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Last season the Atlantic division sent four teams to the playoffs. It did not go well, the division winning Montreal Canadiens were beaten soundly by wild card and Metropolitan division middleweight Rangers. The Ottawa Senators downed the Boston Bruins and were the only division team to advance to the second round. The Toronto Maple Leafs crossed over to battle the Washington Capitals and fell to a team that’s not ever shown itself in the best light in the playoffs.

What’s happening with the Atlantic Division this year?

The Buffalo Sabres have gotten a full season from All American stud Jack Eichel, and his linemate Evander Kane. Together the pair rank among the top duos in the league, particularly at even strength where most game minutes are played. This year they’ve brought in under rated veteran defenseman Marco Scandella to strengthen a blueline that was misused and under performing last season. Behind the bench they have rookie head coach Phil Housely who is the architect that made the Nashville Predator’s defense so effective. In net they add Chad Johnson to one of the best goalies in the NHL.

The Florida Panthers regressed notably last season. They had one decent stretch of wins but were just three points better than the Sabres, and still 14 points short of the playoffs with a losing record. Like the Sabres they added a first time NHL head coach in Bob Boughner, who will have Jack Capuano and Rob Tallas helping him steer the club. Aside from naming Chris Pronger an Shawn Thornton VP’s, and signing a couple of draft picks (Owen Tippett, Sebastian Repo) to entry level deals, not much else has gone on.

The Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs by just one point thanks to catastrophic injuries up and down their lineup. Towards the end of the year they traded Ben Bishop who had been their number one net minder.  Incoming are Dan Girardi formerly of the New York Rangers, and Chris Kunitz late of the Pittsburgh Penguins. While I suspect a large part of why the two older players were brought in is leadership, no leader can prevent injuries. A return to good health is likely the best off season transaction they could make.

The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs and are currently embroiled in a contract dispute with a one of their better young forwards. The two biggest changes for the Wings in the last twelve months were both off ice. ‘The Joe’ is gone, bringing about an era in a building that isn’t an embarrassment to professional sports. And Mike Ilitch, owner, and driving force behind much of the hockey growth in the Midwest and beyond has passed away. Not enough has changed at ice level for the team to do much worse or much better.

Montreal Canadians, in the last twelve months no Atlantic Division team has changed more. New coach, an almost entirely new blueline including Joe Morrow and Karl Alzner. Up front the Radulov experiment came to an end. Last year’s 103 points are going to be hard to duplicate, but Julien has showed he can drag worse teams than this one to the playoffs, and squeeze 100 or more points out of nearly any roster as long as they show up.

The Boston Bruins had a topsy-turvy season that saw their two best forwards start the year slow. They fired their Stanley Cup winning coach, reshaped their roster, and lucked into a playoff spot. This year Brandon Carlo has a full season under his belt, Charlie McAvoy may well steal the show, and David Pastrnak is still unsigned. It remains to be seen if head coach Bruce Cassidy can recapture the magic that buoyed the team into a playoff spot last spring. The roster will need a lot of young players to step up and not just claim ice time, but own roster spots.

Last years Toronto Maple Leafs were the sensation of last season. They had dazzling rookies, stellar goaltending, and a coach with an aura of greatness. They ran hard towards the playoffs and never anything slow them down. They also had extraordinary good luck in health. Their top 11 scorers missed a total of 10 games. They put on a strong showing in the playoffs, and growth seems likely. The addition of Patrick Marleau for three seasons and more than six million has to be considered at least a little curious given the raises that will be needed for last years rookies next summer and the summer after. The 37 year old spent his entire career to date with the Sharks and has been a very up and down playoff performer.

The post season banner bearers for Atlantic Division were the Ottawa Senators. Despite their inability to fill the stadium, they were perhaps the most consistent team in the division and very quietly finished second. Erik Karlsson will be healthier, Craig Anderson will lack the distractions of last year, and remains a very solid goaltender. They added Nate Thompson and Ben Sexton for depth, but perhaps the most important thing that’s happened to the team was the late year and playoff emergence of the very good Bobby Ryan. He moved crisply, shot precisely, and finished the second round healthy.

Predictions:

Biggest points riser: Buffalo Sabres, I’ll be shocked if they improve less than twelve points.

