Joe Marraccino The Hockey Writers
4 Things We Know About The NHL’s Atlantic Division
The Atlantic Division has seen its fair share of storylines early on this season.
The Boston Bruins are a statistical anomaly compared to years past. The Tampa Bay Lightning are struggling to execute on the things that made them Eastern Conference champions last year. Ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr is carrying the Florida Panthers offense on his back.
These are just some of the early trends that have developed in the first month-plus of the 2015-16 campaign. So what else do we (think) we know about the Atlantic so far?
Buffalo’s Ahead of Schedule
Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres were expected to finish near the bottom of the League this season. However, they are right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Through 17 games, Buffalo is a respectable 8-8-1 thanks to a 4-1-1 record so far in the month of November. Eichel has done his part with a team-high six goals and is starting to acquaint himself to life in the NHL. Head coach Dan Bylsma is making his mark on a franchise that finished dead last a season ago.
One of the most noticeable differences has been on the power play. The League’s worst power play last season is currently ranked fourth, operating at a 23.6-percent success rate. Draft day acquisition Ryan O’Reilly has been a major player on the man advantage with a team-high seven power play points.
Whether they can maintain their playoff push remains to be seen but Bylsma has done well with what he has been given by general manager Tim Murray. The Sabres are not the same team from a year ago, which is welcome news for the hockey-crazed fans in Buffalo.
The Babcock Effect
Mike Babcock’s presence in Toronto is starting to slowly seep in.
The longtime Detroit Red Wings coach signed a massive seven-year, $50 million to head north of the border over the summer. It took some time for the Maple Leafs to adapt to a new system as they won just once in 10 October contests (1-7-2). However, they have responded well by going 4-1-2 in their seven games so far in November, notching impressive victories against Vancouver, Nashville and twice against the Western Conference leading Dallas Stars.
Leafs win three in a row for the first time this season. Now 4-1-2 in past seven games – all James Reimer starts.
— Jonas Siegel (@jonasTSN1050) November 15, 2015
A massive part of their resurgence is thanks to the recent play of goaltender James Reimer. The 27-year-old shot stopper has not allowed more than two goals in his last five starts (3-0-2), posting a .944 save percentage in that span. Defenseman Morgan Reilly has also stepped up his game, leading the Leafs with 11 points while Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk are tied with a team-high six goals each.
Toronto might be 5-8-4 and second-bottom in the conference yet sit just five points from a playoff spot. Babcock’s presence have made the Leafs much tougher to play against this year and will not be an easy game for any opponent.
Montreal Is Head Of The Class
The Montreal Canadiens are head and shoulders above the rest of the Atlantic, even without reigning Hart and Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price.
The Habs have been without their world-class goaltender for two weeks due to a lower-body injury yet have not missed a beat. Backup goaltender Mike Condon has been phenomenal with a 6-1-2 record, 2.06 goals-against and .921 save percentage. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the League’s third-best defense in front of you, allowing just 2.11 goals/game so far this season.
The second-best offensive attack in the NHL (3.5 goals/game) is proving to be much more than captain Max Pacioretty. Ten players have recorded at least 10 points while there is a three-way tie for the team lead in goals. Pacioretty is joined by Brendan Gallagher and Dale Wiese with eight goals a piece.
It’s scary to think even without Price, the Canadiens are still motoring along atop the Eastern Conference. Head Coach Michel Therien has his troops focused on getting them over the hump to their first Stanley Cup since 1993.
As of Sunday night, the gap between the first-place Canadiens and second-place Ottawa Senators sits at eight points.
The gap between second and eighth? Six.
This is the parity that reigns within the Atlantic. Four teams are tied with 17 points including Boston, Detroit, Buffalo, and Florida. It’s exciting yet terrifying for the fan bases of these clubs to think that every single game in the regular season from here on out will carry significant meaning in the standings. The classic “four-point” swings will be frequent between division rivals this year, setting the stage for some edge-of-your-seat matchups and growing rivalries.
If the season ended today, only Montreal, Ottawa and Tampa Bay would make the playoffs from the Atlantic. Given the strength of the Metropolitan clubs this season, it could stay that way come April. Nevertheless, the early trend is that it’s Montreal and then everyone else.
It’ll be a season-long battle royale to figure out who punches their ticket to the postseason.
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