In the first year of the NHL's current division alignment, Carolina won the lowly Southeast Division with a whopping 86 points. Despite having the fewest points of any playoff team, the Hurricanes "earned" the third seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs, where they were promptly ousted in six games by Boston during the first round.
The rules say the division champion must be one of the top three seeds for the conference playoffs, and it doesn't matter if that team has fewer points than teams in other divisions. While the Southeast has provided some strong teams for the playoffs in the years since that Carolina champion, such as the potent Capitals and last year's Tampa Bay Lightning, there is a chance we could see history repeat itself in the spring of 2012.
As we prepare for the stretch run of the NHL regular season, it appears no one is terribly interested in winning the NHL's worst division.
(Insert comments from fans of Southeast teams about how "ultra-competitive" this division race is, and how it will go down to the wire. And about how you just want to get in the tournament, no matter how you end up backing into said tournament. Just ask the New York Giants.)
Tuesday night, first-place Florida became second-place Florida, shut out 4-0 by second-place Washington, which became first-place Washington. The Capitals moved from ninth in the East to third with the win, leapfrogging five teams that have more points than their 60. The Panthers dropped into ninth, three points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets.
(In defense of Florida a bit, the Panthers have three games in hand on Winnipeg, and they have at least one game in hand on every team from third to eighth place in the East. The Panthers have four games in hand on eighth-place Ottawa, which is two points clear of Florida.)
Washington could be a really interesting team come playoff time, if the Capitals are able to make it. Coasting through the regular season with over 100 points and a No. 1 seed might not have worked very well for them in the past, but perhaps a dog-fight for the division title and a playoff spot could be beneficial in the end. Washington is playing better under Dale Hunter, and if they will end up going as captain Alex Ovechkin goes, things are looking up. Ovechkin has turned his game up a notch lately.
The Southeast could conceivably get two teams in the playoffs, because it's not like anyone else outside the top eight is making a case for a late-season push. The Islanders are the top non-Southeast team in the bottom seven of the conference, sitting at 52 points. The odds of the Islanders going on a run aren't that great, though they're clearly better than in previous seasons.
But for now, it doesn't look like anyone really wants to win the division. Florida has missed a chance to gain control of the race by losing 11 games after regulation, including a 3-6 record in shootouts. A minus-18 goal differential for the season might be more telling than the team's place in the standings. Washington has six more regulation wins than Florida, something that could come in quite handy when the season ends. But the Capitals, not long ago known for their offensive punch, have just 149 goals, fewer than every other team in the top eight outside of the stingy Rangers.
I'm not here to make light of the NHL's division format. It's hardly perfect, but it's no worse than other pro leagues.
I also am not here to make a case for the league to go with a straight one through eight ranking of conference teams, regardless of divisions. Never been a fan of that idea, especially given how unbalanced the schedules are. If the league is going to make schedules as division-heavy as they are in the NHL, then winning the division should ultimately mean something.
But it would be nice if either Florida or Washington were to step up and claim control of the Southeast. The third seed in the NHL playoffs is there for the taking, if anyone's interested.