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?

Ovechkin passes Kurri for 19th all-time with goal 602


It’s unclear if Alex Ovechkin will best the next great Finnish sniper for the Maurice Richard Trophy, but he passed one of the best Finnish scorers ever in the all-time goal rankings on Tuesday.

With the 602nd goal of his already-impressive career, Ovechkin now sits alone at 19th place in NHL history, breaking a tie with Wayne Gretzky’s former partner-in-crime Jari Kurri. It says a lot about Ovechkin’s sniping that he reached 602 in game 994 of his career, while Kurri finished with 601 goals in 1,251 regular-season games.

Ovechkin also broke a tie with Patrik Laine for the goals lead in 2017-18, at least for now (both Ovechkin and Laine can beef up their stats as tonight goes along).

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Ovechkin’s 602nd goal is also his 44th of the season, and it’s very much from “his office.”

Keeping up with the Finnish theme, take a look at how many goals Ovechkin needs to score to catch Teemu Selanne at 11th place:

11. Selanne: 684 goals.
12. Luc Robitaille: 668
13. Brendan Shanahan: 656
14. Dave Andreychuk: 640
15 (tied). Jarome Iginla, Joe Sakic: 625
17. Bobby Hull: 610
18. Dino Ciccarelli: 608
19. Ovechkin: 602

If he closes out 2017-18 with a burst, Ovechkin could conceivably push Ciccarelli or even Hull. It would be tough to imagine Ovechkin reaching Robitaille through 2018-19, but either way, the Capitals superstar has a chance to rocket up the ranks in little time.

[Can Ovechkin catch Gretzky’s 894 goals?]

After their respective games tonight, both the Capitals and Jets have nine more games remaining before the playoffs begin. It should be an entertaining race to the Richard, and maybe another 50-goal season if Ovechkin really heats up.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers at Detroit Red Wings

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Philadelphia Flyers

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Oskar LindblomNolan PatrickJakub Voracek

Jordan WealValtteri FilppulaWayne Simmonds

Jori LehteraScott Laughton — Matt Read

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Travis Sanheim — Andrew MacDonald

Robert HaggRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Petr Mrazek

[Flyers – Red Wings preview]

Detroit Red Wings

Tyler BertuzziHenrik ZetterbergGustav Nyquist

Darren HelmDylan LarkinAnthony Mantha

Justin AbdelkaderFrans NielsenAndreas Athanasiou

Evgeny Svechnikov — Luke GlendeningMartin Frk

Niklas KronwallMike Green

Jonathan EricssonTrevor Daley

Danny DeKeyserNick Jensen

Jimmy Howard

Derick Brassard trying to fit in, not be ‘savior’ with Penguins

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When Derick Brassard hits the ice for his first shift Tuesday night against the New York Islanders, he’ll be involved in his 10th game as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since coming over from the Ottawa Senators in that wild three-team deal just before the NHL trade deadline last month, the 30-year-old center has a goal and four points.

Any player who goes from a lottery team to a contender around the trade deadline has pressure on them. Their new team gave up assets in hopes that they were either the last piece of a championship puzzle or someone who can fill a role and strengthen an area. In Brassard’s case, he was brought over to take over third-line center duties behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins had options, like Riley Sheahan, but were looking for an upgrade in order to bolster their bottom six.

Luckily for Brassard, he joined a team that’s won the last two Stanley Cups and has a locker room full of stars who have mantles full of various accomplishments. The Penguins are lined up for another Cup run, and these last few weeks have given him an opportunity to blend into a lineup that’s looking for a three-peat.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

“I know it’s going to take a little time. I feel like I have a lot more to give. It’s a process,” Brassard said last week after a morning skate at Madison Square Garden. “I’m going to take some time here and try and make sure I’m going into the playoffs with my ‘A’ game.”

Brassard admitted he’s still not at a full comfort level since the trade, but that will take time. He’s been playing mostly with Phil Kessel on one of his wings as Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan and Conor Sheary have seen time on the other side at even strength. That’s the good fortune that head coach Mike Sullivan has — he has that option to mix and match players given the lineup he’s working with.

Brassard knows his role behind Crosby and Malkin, and that’s alleviated any pressure of trying to do too much when it’s time to hop over the boards.

“For me, playing behind those two guys I don’t try to put any pressure on myself,” he said. “I just try to be myself. This group proved that the last two years. I’m not here to be a savior. I’m just going to try and play my game and be myself.”

While on the ice he’s still finding his way, in the dressing room it’s been a smooth transition with plenty of familiarity.

• He was teammates with Carl Hagelin and Matt Hunwick with the New York Rangers, who also employed Sullivan as an assistant while Brassard was there.

• He played against Sidney Crosby in junior hockey.

• In each of the last four postseasons, his previous two teams — the Rangers and Senators — have met the Penguins and gone 2-2 against them .

Having been eliminated by the eventual champions the last two seasons, Brassard is hoping for a different ending this time around.

“It’s nice to be on this side,” he said. “It’s a really good team and I have a chance to do something special.”


Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

GMs want goalie interference reviews centralized; no change coming for offside rule


The NHL’s replay system for goaltender interference could be on the verge of getting a little bit of an overhaul.

The league’s general managers discussed the process this week at the GM meetings in Boca Raton, Florida and recommended that the final decision for goalie interference challenges be handled by the hockey operations department in Toronto’s situation room, according to TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

Currently, those review decisions are made by the on-ice officials at the game.

Goalie interference has been one of the biggest hot button topics in the NHL this season and pretty much nobody seems to be happy with how it has gone because there does not seem to be any consistent standard on how it is enforced, what interference is, and whether or not goals will be allowed to stand once they are challenged.

[Related: NHL GMs are at least trying to fix goalie interference reviews]

There have been no shortage of complaints from players (particularly goalies) and coaches over the past few months.

By having the final decision handled by the folks in Toronto it would at least seem to bring some level of consistency to the calls because it would be the same people making the decisions every time.

On the other hand, it could also lead to even more confusion because an entirely new set of people are now making the decision just as the playoffs are set to begin.

Before that change can be made it has to be approved by the NHLPA, the officials union, and the NHL’s board of governors. That process is currently underway.

While the wheels are in motion for the goalie interference review process to change, the NHL’s general managers voted down a potential change to the offside rule.

It had been proposed that the NHL change the wording of the offside rule to allow players to have their skate off the ice when entering the zone, essentially turning the blue line into a vertical plane. The thinking there is that it would cut down on the number of offside calls and allow more goals to stand if a player’s skate is still behind the blue line but a couple of inches off the ice. As the rule is written now, the skate must remain on the ice for the play to be onside.

Colin Campbell said on Tuesday that there was not much of a push from the GMs to change that rule because “players know the rule,” via Seravalli.


Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.