Most impactful standings rise: Tampa Bay Lightning, Victor Hedman very nearly lifted this team into the playoffs himself last year. There were other contributors, but not enough. Expect them to move up higher than the wild card slot.

Biggest wild card: Toronto Maple Leafs. As I mentioned above, this team was extraordinarily lucky in the way of health. With more than half a dozen rookies breaking out, and making the playoffs the video sessions for the Leafs are going to be much more intense this season. They have about an equal chance of winning the division as they do sliding two or three spots down the standings.

I’ll be the first to say I was surprised to see him make the opening night lineup. I’m even more surprised he’s still getting top pairing ice time. With all the young defensemen who were theoretically available earlier in the year; Trouba heading the list, one has to wonder if the original plan wasn’t to groom him, fluff his numbers and get him gone for a true heir to Zdeno Chara. If that is the plan, it has to be working pretty well. He’s not putting up gaudy numbers, except in ice time and goal differential.

It doesn’t matter if you think no one ever had a thought of moving Brandon Carlo or not. It doesn’t even matter if that is still the plan. There are two enormous reasons to ask the question. The first is Dougie Hamilton. He went from playing a lot of time with Zdeno Chara, to playing third pairing time for the Calgary Flames. That’s a huge swing, and you can’t ignore what that says.

The other half of this inquiry is the Boston Bruins captain himself. The big guy has had a notable resurgence. It isn’t just that he’s skating better than he has in two seasons. He’s clearly handling the puck better. When you look at him, he looks healthier. At a guess, he spent a good deal of last season in pain, and he looks to have eased or compensated for whatever caused that.

If Brandon Carlo is legitimately a top paring defenseman, you have to ask a couple important questions:

  • Do we have a compatible partner somewhere in the lineup if Chara moves on or retires after this contract?
  • Can he play about this well with a lesser partner?
  • Would the team be better with a more offensive player in his ice time?

The first one is probably unanswerable without experimentation, maybe Grzelcyk playing as either his partner or in his place provides more offense, and likely more speed. Grzelcyk is having a nice rookie professional season thus far in Providence. A bit further back in the pipleline are Jeremy Lauzon and  Jakub Zboril who are both enjoying solid seasons in the Q this year. Closer to home are Torey Krug who plays a good number of minutes and would bring more playmaking ability than many. Joe Morrow who entered the NHL as a very well regarded well rounded defenseman. He might just be a good long term match for Carlo, if he develop some consistency. Having the two of them as a pairing for the next decade the way the Blackhawks have had Seabrook and Keith would be a boon to the franchise. Colin Miller

If you don’t think he’s legitimately a top pairing defenseman, you have to get rid of him quickly and for as much as possible. If someone is willing to take him and Spooner for a Trouba or Vlasic, I think you take it. If a Pietrangelo or Hedman is available, there isn’t much short of Bergeron and Marchand that I wouldn’t add to the package.

I don’t think we yet know if he is a legitimate top pairing defenseman or ever will be.

Each year we as 30 teams go careening through the grueling season hell bent on playing at least sixteen more when it is over, we have the chance to see the most difficult and most subtle position played by the good, the bad, the forgettable and the elite. Getting the Norris trophy (normally) means you are an elite defenseman. Here’s the guys to watch this year.

  • Shea Weber, he’s long overdue, his team has a shot at the playoffs with the improvements up front, and the return to health of Pekka Rinne.
  • Ryan McDonagh, a new name to watch, he’s got two solid tenders to play in front of, a decent squad even without Stepan or a few weeks, and his team is fresh off a deep playoff run.
  • Drew Doughty, I’d have been much happier to see him win last year than the guy who did, and I don’t expect his performance to dip this season, top level defenseman with the most Ray Bourque like mix of skill and skating of any player in the NHL.
  • Zdeno Chara, the elder statesmen of the top end defensemen in the NHL, he’s go one Norris, and the defense crew he plays with now just got younger and less experienced.
  • Alex Pietrangelo, this is one of the players who doesn’t get recognized because he doesn’t have one outstanding area of strength that’s easy to pin down, however he also doesn’t have any areas where he’s average or below average.
  • Ryan Suter, top shelf defenseman who was suffered mutual penalization with Shea Weber for playing together, now playing with a rather young mostly nameless defense.
  • Victor Hedman, consistent producer of points, while his actually defensive numbers don’t fall into the same league as the rest of he watchlist, he’s still more worthy than certain recent winners.

