Regular readers of this column are aware of how often I’ve harped on the importance of putting early-season points in the bank. Teams that sprint out of the gates quickly give themselves some leeway to withstand mid-season dips. Conversely, the clubs that are down in the standings after a month or six weeks are seemingly “chasing points” for the rest of the season.
Look at the 2013-14 campaign for the Lightning. The Bolts finished with a record of 46-27-9, good for 101 points and second place in the Atlantic Division. To put in another way, the Lightning won 19 more games than they lost (in regulation). In their first 19 games last year, Tampa Bay went 14-5-0 – or “plus nine”. In the final 63 contests, the Bolts went 32-22-9 – or “plus 10”. That early success helped them withstand the long-term loss of Steven Stamkos, as well as surges from teams behind them in the standings.
Through 12 games this year, the Lightning are 8-3-1. (As a point of comparison, they were 8-4-0 through 12 games last year). As of Tuesday morning, they were tied for first place in the Atlantic Division. Clearly, it’s been another excellent start for the Lightning. But they aren’t the only ones in the division amassing points. Early on, it looks as though the race to the playoffs within the Atlantic Division is going to be a very tight one.
In 2013-14, the Boston Bruins (117 points), Lightning (101 points) and Montreal Canadiens (100 points) were, by a healthy margin, the top three regular season finishers in the Atlantic. With a strong push at the end, the Detroit Red Wings claimed fourth place, earning 93 points. Ottawa struggled for consistency throughout the season and ended with 88 points. Toronto faded after the Olympic Break and banked only 84 points. Florida (66 points) and Buffalo (52 points) were not contenders.
This year – with the exception of Buffalo – seven Atlantic clubs have gotten off to good (or great) starts. Here’s a team-by-team breakdown of Tampa Bay’s competitors, based on their position in the standings as of Tuesday morning …
As many expected, the Habs seem poised to take another forward step after last year’s 100-point season and berth in the Eastern Conference Final. They won seven of their first eight games. They have a nice mix of veterans and youngsters, as well as one of the top goalies in the league. They’ve done well so far this year in winning close games – four of their eight victories have come in either overtime or the shootout.
Detroit Red Wings
The Wings had to scramble just to make the playoffs last year. But part of their problem was that they were beset by injuries to key players, particularly Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Datsyuk missed some time at the beginning of this year, too, but now Detroit’s dynamic duo is healthy and the Wings look more formidable than they did last year. They’ve amassed 15 points in their first 11 games.
This is the one Atlantic Division team trending in the wrong direction so far. They’ve had an early rash of injuries and lost a handful of close games. Surprisingly, they’re just 3-4-0 at home. But it would be shocking not to see the Bruins hit their stride at some point soon – and they are coming off an impressive 4-2 home win over Ottawa on Saturday. Even with some early stumbles, Boston has picked up 14 points in 13 games.
Toronto Maple Leafs
After losing their first two games of the year – both at home – there were some early calls for coach Randy Carlyle’s job. But the Leafs have rebounded well – heading into tonight’s game at Arizona, they’ve won three in a row. Their statistical “metrics” have improved from last year, too. (This was a point of emphasis for the Leafs during the offseason). Their shot differential is much closer to 50/50 and they’ve possessed the puck more. Like Detroit, Toronto looks as though it will take a step forward this year.
Before last year, a season in which the Sens missed the playoffs, Ottawa had qualified for the postseason in two consecutive years. Team defense and goaltending hurt the Sens last year – they yielded 3.15 goals per game. But Ottawa is allowing just 2.50 goals per game through 10 games. They’re looking more like the playoff teams from 2011-12 and 2012-13. They started quickly this year, winning four of their first five. While they’ve posted just one win in the last five, they’ve cobbled together a couple of OTL points during that span.
The Panthers are better – and not just because Roberto Luongo is back guarding their net. New head coach Gerard Gallant has made his team a hard one to face. Last year, the Panthers were 29th in both offense and defense. Offense continues to be an issue for them (29th in goals scored per game as of Tuesday morning), but the Panthers are defending as well as any team in the league. The Bolts saw that first-hand on opening night, when Florida effectively limited Tampa Bay’s scoring chances. Through nine games, Florida’s team GAA is 1.89 per game, third-best in the league. When you are able to hold the opposition to only one or two goals per game, you give yourself a chance to win every night. And even if you’re struggling to score, most games are going to be close. Meaning plenty of overtime contests. After dropping the OT decision to the Lightning on opening night, the Panthers lost their next two in regulation. They haven’t lost in regulation since, going 4-0-2 in their last six.
Before the season, many pundits felt that the Bruins, Lightning and Canadiens would again battle for the top spots in the division. But based on what’s occurred in the first month, it may be more complicated than that. The Wings, Leafs, Sens and Panthers have kept themselves in the mix. What’s more, all four of them look like they’re better than last year. If that’s the case, it should make for a compelling Atlantic Division race.