November 13, 2008
It's never too early for "if the playoffs started today" forecasting, so here goes: If the playoffs started today, the Northeast Division would have three representatives in the Eastern Conference, with its other two teams both missing the cut by one win.
Then again, the Northwest Division does them one better: Four teams in the Western Conference playoffs as of today, with its other team lingering three points off the pace.
But stack those divisions against each other, and it's no contest: The Northeast could be the NHL's best thus far this season; with two legitimate Cup contenders, another on the cusp and two other teams that can look like championship contenders on the right night.
After the jump, justification for the praise; but first, what do you think is the best division in the NHL this season?
[Note: There is a poll within this post, RSS readers. Visit Puck Daddy to cast your vote.]
Part of the Northeast's domination in the conference is by default. The injuries to Martin Brodeur, Brian Rolston and now Paul Martin have made the New Jersey Devils ordinary in the Atlantic. Injuries have done the same for the Philadelphia Flyers; the New York Islanders, meanwhile, are who we thought they were.
The Southeast Division boasts a failing chemistry experiment in Tampa Bay, a Florida Panthers team that some are claiming is already done for the season and an inconsistent Atlanta Thrashers squad that remains extremely beatable.
Meanwhile, in the Northeast:
Boston Bruins (9-3-3, 21 points). Their style is defensive, and they're only 19th in the NHL in goals as a team. But this Bruins club is reminiscent of those great Devils teams that smothered you, yet had an array of offensive weapons that could create chances out of the blue. Marc Savard, Marco Sturm, Patrice Bergeron are all legit threats; now the Bruins are getting points from guys like David Krejci, Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler, as well as from players like Chuck Kobasew and Milan Lucic. They've got quality depth up front, an outstanding goalie so far in Tim Thomas and a blueline held together by Zdeno Chara's 26 minutes per game.
Buffalo Sabres (9-3-3, 21 points). The Sabres have been a success playing through injuries, but honestly that's old hat for Buffalo at this point, isn't it? Thomas Vanek has cooled off some after his torrid start, but he's sitting at 12 goals on a team that's shown surprising offensive spark despite relatively slow starts for Derek Roy and Maxim Afinogenov. The revelation has been Ryan Miller, who has taken on his new contract and is playing some of the best regular-season goaltending of his career. He's won some games for the Sabres this season.
Montreal Canadiens (9-2-2, 20 points). Just 13 games in, the Habs are showing flashes of the Cup contender many believe they'll be at the end. The veterans are leading the offense: Alex Tanguay (15 points), Saku Koivu (13) and Alexei Kovalev (12). Defensively, they've been stellar, as Carey Price has shouldered the load between the pipes with some great numbers. Montreal is 9-2-2 without what was the best power-play in the league last season yet to click.
Toronto Maple Leafs (6-6-4, 16 points). It's just so much easier, and more fun, to mock them; but you have to give Ron Wilson and the Leafs credit where it's due. They're a gritty team, and a very tough out: Half of their games have been one-goal finals. They own wins against Detroit, the Rangers and the Habs. Wilson's managed to squeeze out productive seasons from Nik Antropov and Matt Stajan, while Vesa Toskala continues to be inconsistent but stalwart. One huge minus: A penalty kill that doubles as a welcome mat. Will the Leafs' success continue? Shouldn't we be asking if it will get even better when Brian Burke starts manipulating the roster?
Ottawa Senators (6-7-2, 14 points). The X-factor of the division. The goaltending of Alex Auld has been better than expected, but the team's balance has been atrocious. Players like Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette are mired in crushing slumps, and Coach Craig Hartsburg's tough love has yet to manifest itself into victories. There's still enough talent here to contend -- 14 points are generous for team that's look invisible on some nights. Still, there aren't many last-place teams in the NHL that can roll out Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson every night.
Looking at the West, the Central Division boasts competitive if not quality depth. Ditto the Pacific, which has been downgraded by Dallas's early-season flop. The Northwest gives the Northeast a legitimate challenge for the NHL's best, but a lot of that depends on whether one feels Minnesota and Vancouver are for real.
Montreal and Boston face off tonight in Beantown; a broadcast that will have huge spikes in viewership during commercials on the Jets/Pats game. Take a gander for yourself, and see if you agree that the most competitive divisional play in the NHL is happening in the Northeast.