2020 Vision: Why the Atlantic Division Will Be the NHL’s Best in Four Years

It’s 2020.

The Montreal Canadiens have never looked more poised to win Stanley Cup No. 25 since winning Stanley Cup No. 24 back in 1993. The Toronto Maple Leafs are knocking on the door of its first title of the NHL’s Expansion Era while the Buffalo Sabres are in pursuit of its first title in, well, ever. On the verge of he 10th anniversary of its only Cup in the last half-century, the Boston Bruins aren’t to be counted out. Nor are the Ottawa Senators. Meanwhile, the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Detroit Red Wings are still there, like they’ve been for quite some time.

The Atlantic Division has no let up. The best division in the NHL. It’s not even up for debate.

It’s amazing to think the Montreal Canadiens have gone nearly three decades without a Stanley Cup. Prior to this latest drought, the longest the Habs had gone without winning a title was eight between 1916-24, when the bleu, blanc et rouge took a backseat to the original rendition of the Ottawa Senators – who won three Cups in that span – while having the 1919 final wiped out due the great flu pandemic ripping through the world at the time.

But that was 100 years ago, and the Canadiens are looking to erase a drought nearly four times longer. A 2021 Stanley Cup will be its first in 28 years. They’ve been close the last two years. In 2019, they fell to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals before getting to the Cup final in 2020, losing to Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

Max Pacioretty hoisting the revered 35-pound trophy isn’t hoped for — it’s expected.

Montreal hasn’t had a goaltender like Carey Price since Patrick Roy, who appropriately enough manned the crease of the most recent championship. At 33, Price is on the back end of his prime. He’s going for his fifth straight Vezina Trophy, looking to become just the fourth player to win six Vezinas, joining Montreal legends Jacques Plante and Bill Durnan, along with Dominik Hasek.

Nobody in the Montreal lineup makes anyone forget about Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur, Maurice Richard, or Larry Robinson, but there’s plenty to be desired. Shea Weber might not be the player he was when general manager Marc Bergevin famously swapped P.K. Subban for in 2016, but he doesn’t have to be. Mikhail Sergechev is quickly blossoming as one of the world’s best blueliners. Up front, mainstays Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk lead the Habs charge.

The Canadien faithful has its swagger back, and the time to win is now.

But it won’t be that easy.

For one, there’s a border battle brewing between Western New York and Southern Ontario.

Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews, currently pegged to bring Team USA back from the shadows of its 2016 embarrassment at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, lead the way for two of the most rabid yet tortured fan bases; the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres. The Leafs haven’t won a title since 1967. The Sabres have never won one ever.

Eichel and Matthews were second and third in last season’s Art Ross Trophy race behind McDavid, whose 131 points were the most since 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux and current Florida Panthers player-coach Jaromir Jagr eclipsed that mark.

Defending Norris Trophy winner Morgan Reilly anchors the Toronto blue line, which is backed up by Frederik Andersen. Buffalo counters with Norris favorite Rasmus Ristolainen and ace netminder Cal Petersen. Buffalo’s one-two center combination of Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly is the envy of the division.

Meanwhile, for Boston Bruins fans, it’s been years that end in ‘1’ that have been kind to the B’s; at least of late (we can forget about Ken Dryden in 1971, or Ulf Samuelsson’s cheap shot on Cam Neely in 1991). In 2001, Bruins fans watched black-and-gold icon Ray Bourque retire with his first Stanley Cup (albeit with Colorado). In 2011, it was the B’s capturing a Stanley Cup of their own, the first since 1972.

It’s been a rough past few years for Bruins fans. Amidst a rebuild, the B’s have missed the playoffs four of the last six seasons. Goaltender Tuukka Rask, who turns 34 in March, is playing for what would be the last big contract of his career. With dynamic duo Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand well into their 30s, the top line of Jake DeBrusk, Ryan Spooner, and Zach Senyshyn have picked up the load offensively for the B’s. The backline continues to come of age, with many expecting 23-year-old Jeremy Lauzon to hop into the Norris discussion as seamless as the way he can jump into the rush. The pairing of Lauzon and Brandon Carlo are among the top young defensive pairings in the game.

