Friday, January 07, 2011

Top Ten Stories of 2010 -- Number 7: Three-Peat!

In the 1998-1999 season the National Hockey League instituted a six-division, two-conference format. In doing so, the NHL created the Southeast Division, comprised of three sun-belt teams – the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, and Tampa Bay Lightning – and one member of the old “Patrick Division” (which became the “Atlantic Division” in 1993-1994), the Washington Capitals. The Atlanta Thrashers would join the Southeast for the 1999-2000 season.

In the 11 years of Southeast Division play leading up to the 2009-2010 season only two teams had finished a season as a repeat champion, the Capitals doing it twice (1999-2000/2000-2001 and 2007-2008/2008-2009) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (2002-2003 and 2003-2004). In the two seasons preceding the 2009-2010 season the Capitals had become the dominant club in the division, the only team from the division to qualify for the post-season in 2007-2008 and one of only two (Carolina being the other) to qualify in 2008-2009. The Caps won the division by two points in 2007-2008, owing to an 11-1-0 stretch run to finish the season. The Caps won the Southeast by 11 points in 2008-2009, shaking off a slow start with a five-game winning streak in November, then putting distance between themselves and their nearest pursuers with a 14-2-0 run between December 4th and January 6th of that season.

The 2009-2010 season would be different in that not only were the Caps considered still to be the dominant team in a weak Southeast Division, but a bona fide Stanley Cup contender. The Capitals certainly fed that impression with a strong regular season run, but much of that was fed by wins against the comparatively weak sisters of the Southeast. The Caps were 10-2-2 in the 2010 portion of the season against the Southeast on their way to a 19-3-2 record for the season against the other four teams of the division. Only Tampa Bay would win two games against the Caps in regulation time among the rest of the division’s teams.

The result for the Caps was a third consecutive Southeast Division title, outdistancing the Atlanta Thrashers by 38-points. To give one some perspective on the dominance the Caps displayed in winning the division, consider this. The 38-point margin they held over Atlanta was the largest point spread between first and second place in any of the six NHL divisions. Chicago was next with a ten-point lead over the Detroit Red Wings in the Central Division. It was the largest margin of divisional victory since the NHL went to a six-division format, surpassing the 28-point margin by which the Tampa Bay Lightning finished ahead of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2003-2004.

In 2010 the Caps were the first team in the division to achive the “three-peat.” But one had to wonder, too, just how much significance could be attached to it. The Caps were a dominant team in the division – they won six more intradivisional games than the next best club in the Southeast – but no other Southeast Division team finished higher than tenth in the conference. Southeast teams occupied four of the bottom six standings slots in the Eastern Conference at season’s end. As the 2010 calendar year closed, the Southeast Division was a much more competitive division, though. In fact, on December 31st, the Caps were second to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast despite being tied for the third most points in the conference. However, the “three-peat” for the Caps to end the 2009-2010 season was unprecedented in the Southeast Division and thus is one of the top stories of 2010.

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