The Atlantic division is extremely crowded.  With only 8 points separating 2nd and last, every team still has a chance to reach the playoffs.  Which teams are serious contenders and which are only hanging around for the time being?

Montreal Canadiens:

The Montreal Canadiens started as the hottest team in the NHL. It took 11 games for the Canadiens to suffer a defeat in regulation.  There was much skepticism whether or not this was a replication of last season. A scorching hot start (19-4-3), only to drop off entirely and miss the playoffs after Carey Price’s season ending injury.  But alas, Price is still healthy and the Canadiens have sat comfortably atop the Atlantic division (27-12-6) ever since.

The offseason acquisitions of Alexander Radulov and Shea Weber have proven to be extremely fruitful. They have delivered, and are second and third, respectively in team scoring.  At even strength, The Canadiens currently rank 5th in GA60, 7th in GF60, and 3rd in CF%. Last year Montreal ranked 14th, 24th, and 10th in these categories.  So make no mistake, a healthy Price aside, this is still a much improved team.  Look for Montreal to make a deep (depending on match ups) playoff run as they can give any team they run into fits.

Contender or Pretender: Contender

Boston Bruins:

In what has been the biggest quandary of a season in recent memory, the Boston Bruins currently sit second in the Atlantic Division.  The Boston Bruins have been dominating even strength play.  With a 55.1 CF%, they lead the entire league.  So the question is, why are the Bruins not a shoo-in for a playoff spot?  Well, for starters, they can’t catch a break. The Bruins have a PDO (combined shooting percentage and save percentage) of 98.3. The league average is 100.0%. A really low PDO on a team of Boston’s talent shows that bounces have not gone their way.

Another huge issue has been the poor production of their big name players.  While David Pastrnak’s 19 goals have been a boon to the Bruin’s cause, David Backes is only a 40 point guy at this point in his career, Ryan Spooner may not hit 40 points, and Patrice Bergeron has only logged 18 as of now. Expect Boston’s big names to step up and for their PDO numbers to level out.  Also, expect them to maintain their spot of second in the Atlantic and start to separate in the standings from the rest of the pack.  If trends continue though, they are not going to be able to compete with the rest of the East’s elite.  A trade to bring in goal scoring can change the complexion of this team come playoff time.

Contender or Pretender: Contender

Toronto Maple Leafs:

There’s a lot of people hopping aboard the Toronto Maple Leafs bandwagon as of late.  The Leafs are 17th in CF% and tied for 27th in GF60 at even strength.  Their goaltending is average at best with Frederick Anderson and Curtis McElhinney between the pipes.  This feels more like fans and analysts are prisoners of the moment and have been mesmerized by the play of Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, and William Nylander.  It would be one thing if they were dominating play and now started to accumulate wins, but their underlying numbers leave a lot to be desired.

They’ve climbed up the standings with a 9-1-1 run, but young teams with elite-level talent, like the Leafs, are streaky.  Don’t be surprised if Toronto has a bad run in their near future and a fall from contention with the two teams from Florida right behind them.  While the Leafs will likely miss the playoffs, no team has potential to be as dynamic as the Maple Leafs down the road with Mike Babcock at the helm.

Contender or Pretender: Pretender

Ottawa Senators:

When you think of the Ottawa Senators, nothing really jumps out.  Aside from the all-world talent of Erik Karlsson, the roster is very… run of the mill. They are middle of the pack defensively and offensively, 23rd in Corsi, and the Craig Anderson-Mike Condon conglomerate in goal is nothing special.

Their forward group has scoring depth, but they lack the true punch of an elite level offense. Derick Brassard, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, and Bobby Ryan all have speed and are all on the right side of 30, but it feels a little… blasé. The Senators aren’t in a bad spot, but they’re perpetually mediocre in all phases of the game (which may be worse then blatantly bad).  The Senators will float around a playoff spot until they miss by 4 points and pick 13th.

