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Performance will tell the tale for NE fivesome

by John McGourty
The Montreal Canadiens led the Eastern Conference with 104 points and won the Northeast Division over the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins by 10 points, the largest margin of any Eastern Conference division winner. But their 21-point margin over the fifth-place team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, was the smallest of the three division winners and second-smallest in the NHL.

More importantly, Montreal's 41 points earned against division rivals were only nine more than Boston's division-low 32 points. An important injury to a Canadiens' top player, a Masterton Award-season or Calder Trophy-worthy performance from a rival player could turn the division around.

To win a championship, you need your best players to be your best players. While that sounds stunningly obvious, Bill Parcells has made millions saying stuff like that and he's right. "You're what your record says you are." And, "It is what it is," are “Parcellian” profundities that apply in every sport.

To win a championship, you also need major contributions from unexpected places. You need players who are under the gun to come up big. You need injured players to come back strong. You need young players to start making important contributions. Your major offseason acquisitions must become team leaders.

This list of Ones To Watch in the Northeast Division contains players who meet at least one of these conditions.

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins -- Patrice Bergeron will be one of the most watched players in the NHL this season, let alone among Bruins. Bergeron will be returning from a major concussion that limited him to 10 games a year ago. The versatile center/right wing moved right into the NHL after being drafted in 2002 and had an outstanding rookie season. He had a strong AHL season during the work stoppage and then had seasons of 73 and 70 points, including 31 goals three years ago. He was the Boston Bruins leading scorer with 73 points that year, only his second NHL season.

Bergeron had a unique experience during the work-stoppage year: At the end of his rookie season, he helped Canada win the World Championship. That fall, he started playing for the Providence Bruins, but took a break to help Canada win the World Junior Championship. He was the tourney's leading scorer, MVP and member of the All-Star team.

Bergeron tried to rush back after his injury last season, but Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli stopped him in January and sent him on vacation. He returned to light skating in March and contact drills in April. Doctors prevented his return during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Bergeron has been in full training since June and looked very good at the Bruins' prospect-development camp in July.

Bergeron, 23, was moving into the most productive years of his career before he was injured. If you saw the injury, you knew it wasn't minor. Concussions are cumulative so he may have a tendency to avoid hits more than he did in the past. If he is fully recovered, the Bruins can challenge for the Northeast Division crown.

Drew Stafford, Buffalo Sabres -- Buffalo doesn't rush their prospects, and that has frustrated Drew Stafford on a couple of occasions. He has been assigned to the AHL and recalled 10 times since 2006. Stafford was Buffalo's first pick, No. 13, in the 2004 Entry Draft. After scoring 47 goals on a powerful Shattuck-St. Mary's team in 2002-03, Stafford played three seasons for the University of North Dakota. He then bounced back-and-forth between Rochester and Buffalo in 2006-07, scoring 13 goals and 27 points in 41 NHL games. Big things were expected last season, but Stafford slipped to 16 goals and 38 points in 64 games. He had a hard year physically. He had a shoulder injury in November, a December concussion and a knee injury in January.

At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Stafford, 22, is expected to be a rugged power forward who contributes significant points. It sounds like that role took a toll on Stafford a year ago. There isn't a player in the NHL that couldn't stand to improve his core body strength and Stafford certainly needs to do that. Hopefully, that's been one of his summer conditioning goals. The Sabres still need him to pound the boards, control the puck and block opposing forwards. He needs to develop his strength and stamina.

Alex Tanguay, Montreal Canadiens -- This is a hockey marriage made in heaven: High-scoring, Quebec-raised forward gets out of playing an uncomfortable defensive role for a team out on the Prairies to return to Montreal to perform the fast-skating, high-scoring role that he succeeded in earlier in his career. Alex Tanguay doesn't have to improve to be successful in Montreal. He just has to get back to his point production of past years. Tanguay's signing was the most significant offseason move by the Canadiens.

And as a new father, he waived his no-trade clause with Calgary to get himself, his wife and baby closer to family. Tanguay is one of three Quebecers added to the Canadiens roster this season, joining Marc Denis and Georges Laraque.

Tanguay knows he's wanted. Blocked in their attempt to get Tanguay at the trade deadline, the Canadiens traded a first-round pick this year and a second-rounder next year. He will likely play on the first line with Tomas Plekanec and Alex Kovalev. Plekanec will have two prolific scorers on his line, and Tanguay has improved defensive skills, whether he likes it or not.

Tanguay was an important contributor to the Colorado Avalanche's 2001 Stanley Cup victory in his second season. In his eight NHL seasons, he has had five seasons with more than 20 goals and four seasons with over 70 points. He has 177 goals and 362 assists for 539 points in 609 NHL games.

Filip Kuba, Ottawa Senators -- The late-August trade for Andrej Meszaros seemed odd in that Meszaros appeared to be a long-term "hold," and, at 22, is much younger than Kuba, 31. But the Senators had contract issues with Meszaros and also got defenseman Alexandre Picard, 23, who has nearly 100 NHL games under his belt and figures as an emerging defensive prospect for Ottawa. The Lightning also threw in San Jose's first-round pick in 2009.

Kuba is a mixed bag whose size and offensive contributions have helped him stay in the NHL after he was an eighth-round draft pick in 1995. The Florida Panthers gave him an 18-game look and traded him to the Calgary Flames for a minor-league player. The Flames didn't protect him in the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft. The Minnesota Wild took him and he played five solid years there before getting a lucrative free-agent deal from Tampa Bay two years ago. Kuba represented the Wild in the 2004 NHL All-Star Game.

Kuba is 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. He has 55 goals and 152 assists for 207 points in 531 NHL games. He is also minus-37 for his NHL career. That's part of the reason that this is his fifth NHL team. He has averaged only 40 minutes in penalties in his past three seasons, a surprisingly small number for a burly defenseman. Former coach John Tortorella benched Kuba for his reluctance to be more physical.

But Jason Smith was the defenseman hired this summer to do that job. Kuba will try to fill some of the offense lost by the departure of Wade Redden. It will be Kuba's job to prove he was worth the price paid.

Jeff Finger, Toronto Maple Leafs
-- There's little doubt everyone's eyes will be on Finger after the lucrative free-agent contract received in July by the former Colorado Avalanche defenseman.

Somebody made a big mistake with Finger. It was either Colorado, which gave him a low-money, one-year contract after he went plus-10 in 22 NHL games to finish second-best on the team in 2006-07 or it was Toronto this summer giving him $3.5 million a year for four years.

Finger, 28, played three seasons in the USHL, where he was named the league's best defenseman. He then played three years at St. Cloud State, where he was named outstanding freshman. He then played three years with Colorado's AHL teams until arriving late in the 2006-07 season in Denver. 

Finger is an all-round defenseman in that he provides offense and plays a smart defensive game. He should see some time on the power play. It's unclear what power-play role he'll have because Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina should see the most time on the points. Finger is not huge for NHL defensemen at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds but he can deliver a hit and more importantly, knows when to check and when to play the puck. His passing skills are good. He has a hard shot and he can skate.

Finger took a long time getting to the NHL but he looks like he can play. Is he worth the price?

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