Does the Atlantic Division have a true favorite?

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Every year, sportswriters face tough choices when they make predictions. Can a surprise team find lightning in a bottle once again or will they prove to be one-hit wonders? Will the splashiest moves create a “Dream Team” or an expensive, embarrassing nightmare? Should you tab the best team on paper or try to chart intangible things like chemistry?

While most decisions are tough, there are certain situations that stand out by being unusually difficult to gauge. In my mind, the Atlantic Division race is far more difficult to forecast in 2011-12. You could make an argument for almost every team to win the title, although I don’t think the New York Islanders are “there” yet. (Expect significant strides from that young bunch, though.)

Let’s take a look at what makes each Atlantic team confounding.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils were expected to collapse like they did in 2010-11 during just about every season since the lockout. That’s the natural assumption when you keep losing great (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer) and very good (Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin) defensemen while your star goalie slides further away from his prime.

New Jersey has burned many pundits for counting them out over the years, though. Before 10-11, they ranked high in the standings more often than not, even when they looked thin on paper. They’re a deeply flawed team, but it’s tough to count them out completely considering their organizational guile (not to mention the fact that they employ Zach Parise, Martin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias).

New York Islanders

Again, I don’t expect them to be in the division title chase, but counting this rising team out of the playoff picture is foolish. The Isles could turn some heads, especially if Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo are healthy.

New York Rangers

Click here for a post full of questions about the team, but to play my own devil’s advocate, they have arguably the best goalie in the world (Henrik Lundqvist), one of the league’s best passers (Brad Richards), a fiery coach (John Tortorella) and a ton of worker bees to drop in front of shots and hustle for loose pucks. It’s not outrageous to put them in the mix.

Philadelphia Flyers

Not many division title winners trade away their captain (Mike Richards) and a potent, affordable sniper like Jeff Carter. Then again, the Flyers march to the beat of their own stone-faced drummer.

They still have a nice variety of forwards to work into the lineup, although that group won’t be as good in all three areas of the ice (especially on the penalty kill). It’s hard to tell what to expect from Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek this year, in particular.

Oddly enough, public sentiment seems to be that Ilya Bryzgalov will be a bust. I disagree, even if I firmly nod my head when people discuss the risky nature of his contract. For all that’s been made about Dave Tippett’s defensive system, the Phoenix Coyotes allowed the third most shots per game (32.6) last season. Bryzgalov kept them afloat and should be able to clean up some messes for Philly, which is promising since Chris Pronger’s health is unclear – at best.

Pittsburgh Penguins

A lot of people – and at least one prominent video game – picked the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup, which probably means that they expect them to take their division as well. Two factors make that a risky proposition, though:

1. Obviously, Crosby’s health is a big question mark.

2. The Penguins earned just one division title since Crosby’s debut.

The team should be commended for its work without Crosby and Malkin last season, but they played with a tiny margin of error and scrapped out a lot of charity points in that time. Geno could indeed be explosive next season, but the Penguins’ aren’t a lock to win the Atlantic by any means.

Then again, who is?

Flames win in OT, setting up a four-team race for Pacific Division title

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Sean Monahan likes working overtime. The Calgary Flames forward proved it again Saturday night.

Monahan scored with 3 seconds left in overtime, lifting the Flames past the St. Louis Blues 3-2. Troy Brouwer and Matt Bartkowski also scored for the Flames, who improved to 13-4 in overtime this season. Brian Elliott made 29 saves.

Monahan’s winning goal deflected off of Blues forward Kyle Brodziak. It was his third goal in his last four games.

“You never know, when you throw pucks at the net, anything can happen,” Monahan said. “That’s a good bounce, a lucky bounce and we’ll take it.”

Monahan set the Flames franchise record with the seventh regular-season overtime goal of his career. He also has seven career shootout winners.

Flames coach Glen Gulutzan didn’t know what happened at first immediately after the game-winner.

“I jumped when everybody else jumped and it was kind of like, I didn’t get the joke, right?” Gulutzan said. “Everybody got the joke, I didn’t. I just jumped because I saw everybody else jump. So now I’ve got to take a look at it now.”

Ivan Barbashev and Jaden Schwartz scored for the Blues, who had their four-game winning streak snapped. Jake Allen made 28 saves and all three goals he gave up went off of teammates.

“You feel bad for Jake when he played the way he did,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “If you give up three goals off your own guys, it means probably, for the most part, you’re doing a good job defensively. Some tough bounces there, but we got a point out of it.”

The Blues fell one point behind Nashville for third in the Central Division with 86 points and eight games to go. St. Louis trails Calgary by two points for the top wild-card spot.

The Flames snapped a two-game skid, salvaging the finale of a three-game road trip.

“It was a quick-paced game and it was pretty physical and it was back and forth all night, but we feel good right now and we’re both fighting to stay in the playoffs and it was a big win for our team,” Monahan said.

