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Beware the mighty Northeast Division!

Wednesday, 11.05.2008 / 9:30 AM / Division Notebooks

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

Looking at the current NHL landscape, the Northeast has 4 of the top 8 teams in the Eastern Conference -- No. 2 Buffalo, No. 4 Montreal, No. 5 Boston and No. 8 Toronto -- and 3 of the top 10 teams in the NHL -- Buffalo, Montreal and Boston.

Northeast Division teams went 12-5-1 last week, including the Canadiens, who were 3-0 in games outside the division, defeating Carolina, Minnesota and the New York Islanders.

But it was the Maple Leafs' 5-2 victory Saturday against the New York Rangers that raised eyebrows. The Rangers were off to one of the greatest starts ever -- 10-2-1 in 13 games for 21 out of a possible 26 points -- when they stepped into the Air Canada Centre for a Hockey Night In Canada game.

They led 2-0 more than halfway through the third period and had just been frustrated on a power play when Toronto center John Mitchell, who had been in the penalty box, scored his first NHL goal at 12:36. Jason Blake, playing in his 600th NHL game, scored 86 seconds later and Pavel Kubina put the Leafs ahead 52 seconds after that. Mitchell got his second goal at 16:06 and Dominic Moore finished the scoring at 17:57.

The Rangers had been the NHL's best team on 2 continents -- they opened the season with a pair of 2-1 victories against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Oct. 4-5, in Prague -- but they were badly exposed in a span of 5:21 Saturday. Backup goaltender Stephen  Valiquette was in net, not Henrik Lundqvist.

Mitchell, the Maple Leafs' 2003 fifth-round pick, had 2 goals and 1 assist in the victory.

It's obvious Mitchell, 23, wasn't held in high regard prior to the 2003 draft, following 2 seasons with the Plymouth Whalers in which he put up 27 goals and 46 assists in 130 games. But he broke out the next season for 28 goals and 82 points in 65 games and 25 goals and 75 points in 63 games in his fourth OHL season.

He then played 3 seasons with the AHL Toronto Marlies, leading them with 8 goals last spring in 3 rounds of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Mitchell is 6-foot-1 and is playing with intensity. He's overcome a knee injury and low expectations to get this opportunity and it sounds like he's got the right makeup.

"We all take pride in trying to win every game," Mitchell told the media Saturday night. "No one likes to lose, especially on this team. If we lose, we're (upset), we're disappointed. We have high expectations for ourselves."

He also said he has incorporated the words of a beloved former Maple Leafs player in his approach to his career.

"I listened to Gary Roberts and he said he won a Stanley Cup early in his career and how a chance to win a championship may come early in your career, but might not come again," said Mitchell.

Toronto is proving to be a very interesting team this season. Everyone expected the Maple Leafs to focus on defense under new coach Ron Wilson while seeking new offensive talent. But Toronto is tied for fifth in the NHL with 41 goals and 12th in power-play effectiveness, scoring on 19.3 percent of their man-up situations.

"I don't want you to think we're going to score 5 or 6 goals every night," Wilson warned. "We've got some lucky bounces ourselves. We just have to try to get the game a little bit more under control."

Lucky bounces, maybe, but turnovers that lead to goals come from stressing the forecheck to force turnovers and being sharp in transition. Of course, pinpoint shooting that finds the holes helps. To win, a coach needs to impart an effective system and needs players who buy in with everything they've got.

The opposition had a clear view of what happened to them.

"The trolley came off the tracks with the silly passes and the turnovers in the neutral zone," said New York coach Tom Renney. "We started turning the puck over, and allowed the Leafs to get back in the game."

MacArthur parked at center -- Buffalo Sabres center Clarke MacArthur, 23, is another young player getting a big opportunity. The Sabres started the season with 3 injured centers, Tim Connolly, Paul Gaustad and Jochen Hecht. MacArthur has responded with 5 goals and 3 assists to rank fifth on the Sabres with 8 points.

MacArthur has played parts of the past 2 seasons with Buffalo, posting 11 goals and 11 assists in 56 NHL games before this season. He's way ahead of that pace this season at 0.75 points per game. MacArthur mostly played left wing in the minors and in previous stints in Buffalo. He's returning to his minor-hockey roots in the pivot.

"I think I've adapted to it pretty well and I'm getting used to it," MacArthur told NHL.com. "Every game that goes by, I'm getting more comfortable and I'm getting better on draws, so I'm just enjoying it for right now. We've got some good centermen out, so I'm just filling in.

"I played center when I was younger and started playing left wing in juniors. I think I played six seasons at left wing. You never know what is going to happen so you've got to be ready to play all positions."

Coach Lindy Ruff changes lines frequently, but he gave MacArthur a lot of time between Jason Pominville and Daniel Paille. MacArthur likes playing with them.

"The biggest thing with Jason is that he is so consistent," MacArthur said. "You know what he is going to do all the time, things like stopping at the net and getting shots off quickly. He does those things to perfection. You look at his goals and he's a consistent goal scorer. He has a great release and that has helped him in the NHL.

"Paille is a big bull. He can cycle hard and he's got great speed. We've had some great chances."

MacArthur was asked what kind of support he's gotten from Ruff.

"I've got to keep my intensity up," he said. "I think that's the biggest thing that he's liked so far. I'm a smaller center so I've got to be a little more feisty, get in there and battle. I live to do that so things have been going really good so far."

Even though MacArthur may surrender his position as teammates heal, he was there when they needed him and his versatility and scoring touch are valuable assets.

Power outage -- One of the biggest surprises of the season to date is the underwhelming performance of the Montreal Canadiens on the power play. The Canadiens led the NHL last year with a 24.1 percent success rate but are 19th this season with a 16.3 percent rate.

 
 
That puts them last in the division. Ottawa is fourth in the NHL at 25 percent; Buffalo is 10th at 20.3 percent; Toronto is 12th at 19.3 percent and Boston is 13th at 19.1 percent.

Kuba's points from the point
-- The Senators' Filip Kuba was the first defenseman in NHL history with assists in each of his team’s first 8 games of a season, breaking the record of 7 games set by Brad Park with the Bruins in 1981-82.

Park was about as welcome as chicken pox in Boston when the Bruins traded Phil Esposito to the hated New York Rangers to get Park in 1975, but his personality and play there during 8 seasons made him beloved.

The Senators are hoping for the same results from Kuba, for whom they paid a high price when they traded Andrej Meszaros to the Tampa Bay Lightning in late August. So far, it's paying off. Kuba leads the Senators with 12 assists and 24:49 of average ice time, is third with 12 points and is plus-3.



Quote of the Day

The groove of being behind a bench is going to be interesting at first, but thank God we have a few exhibition games to get rid of those cobwebs. Overall the excitement of it all and the freshness and coming back refreshed, all those things are going to be assets. If [the players] come ready to give their best effort in practice and games, good things are going to happen. I'm always looking for results. It's not always on the scoreboard. It's winning and building something.

— Bryan Trottier on making his return to coaching as an assistant with the Sabres