The NHL season is a quarter of the way through. The weather is starting to get colder, the holidays are approaching and with that comes the coveted Thanksgiving benchmark. It’s around this time when teams realize their true identity. Can they contend for a championship? Will they be buyers or sellers at the deadline? Is it time to focus on a rebuild?
The NHL Atlantic division has had some surprises this year. Let’s jump in and see who might be playing hockey into the spring.
The NHL Atlantic Division Playoff Outlook
Tampa Bay Lightning: 15-3-2, 32 pts
The Tampa Bay Lightning have sat atop the division for the entire year and are firing on all cylinders. Their 32 points is the best in the league. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have supplied the offensive power and lead the league in points. They have a legitimate shot to become the first pair of teammates since the 2009-10 season to each have over 100 points when Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin last did it. Defensively, led by Victor Hedman and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning have been sound. With the offense and defense clicking the way they have, it comes as no surprise that their goal differential of +28 is the best in the league.
Outlook: I just don’t see this team slowing down. They have yet to suffer back-to-back losses and have taken care of business on the road. They lead the league in goals for, scoring 4.00/game. I believe Tampa Bay will win the division and at the very least, play in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Toronto Maple Leafs: 14-7-0, 28 pts
Things were looking bleak for the Maple Leafs just a few weeks ago. They had lost five of six and were allowing far too many goals during that stretch. Then, Auston Matthews was sidelined with an injury and the season looked like it was going to spiral out of control. However, the Maple Leafs have now won six in a row and Matthews is back in the lineup. In that six-game stretch, Toronto has only given up eight goals. Frederick Andersen has now got his goals against average below 2.90 and recorded back-to-back shutouts in their last two games.
Outlook: The Maple Leafs are trending in the right direction. In the past two weeks, they have done a complete 180. With the young talent that they have, it’s clear they’re on the cusp of something special. Now that their goaltending situation has worked itself out, I think they are one of the teams that can go head-to-head with anybody. If they continue to play the way they have, they will not need to worry about a wildcard spot for the playoffs. I can even see them winning a round or two.
Ottawa Senators: 8-4-6, 22 pts
There are a few teams in the league that seem to just hang around. I feel as if the Senators are one of those teams. Besides the Matt Duchene trade, not much has been made about the team. Erik Karlsson missed the first five games of the season but has been a presence since his return, racking up 17 points in 13 games.
Outlook: I think the Senators are in a good spot. They are currently in the third playoff spot and they have games in hand on everybody in the division. They have also been doing this while not getting the most out of their stars. Duchene, since his acquisition, has not found the score sheet. Bobby Ryan has only appeared in 10 games due to injury and only has six points. If these two can break out of their funk, they, along with Karlsson and Mark Stone, could spearhead an offensive threat.
Detroit Red Wings: 10-8-2, 22 pts
Like the Toronto Maple Leafs, things were not looking good for the Red Wings just a few weeks ago. They went through a six-game skid going 0-5-1. Since then, Jimmy Howard has gotten comfortable in his starting role and is boasting a 2.23 GAA. They are 6-2-1 in their last eight games. They are integrating youth into their lineup to offset their veteran presence and it’s paying off. Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha lead the team in points with 19 a piece.
Outlook: I feel as if the Red Wings are still a year or two out from making a return to the playoffs. I just have a feeling that this is going to be a .500 year. They are about to enter what could be their toughest part of the schedule. 10 of the next 11 are on the road.
Boston Bruins: 8-7-4, 20 pts
It has been a strange start to the season for the Boston Bruins. Injuries have absolutely crippled them, forcing the team to play young players who might not be NHL ready. Brad Marchand, Tori Krug, and Anders Bjork have been the recent names who have missed time. Add in the likes of David Backes and Adam McQuaid, you are forced to throw out a predominantly AHL roster. These guys have shined in some games and have struggled in others. Tuukka Rask has been off this year leading to Anton Khudobin getting more time in net. He is 5-0-2 with a 2.17 GAA. I think it’s time to ride the hot goaltender. Give Rask the time off he needs.
Outlook: I think the goal for the Boston Bruins is to try and stay within striking distance of those wildcard spots. With the way the season has gone, I don’t think you can just become sellers and risk setting the team back more years. It would be completely different if the team was performing poorly with everyone in the lineup. Now, it’s all about avoiding falling too far behind as players start to come back.
Montréal Canadiens: 8-11-2, 18 pts
The Canadians have had a poor start to the season. Offensively, the team ranks 26th. Brendan Gallagher leads the team with only 13 points. Defensively, the team ranks 29th. Carey Price has looked nothing like the Vezina winner we have seen in years past. Their backup, Al Montoya has provided no relief when he gets the nod. Now, both goaltenders have wound up on the IR with no timetable set for the recovery, forcing the team to rely on a third string goaltender.
Outlook: There isn’t going to be any playoff hockey in Montréal this year. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not the organization blows everything up and becomes sellers at the deadline.
Florida Panthers: 7-10-2, 16 pts
The Florida Panthers came out of the gate slow to start the season and just haven’t been able to overcome it. Goaltending has been the area of most concern for the team, where they rank 27th goes against. Roberto Luongo and James Reimer have split time throughout the season and neither have stepped up to claim that starting role. Since returning from injury, Luongo has looked better but they may be too far behind.
Outlook: While there won’t be any playoff hockey in Sunrise this year, there could be some right around the corner. Offensively and defensively, the team is led by a young group of players. Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Aleksander Barkov lead the team with 21 points a piece and are all under the age of 24. With a young superstar in Aaron Ekablad manning the blue line, and add in veteran Keith Yandle, the future looks optimistic. If the team can find a true number one goaltender, other teams will start to take notice.
Buffalo Sabres: 5-11-4, 14 pts
Things have looked downright dreary in Buffalo this season. The offense ranks 30th in the league. Jack Eichel has only five goals on the season. Not one player has a positive plus/minus and the team is 2-6-2 in their last 10.
Outlook: The Buffalo Sabres are in the same boat as the Florida Panthers. They are a young team with a lot of raw talent and the future looks bright. The team just needs to grow and stay healthy. The team is just a few pieces away from making it’s a long awaited return to the playoffs.
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