The Ottawa Senators continue to pride themselves on being the Minnesota Twins of the NHL, finding ways to sneak into the playoffs despite being glossed over year after year in the preseason talk. The player who is no longer being glossed over? That would be Erik Karlsson, who last season became just the third defenseman ever to record multiple 100-point seasons, joining Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey. Yeah, can’t say it’s bad company.

Let’s not forget about the three teams that represent the old guard of the division, the veteran teams giving chase to the young blood atop the division.

Captain Dylan Larkin leads the charge for the Detroit Red Wings, which has rebuilt itself on the fly once again while continuing the make the playoffs. The Wings finally won a playoff round after losing in the first round six years in a row. It’s been 30 years since Detroit last missed the playoffs. The Panthers are led by player-coach Jaromir Jagr, who last season became the second player to record 2,000 points in the NHL. Approaching his 49th birthday, Jagr is giving no indications he’ll step away anytime soon. He even says he plans on catching Wayne Gretzky’s record of 2,857 points. Based off his average of 35 points over the last four years, it will only take about 25 seasons for him to reach that mark. The Lightning continue to dazzle offensively, with Tyler Johnson coming off his first 40-goal season. And we all know about that Stamkos guy.

None of the eight teams in this division have won a Stanley Cup since the Bruins most recent banner, in 2011. If it doesn’t change in 2021, the wait won’t last much longer.

How much longer? Who knows.

But what we do know? No division stacks up with this one.

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Finland Wins Second Gold in Three Years

A look at the happenings across minor league, college, junior, and amateur hockey from Tuesday:

*Finland won its second Gold Medal in three seasons with a 4-3 win in the title game of the World Junior Championships in Helsinki. After Andrei Svetlakov scored for Russia to tie the game, 3-3, to force overtime, Kasperi Kapanen scored 1:33 into the extra period.

*Team USA beat Sweden, 8-3, to win Bronze and earn its first medal since 2013. Bruins prospects Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato scored two goals apeice while Brandon Carlo had a goal and an assist. Matthew Tkachuk (2-1–3) joined Bjork and Donato as the multi-goal scorers for the Americans.

*Red Deer (WHL) extended its winning to three with a 4-3 win over Prince Albert on Tuesday. Bruins first round pick Jake DeBrusk – who posted a 5-5–10 line in his first four games, after he was traded to Red Deer from Swift Current – was held off the scoresheet for the first time in a Rebels sweater, but still managed a plus-two, landing four shots on net. Red Deer (27-13) is tied with Lethbridge for first place in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.

*Yale defeated UMass, 3-2, in overtime. Junior forward and Blackhawks prospect John Hayden scored the winner 3:13 into overtime, with Bruins prospect Rob O’Gara picking up the assist. It was just the fifth point of the season for O’Gara, whose numbers are down from 2014-15, when he was third on the team with 21 points.

Three Stars of the Night

Ryan Bowen, Moose Jaw (WHL). The Gordie Howe hat trick (goal, assist, fight) is an endangered species. So you have to appreciate it when it comes around. Bowen, a right winger in his first full season in major junior, scored two goals, assisted on another and logged five minutes in the penalty box for fighting in the Moose Jaw Warriors 4-2 win over Medicine Hat. Bowen, who turned 17 last month, will be eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft.

Paul Berrafato, Holy Cross. Berrafato made 10 of his 16 saves in the third period of the Crusaders’ 2-0 win over American International, their unbeaten streak to 10 games (9-0-1). The sophomore is 11-4-1 in 17 games (15 starts). Berrafato’s 2.06 GAA ranks ninth nationally among goaltenders who have played 15 or more games this season.

John Hayden, Yale. The junior scored twice, the latter being the winner in overtime in Yale’s 3-2 win over UMass on Tuesday. Hayden, a 2013 third-round pick by Chicago, has five goals in his last three games.

