The South Has Risen
Home of the last two Stanley Cup champions, most of the NHL's leading scorers and a fan-friendly, up-tempo style, the once lowly Southeast is hockey's best, most raucous division
Posted: Tuesday January 30, 2007 8:49AM; Updated: Tuesday January 30, 2007 8:49AM
At the start of last season the Tampa Bay Lightning's arena finally got wired to receive Canadian sports networks TSN and Sportsnet, throwing the organization a technological lifeline that was as significant, in its way, as the bullet trains linking Paris with France's provincial capitals or the World Wide Web connecting China to the West. Even after winning the Stanley Cup in 2004, Lightning players still sensed they were working in a far-flung hockey redoubt, away from the sport's hot stove, and that by hooking up with Canada they were finally coming out of the cold or, more precisely, into it. "So at last we get TSN and we're all pumped,"
Lightning defenseman Cory Sarich says. "Then we're listening to all the hockey commentary from there, and it's like they hardly believe we have teams down here in the Southeast Division."
The NHL's red-haired stepchild, a division that Carolina Hurricanes center Kevyn Adams says is "still the best-kept secret in hockey," can be neglected at your peril. Having metamorphosed from an all-inclusive winter vacation destination -- complimentary breakfast buffets and two free points in the standings! -- to a tough place to win, the home of the last two Cup winners (and the only division with four teams that have reached the finals in the past 10 seasons) has it all: six of the NHL's top eight goal-scorers through Sunday; a sexy young superstar in the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin; a dangerous shooter in the Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk; a nonpareil leader in Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour; one of the NHL's most complete forwards in Atlanta's Marian Hossa; a 22-year-old franchise center in the Hurricanes' Eric Staal; and the fabulous Tampa Bay trio of superb center Vincent Lecavalier, 2004 NHL MVP Martin St. Louis and former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards.
"That's a pretty good Murderers' Row of offensive talent in that division," says former Capitals defenseman Ken Klee, now in Colorado. "Personally I'm glad I face them a lot less now."
From top (the Thrashers, one of the league's blossoming powers) to bottom (the Florida Panthers, an Augean stable that coach-general manager Jacques Martin is shoveling out this very minute) the five-team division is a whirligig of action -- a style dubbed "redneck hockey" by the Hurricanes' marketing department. Spurred by coaches like Carolina's Peter Laviolette and Tampa Bay's John Tortorella, who insist on relentless forechecking and up-tempo play, and aided by leaky defenses and often ordinary goaltending, Southeast games are, Thrashers coach Bob Hartley says, "like watching the saloon doors flapping" in a cowboy movie. At week's end the Southeast was the only division in which each team had surrendered at least 150 goals and also the only one in which each team had scored at least 145. Says Tortorella, "In this division all the teams are chasing [the puck], sending the [defensemen], taking a chance. Teams are going for it."
If they don't, well, fans tend to notice. When the Lightning, apparently suffering a Stanley Cup hangover, temporarily misplaced its brio last season, its sudden tentativeness disappointed the market almost as much as a first-round playoff defeat to Ottawa did. There is a different ethos in the nontraditional hockey markets of the Southeast, where a regular-season game is a diversion, not a civic event. Not that the citizenry is indifferent; Tampa Bay had a streak of 64 announced sellouts that ran until Nov. 28, and Atlanta has had its best attendance numbers since its expansion season of 1999-2000, averaging nearly 300 more tickets per game than last season. Even if congressional hearings about ethanol on C-Span seem to get better ratings than the Capitals, Washington's flagging attendance is no more embarrassing than the underfilled arenas in St. Louis, Boston and Long Island. Still, hockey feels grafted to the Southeast cities. A game in Florida is like a passing summer squall: Ten minutes after it's over, you'd never know it happened. Fans of Southeast teams are a subset in their towns. They might as well be 15,000 chess aficionados or members of a book club who convene to discuss Jonathan Franzen's latest novel once or twice a week.
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