill off a crucial penalty.

Michael Neuvirth, G, Washington Capitals

Coach Dale Hunter has clearly lost confidence in expected No. 1 Tomas Vokoun, so it’s Neuvirth who has taken the reins and run with them in Washington. Neuvirth relieved Vokoun in back to back games last week, then was given the last three starts, winning them all and moving past Vokoun into the top spot in goal for the Capitals. Neuvirth is still a few weeks shy of 24, so inexperience is definitely still a factor. But the Czech goalie played well in nine playoff games for Washington last season, and given all the turmoil surrounding the Capitals the past couple weeks, Neuvirth could be exactly the rallying point they need to win the Southeast for the fifth straight year.

Jose Theodore, G, Florida Panthers

It has been several years and many stops since Theodore won both the Vezina and Hart trophies with the Canadiens back in 2002, but the veteran goalie is arguably having his best season since then with the Panthers. Coach Kevin Dineen has kept Theodore’s games played in check, with Scott Clemmensen and rookie Jacob Markstrom — plus a recent injury to Theodore — limiting the team’s top goalie to just 36 starts in the team’s 62 games. Theodore had his best month of the season in February, going a modest 3-2-1 but sporting a 1.98 goals-against average and .934 save percentage for the first-place Panthers. Theodore’s never had a winning record in the postseason — his best year was his MVP season, when he went 6-6 — and struggled in both the 2009 and 2010 playoffs with the Capitals, but he still checks in as the most experienced and battle-tested goalie among the Southeast contenders.

Southeast Division Notes

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes could soon find themselves overrun with defenseman. Joni Pitkanen, who hasn’t played since Dec. 6 due to both a concussion and then knee surgery, should be back in the lineup before the end of the month. With the top two pairings of Tim Gleason-Bryan Allen and Jay Harrison-Justin Faulk entrenched, that leaves Jamie McBain and Jaroslav Spacek as the most likely to be scratched when Pitkanen returns. Toss in that Derek Joslin has been playing wing on the fourth line, and Carolina is poised to have its defense as healthy as it’s been all season.

Tampa Bay Lightning: As if injuries and trades weren’t enough, the Lightning locker room has now been struck by the flu bug. Even Erik Erlendsson, the beat writer for The Tampa Tribune, was felled by illness. The timing was at least decent for the Lightning, who don’t play again until Friday. Tampa Bay will need to be as healthy as possible for Friday with the East-leading Rangers coming to town and the Lightning’s slim playoff hopes hanging by a thread.
 

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