Before the start of the season, bashing the NHL's Southeast Division was the thing to do. It was widely viewed as the weakest division in the league, and one that would become even more watered down with the addition of another expansion team--Atlanta. The Southeast already included two teams that joined the league this decade, Florida and Tampa Bay, and one that has never won more than one playoff round and relocated in 1997: Carolina.

The typical assumption was that only the division winner would make the playoffs. However, as Christmas approaches the Southeast Division has played surprisingly competitive hockey. Three teams have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs. A fourth, Tampa, is making a strong push and showing great signs of improvement in its first season under new ownership, management and coaches.

The Northeast could send four of its five teams--Boston, Ottawa, Toronto and Buffalo--to the postseason. The Atlantic will send at least its two most dominant squads--New Jersey and Philadelphia--but two teams from the Southeast could get in and maybe three.

"I think we have three very competitive teams here right now," said Bryan Murray, Florida's GM. "I haven't seen Tampa lately but they're probably not good enough talent-wise, but they are improving their effort and they're competitive every night. But Washington, Carolina and ourselves, we can play against anybody in the league now and play pretty well."

The Capitals' goal this season is a return to the playoffs. Alhough they may not be able to win the division, they have a good shot to edge teams such as Carolina, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Tampa and the New York Rangers for the final playoff berths.

"Everyone was saying it's the worst division and it's not," Capitals GM George McPhee said. "And that's the beauty of our game: You don't know how things are going to go from one season to the next. You can look at certain teams and say that's going to be a good squad, but you can change your team in a hurry.

"It's not as easy as it was a few years ago to make the playoffs. The hard thing is you're fighting for six spots, in essence because two of the other division champs are in, and that makes the conference so incredibly competitive. We're hopefully one of those other six teams. This division isn't a pushover."

Stellar Kidd Is Hurt

Just when the Panthers were asserting control of the division they suffered an improbable loss. Goalie Trevor Kidd, off to an MVP-type season, was lost for at least two months with a separated shoulder he hurt in a skills competition.

Kidd, often criticized for being unmotivated and moody, was acquired from Carolina in the offseason. He played so well Florida deemed former starter Sean Burke expendable, trading him to Phoenix for journeyman Mikhail Shtalenkov. Now Murray is scrambling to acquire a skilled goalie to hold the team over until Kidd returns. At the time of his injury, Kidd was leading the NHL in save percentage, the best indicator of a goalie's performance, with .930. He was also in the top five in goals-against average and wins, sporting a 13-4-2 record.

Miscellany

Should the financially struggling Ottawa Senators relocate to the United States--Houston, Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas are possibilities--look for Detroit, the only Western Conference team in the Eastern time zone, to head to the Eastern Conference, greatly easing its travel burden. Sources said the Red Wings already have contacted league offices about the move. . . . The Calgary Flames have quietly crawled back into the playoff picture. After winning just one of their first eight games (1-5-2), they are playing strong hockey. Leading the charge is goalie Fred Brathwaite, a journeyman who was hacking around with the Canadian national team before injuries to Calgary's top six goaltenders prompted the Flames to give him a shot last season. They traded for future Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr over the summer, but Brathwaite won his job back. He is 8-7-1 with a sparkling 2.20 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. . . .

It would not shock some friends of Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman if the legend ends up with the underachieving Rangers next season. Bowman is in the last year of his contract with the Red Wings and could surpass Toe Blake's mark for most Stanley Cups by a coach this season. The Rangers could offer him a big salary and a distinct challenge. . . .

The Blues are the NHL's top defensive team, with a 2.10 goals-against average. . . . Thrashers GM Don Waddell has made seven of the last 10 trades in the NHL in an era of little player movement. "I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing," Waddell said of his recent activity. . . . Los Angeles forward Ian Laperriere was the first player to top 100 penalty minutes this season, but he's got nothing on San Jose's Brantt Myhres, who has 89 penalty minutes in just 10 games. . . . Ex-Capital Andrew Brunette (Atlanta) has the NHL's best shooting percentage (13 goals on 39 shots, 33.3 percent). . . . Ottawa is the only team in the league undefeated in its division (5-0-1 against the Northeast).