The Atlantic Division was supposed to have three playoff parking spaces reserved for Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto. Right now, the group looks more like a mayhem-filled parking lot at holiday time, as white-knuckle drivers swarm around precious openings.
And there are still more than three months to go in the season.
For reference, here’s how things currently sit in the Atlantic by points percentage:
1. Boston .689
2. Florida .586
3. Toronto .568
4. Tampa Bay .559
5. Montreal .556
6. Buffalo .554
At present, it seems as though the Metropolitan Division will send five clubs to the playoffs, as was the case last year. That means — depending on whether or not you believe the Maple Leafs have their house in order now — four Atlantic squads are vying for one slot or five are chasing two as we all watch to see how things unfold in what seemed, before the season, to be one of the most predictable divisions in the league.
With wins on Friday and Saturday, Toronto has ascended to second place in the group and it would surprise no one if that’s where the Buds finished. Florida also posted two weekend victories and has won three in a row after dropping three straight. The Panthers — viewed by many as wild-card contenders before the year — scored a total of four goals during their losing streak, then popped 17 in their three-game happy run.
(Noel Acciari had a lot to say about that, posting a second straight three-goal game during Friday’s 7-4 win over Dallas and his seventh goal in three contests 24 hours later in a 4-2 victory over Carolina.)
Florida’s erratic behaviour is par for the course in a division that has seen the Leafs lose six in a row, fire a coach, and now win six of their past seven under the new guy; Montreal lose eight consecutive matches, then go 6-3-0 since then to climb back in the race and Buffalo win eight times in their first 10 games to start the season, then just once in their next eight outings before settling into a .500 brand of hockey.
All the while we’re waiting for the Bolts — who lost 3-1 to Washington on Saturday — to find themselves and instead we’re seeing the reigning league MVP and scoring champ, Nikita Kucherov, get benched for the third period in a game against Ottawa earlier this week.
And if you think Boston is home free in first place, consider the fact Tampa Bay enjoyed a 12-point division lead in mid-January of the 2017-18 campaign and saw that gap completely evaporate by the final week of the season, before the Bolts were able to nudge a single point ahead of Boston at the final whistle.
Oh yeah, did I mention the Bruins have won just once in their past nine contests?
It’s entirely possible — even likely — that Boston, Toronto and Tampa will be the only three playoff teams from the Atlantic, as was the case last season. It’s just hard to know if we’re taking a weird path to the expected result or if there’s going to be one seriously disappointed heavyweight on the outside looking in when the music stops and we see where everyone lands.
Other Weekend Takeaways
• Rebuilds are executed by accumulating loads of draft picks and prospects. Another key, though, is taking a flyer on existing NHLers who seem to have untapped potential.
Anthony Duclair is fast emerging as a fantastic example of how this practice can pay off. Acquired 10 months ago from Columbus in the deal that sent Ryan Dzingel to the Blue Jackets, Duclair netted his 21st goal of the year during Ottawa’s 5-4 overtime loss to Philadelphia on Saturday.
It was the 24-year-old’s third game in a row with a goal and his 11th in his past nine outings. Duclair now has 29 goals since becoming a Senator at the end of last February, a total exceeded by just eight NHLers in that span of time.
• Speaking of reaching potential, Ryan Strome has really found a new gear as a 26-year-old playing his first full year with the Rangers. Last season it was Ryan’s younger brother, Dylan Strome, who got his NHL career on track following a trade from Arizona to Chicago. Now, after being dealt twice in an 18-month span, it’s Ryan’s turn.
Strome — who’s benefitting from skating alongside Artemi Panarin — registered a goal in Friday’s loss to the Maple Leafs and an assist in Sunday’s victory over the Ducks to give him 30 points in 35 games. Aside from a 50-point season five years ago when he was an NHL sophomore with the Islanders, Strome hasn’t come close to this type of production. Nearly nine years after he was selected fifth overall by the other New York team, the elder Strome is showing what he’s capable of.
• Taylor Hall is on the board in Arizona, ripping his first goal as a Coyote versus the Detroit ‘Dead Things’ — we’re bringing it back, baby! — on Sunday.
The new, shiny toy getting his first cookie is obviously the headliner in Arizona, but an equally important development for a team in search of a balanced attack is the play of the second line, featuring veteran Carl Soderberg between twin burgeoning talents in Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz.
Keller — who was heating up even before Hall’s arrival — has three goals in three games since the new guy came to town; Schmatlz has six assists and the 34-year-old Soderberg has a pair of goals himself.
Red-and-White Power Rankings
1. Winnipeg Jets (21-13-2) – Blake Wheeler became the all-time Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise points leader (615, passing Ilya Kovalchuk’s 614) with a one-and-one performance in Saturday’s 6-0 thrashing of the Wild.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs (19-14-4) – You’re on the board, Hutch! Seriously, how good does Michael Hutchinson feel after getting his first win of the season on Saturday? He earned, it, too, with some first-period saves that kept the game between Toronto and Detroit scoreless.
3. Calgary Flames (19-14-5) – The power play was working on Saturday as Calgary used three PPGs to pound the Stars and snap a three-game losing skid.
5. Montreal Canadiens (17-13-6) – Nearly halfway into his first season with the Habs, free-agent pickup Ben Chiarot has become indispensable on the blue-line playing on the top pair with Shea Weber. (Just ignore the highlight above and take my word for it. Really, who doesn’t ‘McD’ blow by?)
6. Vancouver Canucks (18-15-4) – Just a few shots-on-goal facts from the Canucks’ 4-1 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday. The first period featured a total of five shots, all of them by Vancouver on Pens goalie Matt Murray. After failing to resister a puck on goal in the first frame, Pittsburgh had 20 shots in the middle stanza. The game ended with Vancouver scoring four times on 14 shots for a team shooting percentage of roughly 29 per cent.
7. Ottawa Senators (15-18-4) – The Sens are working overtime these days, as five of their past six outings have gone beyond 60 minutes.
In Your Ear
There’s no better way to get primed for the world junior championship than listening to Sportsnet’s prospect guru Sam Cosentino. The complexation of the tournament is changing a bit, as more draft-eligible players than ever are expected to make an impact at an event that has historically been ruled by 19-year-olds.
The Week Ahead
• The last day of NHL action before the holiday break is a big one, as 26 teams hit the ice on Monday afternoon, evening and night.
• The aforementioned WJC kicks off on Boxing Day with some sweet rivalry games, including the host Czechs taking on Russia, Sweden and Finland locking horns and a big-time Canada-USA showdown.
• This is the final Weekend Takeaways of 2019. Have an awesome holiday, check out the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 and we’ll see you in 2020!