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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Kicking Around the Minors: Khokhlachev, Griffith, Czarnik Continue Hot Streaks

A look at the the happenings from around minor league, college, and junior hockey over the weekend:

*The Providence Bruins returned home from a six-game road trip on Sunday, beating Rochester, 5-2. The Bruins, who play 10 of their next 12 games at the Dunkin Donuts Center, began the two-game homestand on a winning note after the 1-5 roadie.

*Alex Khokhlachev, sent down on Saturday after a one-game stint in Boston, tied a season high with four points, scoring two goals. The left-shot center is on a tear, with 7-9–16 totals in 12 games since returning from a hand injury at the beginning of December.

*P-Bruins leading scorer Seth Griffith, sent down along with Koko following a one-week stint in which he saw action in two NHL games, assisted on three goals, including both of Khokhlachev’s. He leads the Baby B’s with 30 points in 25 games.

*Both Griffith and Khokhlachev rank in the top 10 in scoring in the AHL, with Griffith (10-20–30) tied for sixth and Khokhlachev (11-18–29) tied for ninth.

*Austin Czarnik had three assists for the second time in three games. The rookie out of Miami (Ohio) has seven helpers in his last three games, despite having just one goal in his last seven. Czarnik has 18 points in his last 12 games.

*Providence had four powerplay goals in six opportunities. The Bruins have seven goals in their last 15 man-advantage situations. The powerplay unit is the best in the AHL, its success rate currently standing at 24.1 percent.

*Posting a minus-one rating, defenseman Tommy Cross was a minus for the fifth time in his last seven games. He has just one point since the start of November and four since putting up seven in his first six games of the season. The 26-year-old is on a one-year deal that pays $600,000, and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

*Matt Irwin scored 4:27 into the game to open the scoring, extending his goal-scoring streak to three games. The 28-year-old defenseman, in his fifth AHL season, is a plus-four since the start of December. Irwin, who was signed to a one-year deal by the Bruins over the summer and began the season on the NHL roster, playing two games, should be atop the pecking order if Claude Julien is in need of a blueliner.

*Colton Hargrove scored for a third consecutive contest with his tally at 9:49 of the second period. Hargrove has four goals and six points in his last three games.

*Malcolm Subban stopped 27 of 29 shots, shutting out the Amerks in the final 40 minutes, making 18 saves. He hasn’t allowed more than three goals in a game since Nov. 20, a streak of 13 games.

*In World Junior quarterfinal action on Saturday, Team USA advanced to the medal round for the first time since 2013 with a 7-0 win over the Czech Republic. Auston Matthews had a hat trick while Bruins prospects Brandon Carlo and Ryan Donato notched assists.

*It was learned over the weekend that Bruins forward David Pastrnak suffered a finger injury during the tournament, though Julien said the injury isn’t serious. Pastrnak hasn’t played since Oct. 31, missing nearly two months of action before a rehab stint in Providence preceded the World Juniors go-around. The 19-year-old has two goals and four points in 10 games this season.

*Pastrnak finishes the tournament with a goal and four points in foue games. Bruins 2015 top draft pick Jakub Zboril finished with a point. Eighteen-year-old goaltender Daniel Vladar didn’t see any action in the tournament.

*Defending champion Canada was eliminated by Finland, 6-5. The Fins will face Sweden, who beat Slovakia, 6-0, in its quarterfinal match. Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson had two points in the win.

*Jake DeBrusk posted a game-high five points (3-2) in Red Deer’s 10-0 win over Brandon in WHL play on Saturday night. DeBrusk has five goals and 10 points in four games since being traded to Red Deer from Swift Current. He had just a goal and three points in eight games leading up to the trade.