The Atlantic Division could make a very strong and viable case for being the strongest division in the NHL if it wasn’t for the Metropolitan Division. The strength of the opposing Eastern Conference division puts an even greater emphasis on Atlantic Division teams finishing as a top-three hockey club.
At the time of writing, just before the NHL All-Star break, the NHL standings for the Atlantic Division showed a distinct cut between divisional leaders, the chasing pack, and the teams without a hope of making it to the playoffs.
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So, let’s have a look at which teams look to be in the running for a divisional playoff place at this crucial juncture in the 2019/20 NHL season.
Leading the way
Having played a couple more games than other top teams in the Atlantic Division, the lead that the Boston Bruins have accumulated may prove to be somewhat of a mirage when the rest catch up. That said, even if the next closest team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, do win all of their games in hand, they’d still trail by two points.
Coming into the All-Star break, the Bruins experienced a bit of a slide, going 5-3-2 to give hope to the chasing pack. However, given that Tuukka Rask is putting up a 2.27 goals against average and .925 save percentage through 28 starts, it’s difficult seeing the Bruins drop off too much for too long.
In front of Rask, the skaters are firing on all cylinders, with David Pastrnak notching a whopping 37 goals and 70 points by the 51-game mark, with Brad Marchand (21 goals, 65 points) and two-way superstar Patrice Bergeron (21 goals, 41 points) also pulling their weight. But the Boston Bruins coaching staff wants more out of their players, stating that they’re going to create more competition in the ranks to push the Bruins forward.
Close behind, having shaken off an incredibly sluggish start to the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are certainly in the running to reclaim the Atlantic Division crown. With head coach Jon Cooper changing the style of play to one that “will win in the playoffs,” following their catastrophic meltdown last season, it took a little time for the team to adapt, but now they’re playing great hockey and surging up the league.
Now that Nikita Kucherov is back to scoring again – now 22 goals and 54 points in 47 games – as well as Steven Stamkos (48 points), Brayden Point (42 points), Victor Hedman (41 points), and Alex Killorn (39 points) stacking scores, the Bolts can once again be considered top contenders to win it all.
Despite technically being eight points adrift, the experts still see the Lightning as top contenders for the division, with the Bruins out at -190 and Tampa Bay at +190 with leading NHL bookmakers. After them, the Maple Leafs and Panthers are back at +1500, showing how clear cut the divisional title race has become.
With the Bolts and the Bruins leading the way as the clear favorites to win the Atlantic Division, let alone claim a playoff spot, it looks as though the third and potentially final Atlantic-owned playoff space will be a battle between three chasing teams.
Battling for third place
At the time of writing, the Florida Panthers trailed the Tampa Bay Lightning by a mere point, with their state rivals boasting a game in hand. This looks to be the season that it finally all comes together for the Panthers. After winning the division in 2015/16, injuries, abrupt and ill-advised coaching changes, and aging goaltending have held back the budding Panthers.
In 2019/20, however, the team is doing very well, with the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau (65 points), Aleksander Barkov (54 points), Mike Hoffman (40 points), Evgenii Dadonov (40 points), and Keith Yandle (39 points) driving the team offensively, with Aaron Ekblad’s +12 with 62 blocked shots showcasing his development as a top defenseman.
The Panthers do have one glaring issue which no one expected them to endure this season, and that’s in goal. Over the summer, Florida looked to finally put its goaltending issues in the past by landing the huge offseason signing of Sergei Bobrovsky. Through 36 starts, however, the Russian has been inadequate, to say the least, putting up a 3.24 goals against average and .898 save percentage.
Further down the standings, the ‘new coach effect’ which had the Toronto Maple Leafs surging back to winning ways when Sheldon Keefe came up from the AHL to become the head coach appears to have worn off. It’s the fourth-youngest team in the league, and the defensemen – particularly offseason acquisition Tyson Barrie – have struggled in their own end despite the best efforts of Frederik Andersen, who already has 39 starts this season.
Finally, we come to the Buffalo Sabres, who, by virtue of the talent in the team and the absurdly strong performances of goaltender Linus Ullmark, are still in the conversation. Jack Eichel, of course, leads the way with 28 goals and 62 points, with Sam Reinhart (41 points), Victor Olofsson (35 points), Rasmus Dahlin (28 points), and Rasmus Ristolainen (23 points) also pulling their weight.
Injuries have been a huge problem for the Sabres this season, stifling them at the worst possible times, but one of the biggest drop-offs is the production of Jeff Skinner and the lower lines. Skinner had a mere 11 goals and 19 points by his 39th game, with the Sabres scoring the 11th-fewest goals in the league.
So, as it stands, and likely as we continue, the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning look set to clinch the top two Atlantic Division spots – perhaps not in that order – while the Florida Panthers look to be the best bet to land the third spot, especially if Bobrovsky can rekindle a dose of what made him an elite-level goalie in Columbus.