Can Atlantic Division teams keep rolling?

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The overall expectations for the Atlantic Division weren’t very high. Coming into the season, everyone believed that Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston would be the top three teams. Some had Florida making it to the playoffs in a Wild Card spot, but the expectations for the rest of the division weren’t very high. So far, those teams have done pretty well.

As of right now, the Maple Leafs, Lightning and Canadiens own the first three spots in the division. The Wild Card spots are owned by the Bruins and Sabres. That’s encouraging considering both Wild Card spots went to Metropolitan Division teams (Columbus and New Jersey) last season. The first team on the outside looking in to the playoffs is the Ottawa Senators, which means that Atlantic Divisions teams take up six of the top nine spots in the East.

Yes, it’s still early, but we have to acknowledge that there have been some pleasant surprises so far. With so much off-season drama in Montreal and Ottawa, it was easy to write those teams off. But they’ve both been incredibly solid during the first three weeks of the season. Both teams traded their captains away before the start of the preseason, but they’ve both figured out that the key to being successful in today’s NHL is speed. The Habs and Sens have found a way to play fast more often than not and they’ve been rewarded with some positive results.

The Sabres were one of the trendy “surprise” picks, but not many people were comfortable sliding them into a playoff spot. Thanks to a 5-4-0 start, they’re sitting in the second Wild Card slot behind Boston. Yes, a 5-4-0 record is nothing to write home about, but the Sabres didn’t collect their fifth of last season until Nov. 7. That’s an encouraging sign for a young team that is looking to create some positive momentum.

Teams like Washington, Philadelphia and Columbus, who are all out of the playoffs right now, will come around, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll come at the expense of all the Atlantic teams. Is Carolina for real in the Metro? That remains to be seen. Are the Devils good enough to finish in the top three slots of their division? Again, that’s not a slam dunk. So yeah, there’s a good chance that certain teams in the Metro will pick it up in the near future, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that certain teams in the Atlantic are better than we had anticipated. They’ll make the playoff race interesting.

The Florida Panthers will also be a factor here at some point. Not having a healthy Roberto Luongo has been an issue for them, but once they get him back they could go on a run of their own. The Panthers missed the playoffs by just a single point last season, and the addition of Mike Hoffman could take them over the edge.

The only team that can really be counted out at this point, is the Detroit Red Wings. Based on their success over the last three decades, a decline was inevitable (especially in a salary cap world). The Wings roster needs some major work, so don’t be surprised if this is more than just a one-year rebuild. Every division has a weak link, and the Wings are clearly it in the Atlantic Division.

So nothing is settled yet, but the Atlantic Division appears set on making their case for having five teams in the playoffs this season. There’s still a lot of race track left, but at least they’re off to a promising start.

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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.