Schwartz gave the Blues a 2-1 lead at the 7:16 mark of the third period. The puck went off of Schwartz’s skate and the goal was upheld after a review.

Bartkowski tied it at 10:53. It was the first goal in 17 games this season for the Flames defenseman.

Brouwer’s power-play goal gave the Flames a 1-0 lead with 2:49 left in the first period. It snapped an 0-for-12 scoreless streak with the man advantage for Calgary.

Elliott stopped all 13 shots in the opening frame, including two quality chances by Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo on a Blues power play.

Elliott improved to 4-1 all-time against his former team, including a 2-0 mark this season.

“I mean, obviously, you’d like to give up no goals there and I thought it was a blatant kicking motion (by Schwartz), but you’ve got to get points somehow in this league,” Elliott said. “It was big to solidify one point and then to go after the next one.”

Barbashev tied it at the 8:08 mark of the second period. Colton Parayko‘s pass drew Elliott out of position and Barbashev, on his second try after his first was blocked by a Calgary defender, put the puck in the empty net.

“After the first off the legs of the D or someone, I saw the puck was going back and I wasn’t for 100 percent sure that someone was going to be there, but I got lucky,” Barbashev said.

Sharks coach DeBoer wasn’t happy with Jarnkrok hit that preceded Haley match penalty

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San Jose Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer weighed in on Micheal Haley‘s sucker punch on Calle Jarnkrok in the third period of Saturday’s game.

Haley was given a match penalty for the incident. He was hit into the boards by Jarnkrok and immediately retaliated, dropping the Nashville Predators forward with one punch as a melee ensued.

Jarnkrok was penalized for boarding on the hit.

DeBoer had an interesting take on the incident.

“When you run someone from behind in a game like that, you probably deserve to get a punch in the mouth,” he told reporters.

The Sharks have now lost six in a row, after a 7-2 defeat to the Predators. The Oilers defeated the Avalanche on Saturday, which puts San Jose into a three-way tie with Anaheim and Edmonton at 91 points for first place in the Pacific Division.

In two games this weekend versus Dallas and Nashville, the Sharks were outscored 13-3.

It gets worse.

Per CSN Bay Area, forward Logan Couture was taken to the hospital after he took a puck to the mouth and lost a tooth late in the second period.

“You can’t replace him, so it would be really tough,” said Patrick Marleau of Couture. “But if that is the case, then guys are going to have to pull up the slack. Definitely we hope he’s back sooner.”

Babcock: ‘I don’t know the answer’ about status of injured goalie Andersen

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Not only did the Toronto Maple Leafs lose in Buffalo on Saturday, but goalie Frederik Andersen left the game with an upper-body injury and didn’t return.

Curtis McElhinney took over in net to begin the second period. He allowed three goals on 22 shots, as Buffalo busted this one wide open with three goals in the middle frame on the way to a 5-2 victory.

Despite the loss, the Maple Leafs remain third in the Atlantic Division. But the Andersen injury is definitely a concerning development as Toronto looks to accelerate its rebuild by qualifying for the post-season.

Head coach Mike Babcock didn’t provide an update on Andersen following the game. But he did drop one little tidbit of information that has led to speculation about the possible nature of the injury.

From the Toronto Sun:

The suspicion was that Andersen has suffered a concussion or a shoulder injury, though coach Mike Babcock had no update.

“I can’t really tell you because I don’t know the answer,” Babcock said.

“The other team’s doctor thought he should come out of the game so he came out of the game. Once our doctors see him (on Sunday), I will have a better handle on what is going on and I will be able to tell you.

It’s not exactly clear when or how the injury occurred, but possibilities have been discussed. Here’s one example:

Video: Haley given match penalty for sucker punch, Sharks lose sixth straight

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Things continue to snowball out of control for the San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks lost their sixth consecutive game after yet another blowout defeat, this time by a final score of 7-2 versus the Nashville Predators on Saturday. Forward Logan Couture lost a tooth after taking a puck to the face in the second period.

And late in the game, Micheal Haley was given a match penalty for an incident involving Calle Jarnkrok.

The Sharks forward is now automatically suspended until commissioner Gary Bettman reviews the incident.

This incident occurred when Haley was hit into the boards by Jarnkrok. Haley then got up, sped right toward the Predators forward, dropped his gloves and delivered a punch to Jarnkrok as he tried to back away, knocking him to the ice.

Jarnkrok was given a minor penalty for boarding.

Haley was also involved in a fight with Cody McLeod early in the first period.

This has been a particularly shocking, if not embarrassing stretch for the Sharks. In a two-game trip to Dallas and Nashville, against teams below them in the standings, the Sharks were outscored 13-3.

Martin Jones allowed seven goals on 34 shots faced.

If Edmonton wins tonight, the Sharks, Ducks and Oilers will be in a three-way tie for first place in the Pacific Division.

Related: What is wrong with the Sharks?