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NHL highs and lows: Can Montreal Canadiens hang on to win the Atlantic division?

The Atlantic is the NHL’s most volatile division and any of five teams could win it. After watching their games last week The National’s Rob McKenzie sorts through the contenders and picks a winner.


1. Not so obvious

Before the season it seemed obvious who would command the Atlantic: Tampa, who were loaded and had made the Stanley Cup final for two seasons running. Two months into the season it was still obvious: but this time it was Montreal, galvanised by the acquisition of the rock-solid defenceman Shea Weber.

Then Montreal have lost their scoring touch, and remarkably had been shut out in four of eight games through February 23. Meanwhile Tampa remain undone by injuries to Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan, and waved the white flag on Sunday by trading away the goalie Ben Bishop.

Which means that now, with the season at the three-quarters pole, it is far from obvious who will win the Atlantic. As the week began only six points separated the division leader, the slumping Canadiens, from the fifth-place team, the surging Florida Panthers. The tallies were: Montreal, 70 points; Ottawa, 68; Boston, 66; Toronto, 65; Florida, 64. Further back and unlikely to threaten were Buffalo, Tampa and Detroit.


2. The runner stumbles

For the second season in a row Montreal started strong and then started sinking.

This time it cost Michel Therrien his job as coach. Through Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win over Toronto, the Habs are 2-2 so far with Claude Julien as his replacement.

What the Canadiens really need to do is score more goals. When Andrew Shaw scored the opener Tuesday versus the Rangers — a game Montreal would have lost if not for an amazing save in overtime by Carey Price — it was his first goal in 11 games. And again on Saturday it was a big Price save in overtime that saved the Habs from defeat.

Price needs to carry the team because the forwards sure aren’t going to. Max Pacioretty has 29 goals but nobody else has even half that. Brendan Gallagher hasn’t scored since late December. Alexander Radulov started strong but has three points in 11 February games.

A test will come on Thursday when Nashville visit Montreal. It will be PK Subban’s first game back in the city that adores him and from which he was traded this summer for Weber. A win in that one could galvanise Montreal.


3. Hard workers

Few picked the Ottawa Senators to make the play-offs. But they play a structured game under their coach Guy Boucher and they have one of the league’s best offensive defencemen in Erik Karlsson. They also have an inspirational story in the return of goalie Craig Anderson, whose wife has cancer.

The Sens have a lot of grinders like Mark Stone, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Chris Neil. But after Karlsson they don’t have a ton of talent. Teams that play beyond their individual ability have a cohesion that prevents them from faltering but the lack of star power limits their upside.


4. Toronto can score

The Leafs are the one team in the division with serious offensive firepower.

Their 187 goals are better than anyone else in the Atlantic by nearly 20. The team runs through their star rookie Auston Matthews, who scored his 30th goal on a tip-in from in tight against Montreal on Saturday.

In the first half of the season, the Leafs coach Mike Babcock said that Matthews would become a dominant centre by Christmas. Babcock was right.

And he’s not the only good forward, the Leafs are finally smart at the draft and have picked up players like Mitch Marner and William Nylander. The defence is still a work in progress.

These young guys could falter as the season hits the stretch run; it will be more hockey, and more sustained intense hockey, than some of them have ever played.

Toronto is set for a bright future, finally.


5. Getting old

The Boston Bruins are a weird team. When they’re good they seem like world-beaters. When they’re bad they seem like a mess.

Through Sunday’s 6-3 defeat of Dallas, the Bruins are 6-1 since Bruce Cassidy took over as coach after Julien was fired (and was jobless for all of a week til Montreal snatched him up).

The problem for Boston is on the blueline. Zdeno Chara will probably end up in the Hall of Fame but he is no longer dominant and turns 40 on March 18. After him it thins out. A solution could come next year when Charlie McAvoy joins the team. The Bruins drafted him 14th overall this spring and in January he was voted to the all-star team at the world juniors tournament.


6. Road warriors

Last Monday in St Louis the Panthers were sensational as they dominated the Blues late in the third period. The game was tied 1-1 but in the final minute the Panthers with their tight checking would not let St Louis out of their own zone. The pressure culminated in a game-winning goal by Vincent Trocheck with 4.6 seconds left that gave Florida five wins in a row for a perfect road trip.

But then they came home. To their arena that is an embarrassment of empty seats. And they still played hard in losses to Edmonton and Calgary, but it’s not the same when there isn’t the buzz from the crowd that the Panthers would have felt in the arenas they visited on the road.

Florida’s home record this season is 14-13-3, capped by Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Ottawa. Not good.


7. Prediction

At week’s end the top five in the Atlantic were still bunched tight: Montreal, 74 points; Ottawa, 72 points; Boston, 70; Toronto, 69; Florida, 66.

The Panthers would need to go on a serious run to win this race. But I think they can do it. They have the most talent in the Atlantic and enjoy a soft schedule this week — Carolina, at Philadelphia, Dallas — that can move them up in the standings and maybe fill some of those sad empty seats.

Remember, the Panthers have only had Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau back in the line-up together since February 3, and are 6-4 in that span as they begin to gel. Those guys have fresh legs. And the oldest set of legs in the league, those belonging to 45-year-old Jaromir Jagr, still seem to have a lot of jump in them.

But there’s a catch …


8. The catch

Because of the way the NHL play-off format works, whoever wins the Atlantic will almost certainly face one of Pittsburgh, Columbus or the New York Rangers in the first round — it will be whichever one of those three finishes with the fewest points, and right now they are an awfully tight trio.

In none of these prospective matchups does the Atlantic team deserve to be the favourite. Pittsburgh are the defending Cup champions, Columbus are young, fast and hungry, and the Rangers have a ton of play-off experience and are enjoying a revival.

Then again anybody can get hot in the play-offs; timing is pivotal in the second season. But all in all the Atlantic is the league’s weakest division.

The NHL trade deadline falls on Wednesday. If one of the division’s contenders wants to be taken more seriously, they should try to get Kevin Shatterkirk off St Louis, Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog from Colorado, or one of Carolina’s plethora of blue liners.


9. In summation

If the play-offs started today: Washington, with a league-best 89 points, would confront Toronto; then it would be Pittsburgh-Columbus; Montreal-NY Rangers; and Ottawa-Boston. The west would have Minnesota-St Louis, Chicago-Nashville, San Jose-Calgary and Anaheim-Edmonton. That would be five Canadian teams after none last year.

Standouts: The league leaders are the same names as last week: Connor McDavid in points at 71, Sidney Crosby in goals at 34, Ryan Suter at plus-33, Dustin Byfuglien in average ice time at 27:25, Antoine Roussel in penalty minutes at 115 (FYI, Slap Shot had its 40th anniversary on Saturday); and in net, Jimmy Howard in goals-against average at 1.96 and Peter Budaj (who went to Tampa in the Bishop trade) and Braden Holtby in shutouts at 7.

Standard-bearer: After a slow first half Chicago’s Jonathan Toews has surged with 24 points in 14 games. On Tuesday he thrashed Minnesota with three goals and two assists in a 5-3 road win. The five-point night tied his career high: on November 25, 2011, he piled up two goals and three assists in a 6-5 win over Anaheim (again, a road game).


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Updated: February 27, 2017 04:00 AM

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