Ahh, the Atlantic. What mysteries and wonder its deep waters hold.
Not the ocean, mind you. The collection of NHL teams, this year scattered across the East, Central, and North divisions.
Next season, when they reconvene in their former alignment, the Bruins and their Atlantic Division mates could be the most interesting and powerful collection of teams in the game … particularly with Toronto coming off a Stanley Cup win.
Checking in on the ex-Atlantic squads, with the final 10 weeks of the regular season ahead:
Toronto Maple Leafs — To the surprise of few, the most talented roster in Canada is pounding a bunch of defensively deficient teams. At 15-4-2 entering the weekend, the Leafs had the best points percentage (.762) in the league, and only Edmonton (79) had scored more goals than Toronto’s 74. Are the numbers juiced by playing the Senators and Canucks (tied for last in goals allowed, 85), Oilers, and Flames (sixth-worst and ninth-worst, respectively)? Probably. Is this one of the best teams in the league? No question.
Will they win their first Cup since 1967 and Canada’s first since 1993?
Let’s answer that beginning in May, when they will, in all likelihood, enter the playoffs with the best odds of making the Cup semifinals (remember, it’s in-division playoffs until the final four).
This much is clear: With 18 goals in his first 20 games, it’s Auston Matthews’s Rocket Richard Trophy to lose. Same goes for the Hart, too, unless Connor McDavid leads an Oil surge to the North crown.
Montreal Canadiens — Few coaches understand the old Bum Phillips line — to paraphrase: You’re either fired or about to be — better than Claude Julien. This past week he was canned for the fourth time, each coming in the second half of a season, twice by the Canadiens.
It is now on general manager Marc Bergevin, who hoped his revamped roster would win a playoff series for the first time in five seasons. They opened the year 8-2-2 but had lost five of six, including twice to bottom-feeder Ottawa, before Bergevin flexed his muscles. On Thursday, the post-Claude Habs lost a pair of two-goal leads and dropped a 6-3 decision to the Jets.
The lingering question: For a team that finished 24th last season, where were the expectations, exactly?
Certainly they anticipated Carey Price would be better. His .888 save percentage ranked fourth-worst among goalies with 10 or more games, and his goals saved above expected (minus-6.76) was fifth-worst. Price’s save percentages in the previous three seasons: .909, .918, and .900. Not promising for a netminder with a $10.5 million cap hit — richest in the league — for five seasons after this.
Will interim coach Dominique Ducharme use backup Jake Allen more? His numbers — namely, a .932 save percentage in seven starts — warrant that consideration. If Ducharme isn’t the long-term solution, AHL Laval coach Joël Bouchard is one of five of his AHL peers originally from Quebec. The others: Benoit Groulx (Tampa organization), Pascal Vincent (Winnipeg), Steve Potvin (Arizona), and Kevin Dineen (Anaheim).
Buffalo Sabres — The Bruins still haven’t seen the Sabres, who were hit with COVID-19 issues early and were plodding along at 6-8-3. By the time they play each other eight times in Buffalo’s final 28 games, will Jack Eichel still be a Sabre?
Little has gone right for the captain, who has a 2-12—14 line in 16 games. He missed Thursday’s game with a lower-body injury, ostensibly hurt in warm-ups. He’s not alone. Jeff Skinner, in the second season of an eight-year, $72 million deal with a no-move clause, was a healthy scratch for three straight games entering the weekend. The big offseason addition, Taylor Hall, hasn’t scored in his last 16 games.
“I don’t even know, honestly,” Hall said. “When you don’t see the puck go in the back of the net, it makes you question a lot.”
Buffalo’s idea in signing Hall to a one-year, $8 million deal was that he would settle in, or go bananas playing with Eichel, and bring a haul at the trade deadline. No dice on either. The Sabres could land a bonanza return for Eichel -— and the Rangers and Kings, both in desperate need of a game-changing No. 1 center, have beaucoup assets to deal — but it’s probably not worth it for GM Kevyn Adams unless he can wipe Skinner from the books and pick up assets such as Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, and Quinton Byfield.
Florida Panthers — Have the first-place Panthers (13-4-2 entering the weekend) finally put it together? Not only had Joel Quenneville’s bunch not lost two straight, they won two of their first three against the Lightning. We might finally see that Alligator Alley playoff series.
A playoff win or two might help convince Aleksander Barkov to stick around. The captain, who has two years left on one of the NHL’s bargain-basement deals ($5.9 million per, the same AAV as Jonathan Huberdeau), looks like he has more around him. Patric Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe each were producing nearly a point per game. If Chris Driedger posts a second 10 games like his first 10 (7-2-1, nine quality starts, .928 save percentage), if Sergei Bobrovsky (.897 save percentage through nine games) or Noel Acciari (0-0—0 in 12 games) starts producing, the Cats may really be for real.