Contender or Pretender: Pretender

Florida Panthers:

This team was dubbed by many as one of the budding powers in the East after the signings of Keith Yandle and Jason Demers.  Well, the success some projected Florida to have has not really come to fruition.  Can you really blame them though?  The preseason injury to Jonathan Huberdeau had set the Panthers on the wrong track and the most recent injury to Aleksander Barkov is even tougher to overcome.  As a result of the injuries, Florida is 27th in GF60 at even strength.  While the Panthers do have scoring deficiencies, they make up for it in driving play, ranking 8th in corsi at even strength.

Another obstacle that has marred the Panthers is the fact that Aaron Ekblad has been very pedestrian. He has only amassed 12 points in 45 games while being a -16.  Coming into the season, fans expected Florida to be a top two team in the Atlantic and Ekblad to be a Norris Finalist.  Despite all of this, the Panthers are remarkably still tied for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic.  With Ekblad not playing up to capabilities and injuries hampering the Panthers, finding a way in down the stretch seems to be too daunting of a task.

Contender or Pretender: Pretender, but miss by one point

Tampa Bay Lightning:

It all unraveled when Steven Stamkos went down with a lateral meniscus tear in early November.  It is kind of mind boggling though, considering the Lightning were one win away from clinching a Stanley Cup Final appearance even without Stammer last season. The main issue though, is in goal.  Ben Bishop is playing way under the level that garnered much Vezina consideration in recent years.  Bishop’s sv% has dropped from .926 last year to .910 this year.  The goalie of the future, Andrei Vasilevskiy, has not provided any relief either, posting only a .906 sv%.

Tampa is still respectable offensively and has been even in corsi, so Bishop’s drop off is the definitive cause of Tampa being outside of the playoff picture.  This is still a team that knows how to win games and I expect them to ratchet it up a notch down the stretch. Steve Yzerman will not stand pat and watch his goalies get lit up without making a move. Expect Tampa to find a way into the playoff picture, and from there the East should be on notice. Not only will they compete, a Stamkos return could see a Cup Final run.

Contender or Pretender: Contender

Detroit Red Wings:

One of sports most fabled streaks is coming to an end this year, folks. The final season at storied Joe Louis Arena is more and more likely to be the first spring of no playoff hockey since 1990 for the Wings.  The Wings only sit 4 points out with a lot of hockey left to be played.  However, with 5 teams ahead and multiple having games in hand, chances are growing evermore bleak.  The main disappointment this year has been the fall from grace for Petr Mrazek and the sophomore slump by Dylan Larkin.  Mrazek owns a putrid .893 sv% while Larkin only has a measly 16 points in 44 games.

The Wings are also underwhelming in controlling play, ranking tied for 21st in CF% and 23rd in SV% at 5v5. With rumors floating around that Thomas Vanek is being shopped around it appears that the Red Wings are gearing up for the inevitability of missing the playoffs (whether it be now or next year, it is coming).  This year may be a disappointment for Wings fans. Perhaps it is better to accept the state of the team, sell, and recoup younger talent. They have been bounced in the first round 4 of the last 5 seasons, after all. Sorry Wings fans, the streak comes to an end.

Contender or Pretender: Pretender

Buffalo Sabres:

The preseason injury to Jack Eichel really put a damper on what could have been a step-forward year in Buffalo. While the Sabres have made strides towards getting back into the playoffs, it appears some of the gambles they made are flops. Evander Kane has not blossomed into the player he could be. Matt Moulson is definitely not producing enough to justify his contract of 5 mil per.

The Sabres are 26th in CF% and GF60 at even strength, so it appears they lack the firepower to make a push down the stretch. Anders Nilsson and Robin Lehner have given strong performances in net and that has kept the Sabres afloat this season.  The Sabres are only 5 points out of a playoff spot, but with a crowded east and them having scoring issues, expect the Sabres to miss the playoffs for the 6th straight year.

Contender or Pretender: Pretender

Playoff Predictions: Montreal, Boston, Tampa Bay


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