Southeast: Team leaders rising to the occasion down the stretch

By Cory Lavalette

Photo: Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal celebrates a goal with his teammates in Wednesday’s 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers (courtesy of

Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI)

More so than in any division in the NHL, the teams of the Southeast all still believe the postseason could be in their immediate future. Of the five, two currently hold playoff spots — the division-leading Florida Panthers and eighth place Washington Capitals — and the other three are within shouting distance of the Capitals for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.

Whether or not those beliefs — specifically in Tampa Bay and Carolina – are realistic is another story, but there’s no denying that players are upping their game in a last gasp to extend their seasons. And you need to look no further than the Southeast’s group of leaders to see who is rising to the occasion. Three players who wear letters for their team are the Southeast’s Stars of the Week for March 16-22.

First star: Eric Staal, C, Carolina Hurricanes The Hurricanes are on a season-high four-game winning streak, with the team’s captain leading the way. Staal had four goals and two assists in three Carolina wins this week, including back-to-back multiple-goal games for the first time since he scored twice against the Lightning on April 6, 2010, and followed that up with a hat trick against Montreal in that season’s penultimate game. After a terrible start, Staal is now on pace for a 72-point season, and more importantly, the Hurricanes have clawed their way back to the fringe of the postseason conversation. Following the Capitals’ shootout loss Thursday, Carolina trails Washington by six points with two more teams to climb over, but the Hurricanes are running out of time with just eight games remaining.

Second Star: Alexander Ovechkin, RW, Washington Capitals
For the second straight week, Ovechkin is the bridesmaid for top honors. Ovechkin had four goals in four games, doing his part as the Capitals went 1-2-1 this week. Ovechkin’s two first-period goals carried Washington to a win in Detroit. He also scored just 26 seconds into the Capitals’ 2-1 shootout loss Thursday, the lone goal for Washington on the night. The Capitals captain now has seven goals in his last eight games, and Washington has a one-point lead over Buffalo for the East’s final playoff spot. Florida holds a four-point margin on Washington for the division lead and has a game in hand on the Capitals.

Third Star: Stephen Weiss, C, Florida Panthers —
The Panthers had difficulty generating shots this week, but Weiss was able to build a four-game scoring streak with points in each of his three games. Weiss is arguably the biggest name in franchise history — former captain Olli Jokinen holds some of the scoring records, but he’s not as ingrained in Panthers lore as Weiss — and wears one of four “A’s” on the team. Florida seems to be a lock for the postseason, which would mark Weiss’ first time in the NHL playoffs. The fact that the Panthers built a five-game winning streak before Wednesday’s loss to the Hurricanes is a testament to both Weiss’ performance and the team’s collective leadership.

Southeast Division Notes

Tampa Bay Lightning Goalie Dwayne Roloson had arguably his best game in months Thursday, stopping 34 shots in leading the Lightning past Edmonton in a shootout, 3-2. Steven Stamkos, however, hit four games without a point — twice as long as any other drought this season — and now has points in just one of his last six. That comes after a run in which he had 20 points in 11 games.

Winnipeg Jets
Both Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom have been limited in practice of late, but the Jets’ top two defenseman should be in the lineup for Friday’s must-win in Washington. It will be the final meeting between the two teams, who are battling for the conference’s last postseason slot.