Kicking Around the Minors: P-Bruins Win in Springfield

The Providence Bruins snapped a four-game losing streak on Wednesday night, getting the first win of their six-game road trip on Game No. 5, a 4-3 win over Springfield.

The Bruins got three powerplay goals while Malcolm Subban made 17 of his 34 saves in the third period to get the win.

Here’s some other notes of interest from the game

*Austin Czarnik had three assists, his sixth multi-point effort of the season and fifth of this month. He now has 22 points in 25 games, which now leads all active P-Bruins, as leading scorers Seth Griffith (27 points) and Alex Khokhlachev (25) were called up to Boston this week.

Czarnik 14 points in 12 December games.

*Khokhlachev, who was promoted to Boston on Thursday morning, had a goal and an assist, landing five shots on net. The 22-year-old forward has points in 10 of 11 games since returning from a hand injury on Dec. 4.

In other words, a promotion well-earned. Ditto Griffith – called up on Tuesday – whose 27 points is good enough for seventh in the AHL. Sixteen of those points came Griffith’s previous nine games.

*Colton Hargrove scored two goals and assisted on another, erasing a four-game pointless streak. His goal at 2:20 of the second period to put Providence ahead, 2-1, was his first since Dec. 13 against Hartford, a span of five games.

*Robbie Czarnik (cousin of Austin), who was loaned to Providence from Reading of the ECHL, made his P-Bruins debut, posting a minus-one rating to go along with a pair of penalties. Czarnik had 27 points in 29 games for the Reading Royals.

*After an equipment malfunction forced Zane McIntyre to start the game, Subban returned midway through the first period and turned in one of his better performances, stopping 34 of 37 shots, 17 of which came in the the third period.

Subban’s third pro season got off to a rocky start, but has turned a corner of late. The 22-year-old netminder is 5-3-1 in December with a 2.34 GAA and .926 save percentage, averages far more representative of his career totals (2.38/.917).

Elsewhere in the minors:

*Bruins forward David Pastrnak picked up an assist in the Czech Republic’s 5-3 win over Belarus on Wednesday. The Czechs are 2-0 since Pastrnak joined the team, after being released by the Bruins for the tournament. He has a goal and an assist in two games, landing 12 shots on goal, which ties for sixth among players in the tournament.

*Sweden improved to 3-0 in pool play with a 5-0 win over Denmark. Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson was one of 12 Swedish skaters to record a point, assisting on Gustav Forsling’s powerplay goal at 10:22 of the third first period, which put the Swedes ahead, 2-0.

Sweden has posted two consecutive shutouts, and have outscored opponents by a 14-3 margin.

*Bruins prospects Brandon Carlo and Ryan Donato both had goals as Team USA beat Switzerland, 10-1. Carlo, a 2015 second-round pick currently playing for Tri-City of the WHL, scored on a feed from Zach Werenski at 10:13 of the first period to make the score 3-0. Donato’s goal, which was unassisted, wrapped up the scoring with 9:02 left in the second period.

Consensus 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews led the Yanks with a game-high four points. BC forward Colin White had a goal and three points.

*Finland defeated Slovakia, 8-3, in the other WJC action on Wednesday.

*In the WHL, Bruins prospect Jesse Gabrielle scored three goals in Prince George’s 6-3 win over Vancouver. It was Gabrielle’s second hat trick in his 154-game WHL career, the first coming in Sep. 2014 as a member of the Brandon Wheat Kings. The 18-year-old has 23 goals and 40 points in 37 games, the point total already a career-high. He entered the season with 70 points in 117 games since making his WHL debut in March 2013 for Brandon.

Three Stars of the Day

  1. Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL) special teams units: The Phoenix were a combined 11-of-16 in special teams situations, going 4-for-9 on the powerplay while killing all seven penalties in their 4-0 win over Gatineau.
  2. Michigan-commit Quinn Hughes scored four goals and landed 10 shots on net for the USA Under-18 team’s 7-4 win over Muskegon in USHL play.
  3. Hughes’s teammate, Scott Reedy, had a game-high five points (2-3–5) in the win. The Minnesota recruit has five goals and 15 points in 12 games for the U-18s.