The Southeast Division…lame, useless, geographically unfit for hockey, uncompetitive, a shame to the NHL. Right?

At least at the end of last season, and every season before that after the lockout, that was the case. The Southeast was always a one-team division. It started with Tampa Bay before the lockout, shifted to Carolina after, and recently, momentum has swung toward the Ovechkin-laden Washington Capitals.

Through all of that, the remaining four teams in the division played like AHL teams and used to be considered automatic wins for opponents. But can we now say that is no longer the case?

The Capitals are not only in second place in the conference because they lead the division, but also because they’re point total is actually in line with the rest of the division. And how many seasons in the past have we seen a Southeast team sitting in third that should’ve fit in seventh or eighth?

You might be thinking, “OK, Wilson, so you’ve just proven they’re still a one-team division.”

Well I say nay.

The Carolina Hurricanes are in eighth place with 51 points and the Florida Panthers are competing for a top-eight spot from their current ninth place with 50 points. There’s something that jumps out at me from that sentence. The Florida Panthers…playoffs…what?

We might expect to see Washington and Carolina competing in the playoffs, considering they’ve been the most reputed teams in the division since the lockout…so no real surprise there. But Florida has managed to do something extraordinary.

This is a team that has consistently finished eleventh or twelfth in the past few years and is yet to make the playoffs in the new NHL. Now while they might not win the division this season, their play at the end of last season led me to think they had a chance. They went on a great winning stretch that boosted their record above .500.

Guys like David Booth, Nathan Horton, Rostislav Olesz, Nick Boynton, and Stephen Weiss suddenly became house-hold names in the NHL world. With leadership coming from Olli Jokinen (now in Phoenix), Richard Zednik, and Jay Bouwmeester, the Panthers started looking like a real team.

The offseason acquisitions of Cory Stillman and Bryan McCabe have done nothing but helped out this cause of winning. The talent isn’t just in the skaters, but also in the goalies.

Tomas Vokoun is nearing the end of his run as a starting goalie, but he has had a great influence on the Panthers’ other goalie, Craig Anderson (9-4-5, .930 save percentage, 2.47 GAA). Not to mention, new head coach Peter DeBoer has helped as well.

So let’s look at what they’ve done to get here.

First and foremost, the Panthers are 8-3-2 in divisional play. And what better way to get ahead of your divisional rivals than by beating them? What’s more impressive is their control of games in which they are either blowing opponents away or are holding a small lead.

Of those eight divisional wins, six of them were decided by only one or two points. On the other hand, Florida has learned how to produce offense as well as hold leads. The Panthers have scored four or more goals in 14 games this season, including seven shut-outs of other teams.

Some resume-boosting wins include a 4-0 shut-out of the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden, a huge 5-3 win over the Capitals in Washington, and a 6-1 rout of the Penguins in Mellon Arena. Notice anything about that? Yep, all on-the-road wins…pretty impressive for a team that can’t even draw a sell-out at home.

Last night, the Panthers took care of the Philadelphia Flyers at home, 3-2. Since Carolina lost to the Rangers, Florida now has possession of eighth place in the conference with 52 points (22-17-8). They welcome Montreal to Sunrise, Fla., Thursday and travel to Long Island Saturday.

So folks, you heard it here: the Florida Panthers and the Southeast Division are now competitive.