Thrashers should be next star of Southeast

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:28 AM ET

Since the NHL expanded beyond the Mason Dixon Line in the 1990s, the Maple Leafs have been among the biggest benefactors.

Their combined record against this week's lineup -- the Atlanta Thrashers, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning -- is 66-25-10-2, including 33-13-4-1 at home.

But players such as former Carolina Hurricane Jeff O'Neill know the south, specifically the Southeast Division, is rising in rebellion.

"There was a time when you went through there and it just wasn't much of a fight," O'Neill said yesterday as the Leafs prepared to play host to the Thrashers tonight. "Not anymore. Those teams have used their low positions to draft well and now they each have a strong identity."

O'Neill, who had a hat trick against Atlanta last year before that team found its legs, didn't dispute the theory the Thrashers will be the next team to make a move in the Southeast.

Atlanta had 90 points last year and like the Leafs, ended up trailing the Lightning by two for the Eastern Conference's last playoff spot.

"Something unusual was always happening with their goaltending, mostly injuries," O'Neill said. "Now they have (Kari) Lehtonen doing well."

Lehtonen won a shootout over Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night, stopping the Sabres from passing Toronto for the NHL record of 10 wins to open a season.

Former Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice has been advancing the Southeast's cause for years.

"They have two Stanley Cups (Tampa and Carolina) and two finalists (Florida and the Washington Capitals) the past 10 years ," Maurice said. "In the old (NHL) system, it took awhile to get those teams on the right track. But what they did do was establish a work ethic and now they have the talent to go with it."


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