It is a truism in sports; football, and hockey most of all that defense wins championships. We’ve seen it year after year. This year it seems to be adding a wrinkle to itself. Powerplays are costing teams games. Not by failing to produce, but by favoring offense so heavily, they aren’t prepared to play responsibly.

The Dallas Stars in game two of their series with the Anaheim Ducks were down two to one in the third. They were on the powerplay. On the ice are Valeri Nichushkin, Sergei Gonchar, Colton Scevoir, Cody Eakin, and Trevor Daley. Gonchar at age 40 is not in any way the skater he was ten or fifteen years ago. Nichushkin is rookie who is not only in his first NHL season, but his first season playing hockey in North America. Facing them were Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, and Ben Lovejoy. Either Getzlaf or Fowler deserve watching, and if you fall asleep at the switch with both of them on the ice, you deserve what happens next. The Stars did.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a lead last night, they went on a powerplay, and lost it. All the momentum they had, and it was notable, the disorder of the Blue Jackets was equally notable. But the Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, the same man who was in charge of a very mushy team USA roster not long ago, puts out a PP of Malkin, Crosby, Niskanen, Kunitz an Neal against a team that had nine short handed goals in the regular season. The most defensively capable of that group is probably the 34 year old Chris Kunitz. As you know, the BlueJackets scored, the Penguins did not and the scramble began. Momentum was reversed, an the game ended ugly for Penguins fans.

In the first game of their series, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the Montreal Canadiens.  The Bolts are up 2-1 on home ice, a raucous crowd is making the building shake. P.K. Subban is in the box for slashing.  Onto the ice storm Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, they are joined by Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan and completing the unit is Valeri Filppula. We can argue about who the best defender in that group is, its probably Callahan, but it doesn’t matter. They got cute, and got beat by Brian Gionta setting up Lars Eller. To highlight how little offense the pair produced only seven more points than rookie Ondrej Palat, and neither actually surpassed Stamkos who was limited to 37 games and 40 points, while Gionta and Eller played 81 an 77 respectively. While the teams went back and forth scoring on a game that went to overtime, the Lightning never led again, and lost the game.

Last season was not the best year in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was also not the worst. This year for the first time since the 1998-99 season the Lightning will be without Vincent Lecavalier. The former 100 point man, part of the team’s only Cup win, was bought out. Regardless of who is named captain in his void, the player that will be matched in most minds with the is Steven Stamkos. To be successful this year, the team needs more from everyone who isn’t named Martin Saint Louis. Matt Taormina will have to contribute more than he did for the New Jersey Devils, Victor Hedman will again have to justify his 2nd overall selection in the 2009 NHL draft. Sami Salo, and Mattias Ohlund will have to not just roll the clock back but impart what they know about the NHL game to younger players.

While Jonathan Drouin is the crown jewel of their off season, what success the team has this year will come from other sources. Two of those are Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback. Without at least one of these goalies stepping up and delivering 45 or so games of .920 sv% goaltending this team has little chance of making the playoffs. Ryan Malone, Eric Brewer and Valterri Filppula are all valuable veterans, and they need to take the game to their opponents end this season and keep it there.

The Lightning will open the season with a three game trip. First up are the Boston Bruins and their Stanley Cup finals opponents the Chicago BlackHawks. The final stop on the road is a 7:30 date with the Buffalo Sabres. When they get home their cross state rivals the Florida Panthers will greet them. Finishing up the opening gamut are the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is by no means an easy way to open the year, but there are winnable games.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities:  4

Best opponent: Chicago BlackHawks or Boston Bruins

Weakest Opponent: Florida Panthers

Home games: 2

Projected points: 4

If head coach John Cooper can get everyone playing well, the team will no doubt improve over last years 14th placing in the east.  The turnover in forwards and the introduction of Cooper’s style last year will no doubt help the transition, but the roster isn’t isn’t overwheming, but it isn’t among the NHL’s very best, but they won’t be a bottom five team if things go well. Developing the young players like Drouin and any other prospects who make the team should be priority one this year.

Day one was anything but boring. Trades of players. Trades of picks. Off the board picks. Players sliding. Oh what a night.