More positive news: Local cable ratings on Fox Sports Florida were up 54 percent, and the Panthers are on pace for their highest-rated season locally in 18 years. When it’s safe, they might draw a few full houses of hopefuls.
Tampa Bay Lightning — The Lightning, in second place behind the Panthers, entered the weekend without Nikita Kucherov (missing the regular season with a hip injury), Anthony Cirelli (week to week with an upper-body injury), and Erik Cernak (left Thursday’s game with a lower-body injury) and still had the best goal differential at five on five — 39 for, 25 against — in the NHL. So, status quo.
If awards balloting was conducted this week, Andrei Vasilevskiy (Vezina) and Victor Hedman (Norris) would get first-place votes here.
Ottawa Senators — A lot of young players making mistakes nightly.
No one had allowed more goals (61) at five on five. Of the 74 goalies in the league, Marcus Hogberg and Matt Murray ranked 74th and 72nd, respectively, in goals saved above expected. At five on five, the league average save percentage is .923. The Senators’ is .895.
Bright spot: Chicago netminder Kevin Lankinen is the early favorite for the Calder trophy, but Ottawa’s Josh Norris (4-8—12) and Tim Stützle (5-6—11) aren’t out of the running.
Detroit Red Wings — Tussling with Ottawa for last overall. The No. 1 pick is worth angling for, even if the status of the 2021 draft is up in the air; Covid-19 has washed away thousands of games for this amateur class.
IT WON’T BE EASY
Difficult scheduling in the second half
The NHL’s fan-less era is drawing to a close.
By March 23, when the Bruins will open TD Garden at 12 percent capacity — approximately 2,100 fans — they could be at least the 14th team to bring back fans.
The team did not issue an advance apology that the opponent for March 23 is the Islanders. Ruminating on the idea of playing in front of fans, Islanders coach Barry Trotz was soothed, the opposite of how the Bruins felt after starting 0-3-0 against the former Fish Sticks.
“There’s something about the human spirit, the human emotion that you can’t replicate,” Trotz mused, before his club pounded the Bruins, 7-2, on Thursday. “It’s pure joy, it’s pure anger, it’s pure everything. It’s fellowship. It’s the event. It’s the buzz. There’s nothing that can replicate that.”
The four teams that allowed fans in the building to start the season — Arizona, Dallas, Florida, and Nashville — were joined in February by St. Louis, the three New York teams, New Jersey, and Tampa Bay.
Carolina, Columbus, and Vegas will open to fans the first week of March.
All of this, assuming viral trends continue.
The familiar comforts of humanity aside, several teams were looking at some harsh scheduling. The Stars, who had played a league-low 15 games through Friday, will play 43 games in 76 days, including 10 back-to-backs.
“Hockey is not meant to be played four [games] in six [nights], let alone what we’re going to do,” coach Rick Bowness said. “No, I’ve never seen anything like this. I hope I never see it again. This is going to be incredibly taxing on our players. There’s no question. You run the risk of guys who have to play 20-22 minutes a night in order to give us a good chance to win, it’s going to affect them the most.”
Makes one wonder if the NHL and NHLPA will extend the regular season beyond the current end-of-season date (May 8). They have a week or two to play with, if they need it.
The Bruins, who have been healthy but had a handful of games postponed for COVID-19 safety, will end with 40 games in 72 days.
“You’re in playoff mode, and will be probably for five months,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s March, April, May, June, July [for] the team that makes it. You may catch a break in there if you make the playoffs and you’re able to eliminate a series [quickly]. I think that’s the way it’s going to be, which will be difficult on players.
“Teams are already down players because of injuries, the short training camp, the urgency of the schedule. I can only imagine once it amps up once you get closer and closer to crunch time. We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully, the players come out of it OK.”
Is it fair?
“My dad used to tell me fair is something you go to in the summertime and get on a ride,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “So I’ll leave it at that.”
Blues not what they used to be
Tough times in St. Louis. In a top-heavy West Division, the Blues opened 7-2-1 with a win over powerhouse Colorado, but entering the weekend had one regulation win in their last 10 (3-6-1). In a pandemic-season quirk, that run included seven straight against the Coyotes. No matter who they’re playing lately, they aren’t getting through.
“It hurts to win in this league,” said defenseman Torey Krug, calling on his mates to halt the perimeter play and get to the blue paint. “We don’t need any superheroes out there. Just do a little bit more, and collectively as a group, work through this together.”
One of those losses, on Wednesday to the Kings, was a good example of the Blues’ problems.
