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Posted: Monday September 28, 2009 5:53PM; Updated: Wednesday October 7, 2009 3:52PM
Allan Muir Allan Muir >
INSIDE THE NHL

2009-10 Southeast Div. preview

Story Highlights

To contend for the Cup, the Capitals must commit to team defense

The Lightning are much improved after a tumultuous 2008-09 season

Carolina and Florida are unpredictable; Atlanta risks losing Ilya Kovalchuk

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The specatacular Alex Ovechkin soars about his peers in all-around talent.
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MORE PREVIEWS

Atlantic | Northeast | Central | Pacific | Northwest

Here's how I see them shaking out, in predicted order of finish:

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

2008-09 RECORD: 50-24-8, 108 points, first in Southeast

FRESH FACES: Mike Knuble (Philadelphia), Brendan Morrison (Dallas)

OTHER PLACES: Sergei Fedorov (Russia), Viktor Kozlov (Russia), Donald Brashear (NY Rangers), Brent Johnson (Pittsburgh), Sami Lepisto (Phoenix)

STORYLINE: The 2-0 series lead they held over the Penguins in their second-round series shows how close they were to achieving something truly special last season. Yet, despite the unbridled optimism of their fans, the way they lost shows just how far they remain from achieving that Stanley Cup dream. No doubt, the Caps boast an enviable array of talent up front that offers flash (Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom) and gritty determination (Brooks Laich, Dave Steckel, Ovechkin). The improving blueline is led by Norris candidate Mike Green. It's a team strong enough to tear through another regular season with ease. But the fatal flaw last spring was their forwards' inability to commit to team defense, a skill that, for some, is far harder to master than roofing a puck that was found loose in the crease. Until they embrace defense fully, the Caps will be vulnerable to more disciplined, if less exciting, playoff opponents.

MVP: Alex Ovechkin. No disrespect to the rest of the NHL, but it'll take a lengthy stint on the IR to block Ovechkin's path to consecutive Hart Trophies. Nobody does more, better. He hits like a freight train, he battles every shift, and he's the heart and soul of the team. And he scores...brother, does he score. At least 50 goals and 100 points in three of his four seasons and that, according to his coach, isn't close to his ceiling. "He's got a lot of room to grow," says Bruce Boudreau.

KID TO WATCH: Semyon Varlamov. After bursting onto the scene spectacularly during the playoffs, the young Russian became the team's fourth starting goalie in the last three years, a stat that highlights the instability at the position. The questions now: can he hold onto the job and is he ready to handle the outrageously high expectations for this team? No denying at this point that Varlamov has the talent to be a special stopper in this league, but his meltdown against the Pens underscored a young player just starting out on his journey.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Mike Knuble. Signing the veteran winger should prove to be one of the best moves made during the summer. Even at 37, Knuble can be counted on to crash the net and cash in on the chances generated by more highly skilled linemates, an element the Caps sorely lacked last season. A beast on the power play and a respected voice in the room, Knuble provides one of the final pieces of the roster puzzle for a team hoping to take the next step.

BOTTOM LINE: Their go-go brand of hockey made the Caps the most exciting team in the NHL last season, but it also contributed directly to their demise. If they find a way to batten down the hatches without sacrificing too much offense, the Caps are legitimate Cup contenders.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

2008-09 RECORD: 45-30-7, 97 points, second in Southeast

FRESH FACES: Aaron Ward (Boston), Stephane Yelle (Boston), Andrew Alberts (Philadelphia), To

m Kostopoulos (Montreal)

OTHER PLACES: Anton Babchuk (Russia), Dennis Seidenberg (Florida), Patrick Eaves (Detroit), Frantisek Kaberle (free agent)

STORYLINE: Were they as good as their Eastern Conference Final appearance suggested or were they just one of those fair-to-spare teams that happened to catch fire at the right time? It's clear that GM Jim Rutherford is booking on the former, since the Canes enter this season with essentially the same squad that was wiped out by the Pens in four games. The gamble has merit since Carolina enjoyed considerably more success in the second half after coach Peter Laviolette was replaced by Paul Maurice. As a group, they responded to his demands for discipline and hard work, rediscovering the formula that earned them the Cup in 2006. But there have to be concerns about diminishing returns. Captain Rod Brind'Amour looked like he was on his last legs for much of the season before a strong finishing kick afforded him a veneer of respectability. Erik Cole's touch is fading and Joni Pitkanen must rebound from knee surgery. A traditionally slow-starting team, the Canes may lie in the weeds for a few months before surging to secure a spot in the postseason.

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Eric Staal
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MVP: Eric Staal. Brind'Amour may wear the C, but the Canes will only go as far as their true leader carries them. They were 30-10-3 when Staal scored last season, including 7-1 in the playoffs. For this team to have any real success, they'll need another 40-goal campaign from him.

KID TO WATCH: Zach Boychuk. Tells you all you need to know about the veteran-laden Canes that Staal is the team's freshest-faced player at 24. Boychuk came close to taking that honor before he was among the final cuts, but the former first-rounder will likely be the first call-up in case of injury to a top-six forward. He already has the hands -- all he needs now is some seasoning.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Cam Ward. He struggled for two years trying to recapture the magic that earned him the Conn Smythe back in 2006, but Ward rarely looked comfortable in the seasons following that Cup run until Maurice returned. From that point on, Ward had that old aura of impenetrability, winning 39 games and outdueling both Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas in the playoffs. His ability to maintain that level of play is key to Carolina's chances.

BOTTOM LINE: The Canes are an unpredictable bunch, equally capable of missing the playoffs entirely as they are returning to the conference final. Their offseason acquisitions spoke directly to the need to become a harder team to play against. That element should spark a return to the postseason.

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