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Playoff race primer: Atlantic Division

Canadiens, Bruins respond after coaching changes; Lightning still in mix

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

With the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs five weeks away, is taking a division-by-division look at the race for the coveted spots in the postseason. Here is how the Atlantic Division stacks up:

The Montreal Canadiens seemed to have the Atlantic Division sewn up, until they started struggling, fired their coach, and rebuilt their team at the NHL Trade Deadline.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Senators remain right on their heels, with the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning vying to be the remaining teams in the Atlantic able to extend their seasons.


Montreal Canadiens

Record: 37-21-8 (82 points)

Where They Stand: First place in the division. They lead the Senators by four points.

What's left: 16 games: eight at home, where they are 20-9-4, and eight on the road, where they are 17-12-4.

3 Key Games:  March 12, at Edmonton Oilers. For the Canadiens, it's the finale of a three-game Western Canada trip against tough competition with the Chicago Blackhawks waiting for them at home; March 18, at Ottawa. It's the first game of a back-to-back, home-and-home series against their closest competition in the division; March 15 vs. Ottawa. This marks the third game against the Senators in the span of eight days. This could be make-or-break for the Canadiens. Or for the Senators.

Key injuries: Alexander Radulov has a lower-body injury, which kept him out Saturday and which has him listed as day-to-day. Though Radulov had gone into a bit of a slump, the forward has been an excellent signing for the Canadiens this season, with 46 points (15 goals, 31 assists) in 63 games.

Player to Watch: Carey Price. It's always Price, isn't it? Since the Canadiens hired former Bruins coach Claude Julien, Price has picked up his play, allowing no more than two goals in any game. He has allowed 10 goals in seven games in that span, and the Canadiens have won five.

The outlook: The Canadiens withstood some turmoil, in the form of the firing of coach Michel Therrien and the hiring of Julien. Even so, there are high hopes for the Canadiens, because a team with a hot Price in the playoffs can go far.

Video: NYR@MTL: Price robs Grabner on a break late in 3rd


Ottawa Senators

Record: 36-22-6 (78 points)

Where They Stand: Second place in the division. They are four points behind the Canadiens and lead the Bruins by two.

What's left: 18 games: six at home, where they are 19-10-6, and 12 on the road, where they are 17-12-0.

3 Key Games: March 18, vs. Montreal. The Senators and Canadiens play three games in the space of a week in the middle of March, which could determine the division. This is the only one that's played in Ottawa, making it even more crucial for the Senators; March 23, vs. Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins remain one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and one that the Senators should measure themselves against; April 6, at Boston. The final game between the teams in the regular season. It also could be a preview of an Eastern Conference First Round series.

Key injuries: Bobby Ryan has a broken right index finger, which is costing him at least a month of the season. The hope for the Senators is that he'll be back for the final few weeks of the regular season.

Player to Watch:  The goal for the Senators at the NHL Trade Deadline was to add without giving up much. The biggest move they made was acquiring forward Alexandre Burrows in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks. They also added forward Viktor Stalberg, a rental who can help as a penalty killer,. in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The outlook: This wasn't where many expected the Senators to be when the season started. But they appear to be all-in, as evidenced by their roster moves. They missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and haven't been as far as the second round since 2013.

Video: BOS@OTT: Hoffman strikes with hard slapper for PPG


Boston Bruins

Record: 34-26-6 (74 points)

Where They Stand: Third place in the division, four points ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What's left: 16 games: 10 at home, where they are 5-1-0 in their past five games, and six on the road, where they are 17-12-6.

3 Key Games:  March 11, vs. Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers still are lurking in the playoff race, and the Bruins could deal them a blow and aid their chances at the same time in a home matinee; March 20, at Toronto. In the first game of a tough back-to-back at Air Canada Centre and home against Ottawa, the Bruins could start a big two days in a positive way; April 8, vs. Washington Capitals. Last season the Bruins knocked themselves out of the playoffs on the final day of the season. They can't let that happen again, even against the best in the East.

Key injuries: None.

Player to Watch: David Backes was forthright in saying that he hadn't played well enough when the Bruins opted to replace Julien with Bruce Cassidy as coach March 7. He had a goal and an assist against the San Jose Sharks in the first game after the change. The Bruins continue to need more from Backes, especially with him playing on the top line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron.

The outlook: The Bruins are in dire need of a playoff berth after missing out the past two seasons. They have gotten a bump since the coaching change, but there still is more work to do.

Video: BOS@OTT: Bergeron spins, fires wrister past Anderson


Toronto Maple Leafs

Record: 28-22-14 (70 points)

Where They Stand: Fourth place in the division, four points behind the Bruins and one point behind the New York Islanders for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

What's left: 18 games: 10 at home, where they are 15-10-6, and eight on the road, where they are 13-12-8.

3 Key Games: March 16, at Tampa Bay. This marks the final game of a three-game road trip for the Maple Leafs, which they will want to finish strong; March 22, at Columbus Blue Jackets. This is the first game of the first of three back-to-backs that the Maple Leafs will play in their last 11 games of the season; April 9, vs. Columbus. It's the regular-season finale for the Maple Leafs, and they may need a win to get in.

Key injuries: Connor Carrick (upper body) was placed on injured reserve Feb. 27.

Players to Watch: It's not just one player on the Maple Leafs, it's a category: the rookies. Toronto is loaded with first-year players, none of whom have yet to be in the fire of a Stanley Cup Playoff race. The way they handle this will be crucial and likely used as a learning tool for years to come.

