Minas Panagiotakis/Icon SMI)
After years of regular season dominance and postseason struggles, the Washington Capitals entered 2011-12 at a crossroads. When the team failed to respond early in the season, Bruce Boudreau lost his job and Dale Hunter was hired to save the Capitals' season. While Hunter's full story isn't yet written — Washington is barely holding on to eighth place in the Eastern Conference with two games remaining — one thing is certain: this season was one of underachieving for the Capitals.
Nowhere is that better reflected than in our 2011-12 Southeast Division awards. Despite having a two-time Hart Trophy winner, a former Norris Trophy nominee on their roster, and a new goaltender expected to solidify them in net, the Capitals did not garner any of our five awards. But after years of waltzing through the regular season and fizzling out in the playoffs, perhaps a down-to-the-wire playoff berth will make Washington more battle-tested for the NHL's second season.
In the meantime, here are the Southeast's top performers for 2011-12.
Most Valuable Player and Top Forward: Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning — Despite the Lightning's disappointing season, Stamkos earns recognition as the division's top player and forward. And who would argue? With two games left, he's a lock to win the Rocket Richard Award as the league's top goal-scorer — his 58 goals are 10 more than second-place Evgeni Malkin — and he trails only Malkin in points with 95. He also leads the league in game-winning goals (12) and his 19.9 percent scoring percentage is the highest by any player with at least 40 goals since Brad Boyes scored on 20.8 percent of his shots while scoring 43 times for St. Louis in 2007-08.
Top Defenseman: Brian Campbell, D, Florida Panthers — Campbell will likely never garner consideration for the Norris Trophy because he's an average defender, but there's no denying two things: his offensive ability and that he's a winner. Since the lockout, Campbell has been to the postseason every year, and unless the Panthers collapse in the season's final two games he will be there again. That's normal for Campbell, but not the Panthers, who would be making their first postseason appearance since — well, forever. His 52 points ranks third among NHL defensemen and matches his career high, which he could set with another point in Florida's final two games. He's also been a part of many deep postseason runs — including the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup in 2010 — and has played 90 playoff games the past six seasons. If he joins the Panthers in the playoffs this year, it will be the fourth different team he's gone to the postseason with.
Top Goaltender: Cam Ward, G, Carolina Hurricanes — If there's one reason for the Southeast's struggles this year, it's in net. Tampa Bay and Washington both struggled mightily to get consistency from their goaltenders, while Florida and Winnipeg both got serviceable, yet unspectacular, play in the crease. Ward didn't have his best season either, but he edges the Jets' Ondrej Pavelec for top honors after turning around his season once Kirk Muller replaced Paul Maurice behind the bench. After sub-.900 save percentages in two of the season's first three months, Ward has posted a .931 mark since the calendar flipped to 2012. Four of his five shutouts have also come in that span, even though Brian Boucher's injury forced him to carry the load most of the way. Pavelec finishes a close second, but his numbers dipped down the stretch with the Jets looking to reach the playoffs.
Top Coach: Kevin Dineen, Florida Panthers — In a division populated with neophyte coaches — Tampa Bay's Guy Boucher is the grizzled veteran of the bunch in his second season — Dineen stands out as the top bench boss. GM Dale Tallon deserves a lot of the credit for making several bold moves the past year, including acquiring Campbell, trading away young sniper David Booth, and adding several new faces. But Dineen was able to meld 14 new full-time contributors into a cohesive bunch that seems poised to not only return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000, but also earn its first division title. He's been hard but fair — see his handling of rookie Erik Gudbranson, who has been an occasional scratch this year but has benefited and improved throughout the season — and now just needs to guide his team to one point in the season's final two games to bring the Panthers back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Southeast Division Notes
Carolina Hurricanes – Injured forward Andreas Nodl was supposed to be back in the lineup Thursday against Montreal, but will miss his eighth straight game. Carolina is expected to dress seven defensemen — with Jaroslav Spacek ready to return from injury — instead. … The Hurricanes reassigned forward Drayson Bowman to the Charlotte Checkers Wednesday. Bowman has earned an NHL spot with his play this season, but his reassignment to the AHL will assist the Checkers in their push to the postseason.
Florida Panthers – The much anticipated head-to-head matchup between the Panthers and Capitals is set for Thursday in D.C., and anything other than a Washington regulation win will give Florida both a playoff berth and the division title. Dineen has not yet announced who his starting goalie will be — Jose Theodore is 0-2-4 in his last six but has been the Panthers' No. 1 for most of the season, while Scott Clemmensen is 2-0-1 in three starts since March 20.
Tampa Bay Lightning – The Lightning lost in Montreal Wednesday, 5-2, and Stamkos was held without a goal in his quest to reach 60. Stamkos, who has 58 goals on the season, managed four shots in 23:32 minutes, but failed to get one past Canadiens goaltender Peter Budaj. Stamkos will have two more chances to reach 60: Toronto hosts the Lightning Thursday, then Tampa Bay ends their season Saturday in Winnipeg.
Washington Capitals – The Capitals can keep the pressure on both Florida and Buffalo with a win Thursday at home over the Panthers. Michael Neuvirth will get the call in net for the Capitals. Neuvirth has won two of his last three, but is 0-2 against the Panthers this year, allowing eight goals on 67 shots. Forward Troy Brouwer, who missed practice Wednesday, is expected to play for the Capitals.
Winnipeg Jets – The Jets meet two other non-playoff teams to close out their season, traveling to Long Island for their second-to-last game of the season Thursday against the Islanders, followed by the season finale at home against the Lightning Saturday.
Follow Cory Lavalette on Twitter at twitter.com/corylav