Of the trades the one that got the least attention but might prove the most impacting was announced early. Troy Brouwer, a big aggressive winger went from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Washington Capitals. With the improvements on defense the Capitals showed last season, adding a Cup winning forward to the mix who will play physically and knows how to win. He’s comfortable on both wings, and having him opposite Ovechkin should simplify the problems for whoever is playing center for them.

The once unmovable contract of Brian Campbell has been moved. It may not really count because the general manager who signed the deal originally, is the man who acquired him. The Florida Panthers sent Rostislav Olesz, and moved up four million dollars in the salary cap space.

Probably the most shocking trade to take place was the swapping of two players that looked to be cornerstones of their teams. The NHL Entry Draft host Minnesota Wild sent former first round pick of the fabled 2003 draft Brent Burns, and a second round pick to San Jose. They in turn sent the recently resigned Devon Setogouchi stud prospect Charlie Coyle and a first round pick to the state of hockey. While both teams got something they need, I’m not sure you can call this anything but a win for the Minnesota Wild.

My two favorite picks, of the first round were for Landeskog and Larrson. The Avalance get a type of attitude that is simply lacking. There’s while not quite a belligerence, certainly the type of drive and swagger that is seen in Shane Doan and Jarome Iginla that the denizens of Denver just plain lack. For Larrson, he’s just the right fit at the right time for a team rebuilding on the fly. Ideally both players would play in the NHL next year. The Devils can bring Larrson along slowly in a limited role. I did think it was odd to hear Larrson damned with the faint praise of having better hockey sense and more physicality than Victor Hedman.

Mark Scheifele is probably the single happiest man in hockey right now;. Taken seventh by the reborn Jets, as their first pick in their return to the market he could be this years Jeff Skinner. Appallingly happy to be taken, personable and photogenic. the Jets new GM was gushing in his interview. This was clearly a hockey pick, unlike a certain franchise than drafts locals for language, but long term if Scheifele pans out it could be the best PR pick made by an NHL team in years. I also like that the team went a bit off the radar without making a huge reach to take him.

 

We all saw game six. We know which break downs occurred, and we’ve all seen enough Bruins hockey to know that isn’t the top level of performance they can deliver. Hell, putting it halfway up the ladder for the teams effort and execution as a whole would be a gross injustice to the games in which they were merely bad a times. So let’s take a look at those reasons for home.

10: Thomas Kaberle looked comfortable and confident on the ice. This is perhaps the first time this series he as done so. In nearly twenty minutes of play not only was he not the worst player on the Bruins, he was an actively competent.

9: The powerplay worked. The boost in confidence for the players will likely carry over to other areas of the game.

8: In Boston, on home ice Julien will have the last change. This means the ability to put Seguin out there when Lecavalier, St Louis and Stamkos aren’t.

7: Mark Recchi by anyones standards had a bad game, and being the old warhorse that he is even if pride doesn’t intervene, habit probably will. You simply can’t play in the NHL as long as he has, climb as many record charts and not be in the habit of excelling.

6: The Bruins as a whole failed to exploit the three weakest defensemen on the Tampa Bay roster for goals. Only one of the Bruins goals was scored with Hedman, Lundin, or Bergeron on the ice. In games four and five, one of those three was on the ice when the Bruins scored four of their six goals.

5: In this post season Tim Thomas is 4-1 in games after he allowed four or more goals.

4: In this post season the Boston Bruins have not lost at home, after losing on the road.

3: Johnny Boychuck who was on the ice for all five goals against in game six had what is unquestionably the worst game of his career, and can’t conceivably turn in a worse performance. In two game sevens with Boston, Boychuck has a 1-1-2 +2 line with a powerplay assist.

2: Patrice Bergeron who had his first minus game of the series has not had two minus games in a row in 15 post season appearances.

1: Teddy Purcell, Martin St Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Steven Stamkos who all scored in game six, have not scored two games in a row in this series.

 

Like game four, this two was a tale of two games. The opening fifteen minutes of the first fifteen minutes the Bruins looked like they were waiting for someone to put gel on the paddles and shock them back to life. The last five minutes of the opening period were a much closer affair with the Bruins holding the edge in intensity. While this was hardly a perfect game,. the Bruins got out of it the only thing that matters. The win.

