Top Southeast teams struggling at finish line

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 6:46 AM ET

ATLANTA -- Nothing would please the Maple Leafs more than an April train wreck in the Southeast Division.

The Carolina Hurricanes already show signs of jumping the rails, the Atlanta Thrashers had lost twice to the late-blooming Florida Panthers before an overtime win against the Leafs last night and the Tampa Bay Lightning had dropped two before their game in Raleigh tonight.

Most pre-season pundits had the Southeast as being the toughest division in the East, if not all of the NHL, with the depending champion Hurricanes, the 2004 champions from Tampa, the Thrashers a virtual guarantee to make the playoffs for the first time and improvement from Florida and Washington.

"We thought Carolina would be sitting on top," Leafs and former Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "But if you had gone into the season and said the two guys in Tampa (top-five NHL scorers Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis) will have the year they've had and Atlanta will add Keith Tkachuk, I think you'd say it would be those teams at 1-2-3, you just didn't know the order.

LITTLE RESPECT

"I know from experience that this division doesn't get a whole lot of respect (despite producing two Stanley Cup winners and two Cup finalists since 1996). But you still find some of the best players in the world here, even Washington with (Alexander) Ovechkin and (Alexander) Semin. There's fantastic talent here; it's just not on TV enough."

Last night's meeting with the Thrashers was the first for the Leafs since December.

"They've filled in their holes, added speed on the back end, which gives them a different look," Maurice said. "I've always found them to be physical up front and Tkachuk gives them plenty of that.

"The difference for our club is going from playing two teams that have a group-speed offensive mindset (Carolina and Buffalo) to one that has fantastic individual skill. You can be in the right spot, but if either one (Ilya Kovalchuk or Tkachuk) gets that shot off, they'll be tough to stop."


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