The outlook: The Maple Leafs are right on the playoff bubble, but it's hard to count out a team that can be so dynamic. Still, the Maple Leafs have gone through a downturn of late and it could be the first sign of a swoon that costs them a playoff berth.

Video: TOR@SJS: Matthews slams home Leivo's feed for PPG


Florida Panthers

Record: 29-24-11 (69 points)

Where They Stand: Fifth place in the division, one point behind the Maple Leafs and two points behind the Islanders for the second wild card.

What's left: 18 games: nine at home, where they are 15-14-3, and nine on the road, where they are 14-10-8.

3 Key Games:March 14, vs. Toronto. The Panthers have to leapfrog the Maple Leafs first, and they get a chance to start that process at home; March 27, at Buffalo Sabres. The Panthers begin a four-game all-Atlantic Division road trip through Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal and Boston with this game, a trip that could be make-or-break; April 9, at Washington Capitals. The Panthers finish their season against the top team in the Eastern Conference.

Key injuries: Goaltender Roberto Luongo is day-to-day because of a lower-body injury. The expectation is that he will miss a week with an injury that he had been playing through before aggravating it Thursday.

Player to Watch: Florida acquired the biggest point-producer traded at the NHL Trade Deadline in forward Thomas Vanek, who will be counted on to provide offense. Vanek has 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 50 games this season.

The outlook: The Panthers have come on strong since the return of forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau from injury. With the addition of Vanek, they could push their way into the second wild card, or even the top three in the Atlantic.

Video: CAR@FLA: Barkov pots a backhand shootout goal


Tampa Bay Lightning

Record: 30-26-9 (69 points)

Where They Stand: Sixth place, tied with the Panthers (Florida has a game in hand) and two points behind the Islanders for the second wild card.

What's left: 17 games: 10 at home, where they are 17-11-3, and seven on the road, where they are 13-15-6.

3 Key Games: March 11, vs. Florida. The playoff push continues with a game against their in-state rival; March 13, at New York Rangers. It's a tough back-to-back, with the Lightning starting in New York and heading to Ottawa the next night; April 4, at Boston. This game begins a three-game road trip through Boston, Toronto, and Montreal, with the final two games played on consecutive nights.

Key injuries: The key injury has been Steven Stamkos, who has been out since Nov. 15 after having surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. But general manager Steve Yzerman said Stamkos could return this month. Ryan Callahan is out indefinitely after a surgical procedure on his right hip.

Player to Watch:  Stamkos. With all the injuries the Lightning's best player has gone through during the past few seasons, it would mean a lot for him to return and would provide a huge boost.

The outlook: It's not good for the Lightning, who were expected to be in the mix at the top of the conference, not the bottom. But with the Atlantic bunched in the middle, they're not out of the race yet.

Video: TBL@BUF: Kucherov ends shootout with nifty goal


Buffalo Sabres

Record: 27-27-12 (66 points)

Where They Stand: Seventh place in the division, three points behind the Lightning. They are five points behind the Islanders for the second wild card.

What's left: 16 games: eight at home, where they are 16-11-6, and eight on the road, where they are 11-16-6.

3 Key Games: March 14, at San Jose Sharks. The rest of the Atlantic teams already have made their trips to the West Coast, but the Sabres still have theirs on the books. They play the Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks in a span of four days; March 25, vs. Toronto. It's last season's star rookie against this season's star rookie, with Jack Eichel going head-to-head against Auston Matthews; April 8, at Florida. The Sabres finish their season with a Florida road trip, with back-to-back games against the Panthers and Lightning.

Key injuries: The Sabres are missing their leading scorer; Kyle Okposo is out week-to-week because of an injury to his ribs. Okposo has 43 points this season (19 goals, 24 assists) in 63 games.

Player to Watch: Many questions surround the future of Evander Kane in Buffalo. He has one more season on his contract with the Sabres, worth $5.25 million. General manager Tim Murray did not like the offers he heard for Kane at the NHL Trade Deadline, but also hasn't extended the forward.

The outlook: This was supposed to be the season the Sabers challenged for a playoff berth, but they have been hampered by injuries.

Video: BUF@PIT: Foligno, Eichel combine for nifty goal


Detroit Red Wings

Record: 25-27-11 (61 points)

Where They Stand: Eighth place in the division, five points behind the Sabres and 10 points behind the Islanders for the second wild card.

What's left: 19 games: 10 at home, where they are 12-14-5, and nine on the road, where they are 13-13-6.

3 Key Games: March 7, at Toronto. If the Red Wings are going to have any chance of climbing back into the race, it starts here, with games on consecutive nights on the road, in Toronto and Boston. March 28, at Carolina Hurricanes. This marks an odd quirk in the schedule. Because of a game that had to be postponed in Carolina earlier in the season, the Red Wings have a rare back-to-back-to-back. April 9, vs. New Jersey Devils. Unless things change dramatically for the Red Wings, this game will mark their first season finale without anything but a long summer ahead in two and a half decades.

Key injuries: Jimmy Howard has missed nearly half this season because of a knee injury, which he re-injured during a conditioning game in the American Hockey League in February. He appears nearly ready to return to the Red Wings, though, after a start to the season in which he had a 1.96 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage.

Players to Watch: The goaltenders. The Red Wings have three, all of whom have been inconsistent or injured at times this season. One of them will have to be exposed in the NHL Expansion Draft in June, and the way they finish the season could be instrumental in the decision-making process.

The outlook: It's a tough ending to the season for the Red Wings, something that hasn't happened in a long time. They are extremely unlikely to make the playoffs, which will make it the first time that happens since 1990, a span of 25 consecutive trips to the postseason.

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