Faceoffs were a decidedly different affair tonight, the Bruins clearly dominated this stat. Patrice Bergeron with 15 and David Krejci with 14, combined for just one less faceoff win than the entire Lightning roster. Peverley, Krejci, Bergeron and Kelly were all over 50% on the dot tonight and that speaks to effort. Lucic made a beautiful pass to set up Hortons goal. Not only did this breakup a slump by Horton it was redemption for the two penalties he took playing overzealously in the early stages of the game. Adam McQuaid probably deserved the 3rd star in tonights game, being paired with Kaberle most of the night and then adjusting to playing with Ference after Boychucks injury, but you can absolutely make a case for six or seven guys making it into the three stars.  Marchand got sent to the sin bin for diving while Hedman sat next door for an interference call.  Late in the second Patrice Bergeron would pass the puck from the far boards to the crease rushing MArchand and the rookie would fire his way into the scoring column getting the eventual game winner.

The third period was text book playoff game with effort from all parties and intensity in all areas of the ice. The referees ended the parade to the box, and the players never stopped moving and scrambling. The only part that marred it was the very predictable, uncontrollable Steve Downie taking a stupid penalty. This type of play is bad for hockey, bad for his team and yes bad for Johnny Boychuck who was injured on the play and never returned. The scrap, pushing and shoving after the game was both predictable and acceptable. It adds spice, and because everyone knows its coming nobody on the ice is surprised by it or sucker punched.

While the Bruins still couldn’t make the powerplay click, they tried at least one new look including having Chara in the crease and slot area. The screen this presents and the reach he has not to mention the difficulty of moving him is something the Bruins should try every third or fourth powerplay. St Louis, Lecavalier, and Hedman were all kept off the score sheet. While the media, and some fans will focus on the fact the Bruins are just one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup, they are equally two losses away from the golf course.

This was clearly a tale of two games. One of twenty minutes. One of forty minutes. It’s not surprising that the team that played better over the larger amount of team was smiling when they left the ice.  The Bruins played twenty masterful minutes to open the game with Patrice Bergeron rolling and raping the Lightning for two unassisted goals. One a short handed goal in which he picked off a Stamkos pass and skates two thirds of the length of the ice and leaving Roloson floundering.  The first was a Kaberle-level brainfart by Clark and Hedman that yielded the game opener.

After Roloson took himself to purgatory at the end of the Lightning bench the Bruins never seemed to exhibit the swagger and drive. Later in the game Recchi was shown with a big grin on his face, even though the Bruins had not shown up. At this point in a game he’s usually all business and about business. Kaberle after a disorienting ascension to  the dizzying heights of competence was back to his now familiar subterranean skill set, a pathetic shot block, then a screen on Thomas that was picture perfect from Guy Boucher’s perspective led to the go ahead goal. Thomas and Chara combined for a horrid turnover in that can be blamed at least in part on the forwards leaving the ice who started coasting to the bench from about the tops of the defensive circle. This left Thomas and Chara to deal with five opposing players all deep in the zone. Thomas could have frozen the puck, Chara could have taken it to the boards but this level of failure requires a committee and they were just two members of it.

Gagne got a goal that counted, but again the story of the off season for the Tampa Bay Lightning wasn’t the big guns. Purcell had a pair of goals just sixty three seconds apart. Bergenhiem continued his assault on the stat sheet. St Louis got a meaningless empty netter. Aside from St Louis goal, the big three for Tampa Bay was kept quiet or exposed. Lecavalier managed an assist. Stamkos had the Bergeron turnover on the powerplay, no points and just one shot on goal in over 18 minutes of play.

God awful effort after about eighteen minutes in the first period for the Bruins. Krejci was a -3, never got a shot on goal and might as well have forfeited his faceoffs winning just three of twelve. Sadly, Krejci’s effort was probably equal to Kelly and Campbell’s put together. They combined to go 4 of 15 in faceoffs, neither recorded a hit or a blocked shot and both were nearly invisible when not screwing up.

While the impact was minimal it should be pointed out that the call on Marchand for interference was just as good as the team effort after the first, and the non call on Smith for tripping was even worse.

There’s no excuse for a game like this. No team has gotten to the Conference finals without coming back from behind a few times. No team with four guys who have passed forty or more goals on their resume is out of a game when only down three. Complacency kills.