Down a pair of goals, they played a game of keepaway on a delayed penalty that lasted 3 minutes 30 seconds. With an extra attacker, they strung together 64 passes over three full regroups, and landed three of six shot attempts on goal before Kings goalie Cal Petersen covered the puck.
Krug, who sometimes spent the full two minutes on a power play in his Bruins days, had two of the longest shifts of his career back to back. He was on for 2:54 during the delayed penalty, rested for a minute, then played the final 4:02 of the game. St. Louis scored to cut the deficit to one, but lost, 2-1.
Ever seen anything like it? Krug hadn’t.
“The longest delayed penalty call that I’ve seen,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “Both teams had to go through a line rotation. I know the Kings coach fell asleep and didn’t have a line ready, ‘cause you never expect it to happen. So shame on me for not paying attention.
“When a team’s in your end that long, it feels real dangerous, unless you’re playing it properly,” added McLellan, whose first AHL job was with Minnesota’s farm team in Houston (2001-05). He recalled then-Wild coach Jacques Lemaire advising the team: “They can play in your end for 82 games, 60 minutes a night, and you can still get 82 points and make the playoffs by tying every game.” Maybe, if you have Martin Brodeur.
Babcock pushes back on criticism
Former Maple Leafs and Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who had a brief stint as an NBC analyst and University of Vermont assistant this season, wasn’t exactly contrite in a televised interview with Sportsnet’s Christine Simpson.
Babcock was said to have mentally abused players (former Detroit forward Johan Franzen, in a Swedish interview, called him “a terrible person … a bully.”)
“If you think it’s a tactic to haze a guy, that’s the craziest thing ever,” Babcock said, saying he made mistakes. “But if you didn’t, you shouldn’t own that, either.”
He spent some of the interview boasting about his credentials; in his view, his résumé means he must be OK. After all, he was hired to coach Canadian Olympic teams.
“You can’t have the family I have and the opportunities I’ve had without treating people good,” he said. “Have I crossed the line ever? Absolutely.”
Curiously, he also acknowledged his 2015-16 Toronto team “[made] sure we finished last to get Auston Matthews.“ Rare to see an admission of tanking, which is officially verboten in the NHL.
David Pastrnak reached the 400-game mark on Thursday, with 189 goals on the books. Since 2000, only four players had more goals at that point in their careers: Alex Ovechkin (273), Steven Stamkos (229), Ilya Kovalchuk (211), and Sidney Crosby (207). Coming up: Connor McDavid and Matthews, both at 176 goals. McDavid was at 373 games entering Friday, Matthews at 302 … Among Bruins who played their first 400 games in Boston, Pastrnak (189 goals) ranks ahead of Keith Crowder (155), Woody Dumart and Dit Clapper (151 each), and Bobby Orr (150). Pastrnak has the third-most points of young Bruins through 400 games (393), behind Orr (508) and Ray Bourque (407) ... Of players who started their careers elsewhere, Pastrnak ranked behind Phil Esposito (283 goals in his first 400 Bruins games), Cam Neely (257), and Peter McNab (198) … Great to see Henrik Lundqvist return to the ice for workouts. King Henrik, who trained at a rink separate from his Capitals teammates, wrote on social media that his return from heart surgery was “very rewarding,” but “it will be months before I can make any decisions regarding my future.” The 38-year-old had an aortic valve replacement, aortic root and ascending aortic replacement in January, after managing a heart condition his entire career. “The one thing I do know with 100 percent certainty is that I still love the game,” he said … Entering the weekend, Patrice Bergeron (second) and David Krejci (fifth) ranked in the top five of qualifying faceoff-takers across the league. Another reason for the Bruins’ puck-possession prowess: The top lefthanded option on the team, Sean Kuraly, was winning a career-best 61.4 percent of his draws. Kuraly was at 48.8 percent last season … At 7 p.m. Sunday, the Dream Gap Tour will be shown on NHL Network. The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, the group of elite women who pledged to not play in any league (including the National Women’s Hockey League) until a “viable” women’s league presented itself, will skate for the first time at Madison Square Garden ... A pleasant addition to the Bruins’ media scene: “Morning Bru,” the quick-hit podcast in which Andrew Raycroft and NESN cohort Billy Jaffe review the previous night’s game. Good hockey talk, with a scarcity of the sports-talk bloviating found elsewhere in town. “You don’t need a lot of hot takes because they’re good,” Raycroft said. “If they stink, Bruce [Cassidy] has already said it, the players have already said it.” Not that Raycroft is averse to being critical. He played in Canada. “I do a weekly radio spot in Toronto and they’re talk about the Leafs for nine hours,” he said. “It is full anxiety, paranoia. Leafs fans are absolutely the most paranoid. The media is even worse. They’re always waiting for the next shoe to drop.” It’ll be different after they win the Cup. Right?