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?

NHL on NBCSN: Dominant Lightning still have chip on their shoulder

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning have put together an incredible season thus far. How great have they been? Well, just take a look at the league standings. Through 59 games, the Bolts have accumulated 92 points. That puts them 15 points ahead of the Calgary Flames, who are the second-best team in the NHL right now.

If you were expecting the Lightning to slow down with such a big lead, you were mistaken. Tampa Bay still hasn’t dropped a game in regulation this month, as they’re in the middle of a 7-0-2 stretch in the month February. And it’s not like they’re beating up on bad teams, either.

They’ve taken down the Islanders, who are the best team in the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens over the last three weeks.

How do they stay motivated with a such a big lead in the standings? Clearly, they’re being fuelled by their lack of Stanley Cup Championships.

“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Steven Stamkos said, per USA Today. “I’m sure there are a lot of teams that would be happy to go to a Stanley Cup Final and three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals. That’s tough to do. But with the expectations being so high for our group, we came into this year thinking this was our year, our turn.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Here’s how good they’ve been in 2018-19:

• They have a plus-73 goal differential. The Maple Leafs are second in that category and they’re at plus-42.

Nikita Kucherov has 94 points in 59 games. He’s six away from setting a new career high. Oh, and Patrick Kane is second in scoring this season (87 points in 58 games).

• The Lightning have three players in the top nine when it comes to scoring. Kucherov, Brayden Point (75 points in 58 games) and Steven Stamkos (71 points in 59 games). Only Colorado has more than one.

• Tampa has the best power play in the NHL. They have a success rate of 29.7 percent. The Bruins are 3.2 percent away from the Lightning in this category.

• Their penalty kill is ranked second in the league at 84.6 percent. Only Arizona (85.2 percent) is ahead of them.

All impressive totals, right? So let’s take a look at the advanced numbers, too (all stats via Natural Stat Trick):

• The Lightning are eighth in CF% at 51.95 percent. San Jose, Carolina, Vegas, Montreal, Nashville, Boston and Calgary are all ahead of them.

• When it comes to scoring chances, they have a 53.16 percent share of those opportunities this season. Only Vegas, Carolina, San Jose and Minnesota have a bigger share of the scoring chances.

• When it comes to high-danger scoring, as you’d imagine, the Lightning find themselves with the sixth-highest percentage in that category.

The Lightning have been dominant all year and now they just have to hope that they can stay healthy before the start of the playoffs.

MORE: What should Lightning add at trade deadline?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Ducks retire Niedermayer’s no. 27; Is Simmonds heading to Tampa?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Hockey News provides us with top 10 lists of active players in different categories that mean the most. (The Hockey News)

• The Anaheim Ducks retired Scott Niedermayer’s no. 27 last night. (NHL.com)

• The Columbus Blue Jackets are starting to suffer trade deadline fatigue. Their fans are counting down the days until Feb. 25. (The Cannon)

• Campbell Weaver has been added to the Bruins analytics department. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• After the Lightning and Canadiens faced off on Saturday night, the Montreal Gazette made the comparison between the Bolts and 1976-77 Habs. (Montreal Gazette)

• Capitals head coach Todd Reirden found an interesting way to connect with some his foreign players. (Washington Post)

• Is Wayne Simmonds heading to Tampa? The Tampa Times answers five questions on that subject. (Tampa Times)

• The Maple Leafs are going to need their veterans to perform better than they are right now. (Toronto Star)

• The fact that the Islanders are going to be playing their first-round playoff series at Nassau Coliseum is nothing but good news. (Newsday)

• Should the Florida Panthers trade Mike Hoffman? (The Rat Trick)

• The Avs have plenty of cap space, so they should use it to buy bad contracts from other teams. (Mile High Hockey)

Mark Stone should be the Golden Knights’ top target at the trade deadline, according to Steve Carp. (Sinbin.Vegas)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Binnington posts another shutout; Barkov scores wonder goal

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Three stars

1. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues

The kid has been in this category a pile of times since Jan. 7 when he made his first start of the season. That night, he recorded his first NHL shutout and grabbed his first NHL win.

Fast forward a month and a bit and Binnington’s flashy start hasn’t turned out to be a fluke. He shutout the Minnesota Wild with a 30-save performance on Sunday, three days after he shutout the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.

‘Winnington’ has four shutouts on the season now. That’s four since Jan. 7. He owns a 12-1-1 record. That’s also since Jan. 7. And he’s a big, big part of why the Blues have 10 straight wins, matching a franchise record.

There’s no hotter goalie in the NHL and subsequently, no hotter team.

2. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers 

Barkov belongs on the list for this goal, alone:

But Barkov also had a hat trick on the night, including the go-ahead goal (the one above) and the insurance marker in the third period.

He added an assist for the four-point night.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins needed someone to step up to keep ahold of their playoff spot and Evgeni Malkin’s two goals 2:31 apart in the third period gave the Penguins just what they needed in a 6-5 win.

Malkin missed five games because of injury and another because of suspension, but since he returned from his ailment, all he’s’ done is produce. He’s got four goals and two assists in three games since his return.

Pittsburgh is in a real fight for a playoff spot, so a hot Malkin, as opposed to a hot-headed Malkin, will be key down the stretch. They need his production in a big way.

Highlights of the night

The legend:

Ovechkin hits 40, again:

Odd but effective:

Factoids

Scores

Penguins 6, Rangers 5
Blues 4, Wild 0
Devils 4, Sabres 1
Flyers 3, Red Wings 1
Panthers 6, Canadiens 3
Ducks 5, Capitals 2

If you missed any of the Hockey Day in America stories, check out NBC Sports here. 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

 

Panthers’ Barkov scores candidate for goal of the year

Fox Sports
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Well, this is beyond filthy.

Scoring a goal in the NHL is hard enough. Dropping it between your legs and roofing it while being hacked by a defenseman who’s in close proximity? Impossible, you’d think.

Aleksander Barkov: “Hold my drink…”

Barkov pulled off the impossible on Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens, making Victor Mete look silly and Carey Price, too. Two good players, both left embarrassed.

Make sure you’re sitting for this one:

As the color man said on the Fox Sports broadcast, “There are some things you just cannot analyze.”

Indeed. You can only marvel at this one.

If you missed any of the Hockey Day in America stories, check out NBC Sports here. 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck