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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Stat of the Day: Ryan Spooner Point-per-Game Pace Since Krejci Injury

Injuries limited Bruins center David Krejci to 47 games last season, and the Bruins missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years in large part because of it.

The misfortune has persisted into 2016, with Krejci suffering an upper-body injury in the Bruins 3-1 loss to Ottawa on December 27. The timetable for the pivot’s return is ‘week-to-week’, according to the team.

The Bruins have gone 2-2-1 in Krejci’s absence, a mark that could be much worse if not for Ryan Spooner, who has stepped up in a way nobody did when Krejci went down in 2014-15.

Spooner came up late last season, and playing largely against bottom-six opponents. He posted an impressive 16-24–40 line in 59 games between his February 2015 call-up and Krejci’s injury in Ottawa two weeks ago.

With Krejci out, it was time for the 23-year-old Spooner to step up and play the big boys. And he’s answered the bell.

Spooner has six points in five games since becoming the No. 2 to Bruins ace pivot Patrice Bergeron. His lone goal of the stretch came in the second period of the Bruins 4-1 win over New Jersey on Friday night. The score, which put the B’s ahead 2-0, proved to be the winning tally in the game.

Spooner has averaged 18:18 of ice time per game, while winning faceoffs at a 46 percent clip (29 of 63). His season averaged heading into the stretch was 41.7.

Stat of the Day: First Bruins Game With Three Multiple-Goal Scorers Since 2001

When Jimmy Hayes scored in the final second of regulation for the Bruins on Tuesday night against Ottawa, it put an exclamation point on the B’s 7-3 win over their Atlantic Division rivals. It also gave Hayes his first NHL hat trick.

But in terms of reaching a statistical milestone not recorded in quite some time – or in Hayes’s case, ever – the job had already been done.

With Hayes’s three-goal night along with two-goal performances from Patrice Bergeron and Matt Beleskey, the Bruins had three multiple goal scorers in the same game for the first time since Dec. 28, 2001.

In that game, the Bruins defeated the Florida Panthers, 7-1, on the heels of two-goal performances by Bill Guerin, Mike Knuble, and Glen Murray. The other goal scorer that night was Rob Zamuner.

Also in that 2001 game, Joe Thornton notched five assists, which has been done by a Bruin just once since, when Bergeron assisted on five goals on Dec. 19, 2006 against Ottawa. Overall, there have been 25 such performances since the night Jumbo Joe had a helper for each hand.

While there was no five-assist performance on Tuesday night, there were certainly no puck-hogs wearing black-and-gold, as 13 Boston assists were recorded on the scoresheet, the highest since the B’s recorded 14 on Feb. 18, 2014, a 7-2 win over the Sens. Loui Eriksson, Torey Krug, Ryan Spooner, and Max Talbot each had two assists on Tuesday.