Boston & Ottawa Race For The NHL’s Northeast Division

After a slow start, the Boston Bruins have had control of the NHL’s Northeast Division for several weeks now. But in the rearview mirror of last year’s Stanley Cup champs comes the Ottawa Senators, on an 8-1-1 tear and pulling to within one point of the lead. With the current playoff standings showing Boston at #2 and Ottawa at #5 (the top three spots automatically go to division champs and Philadelphia is in 4th), who wins the Northeast could settle who gets home-ice advantage in a first-round playoff series. Is this a real race or is Ottawa just the flavor of the week? Let’s find out…

Boston: The Bruins have a well-deserved reputation for defense, built over the Claude Julien coaching regime that took this franchise off the mat and has put it in the playoffs each year since 2008. We do need to be more specific though and say that’s really about goaltending. Boston allows quite a few shots, but 37-year old Tim Thomas keeps getting it done in the net. The veteran who might’ve skyrocketed past every Boston athlete but Tom Brady in terms of local popularity during last year’s Cup run, has a 94% save rate. And the future is bright here too. Tuuka Rask, age 24 is saving 95% of the shots flung at him. Not since Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre has a franchise been so well-suited for both the present and the future at a key position.

What’s not as well-known about the B’s is how good their offense has gradually become. In fact, the lead the league in goals scored, thanks to a very deep group of centers. Whether David Kreijci, Patrice Bergeron or Tyler Seguin is on the ice, the Bruins have a center who is an able passer and a decent scorer. The wings aren’t as deep, but Nathan Horton on the right and Milan Lucic on the left can finish and light the lamp. Neither is an elite scorer, but combine them with the depth at center and you have a very potent offensive team. They’re a big reason that the Bruins are—again—the best in the league when it comes to 5-on-5 play with no one in the penalty box.

When there is a penalty in play, Boston has drastically upgraded its special teams play, the area many of us who follow this team were convinced would derail them in last year’s playoffs. After being one of the worst in the league, the power play team is now in the middle of the league, and the penalty kill unit has moved from being average to in the league’s upper crust.

Ottawa: It happens on offense for the Senators, where they rank 7th in the league in goals scored. There’s not a ton of depth, but at each position across the frontline has a very good player present. Jason Spezza at center has 20 goals and 28 assists, each among the NHL’s best. Milan Michaelik is on the right wing with 23 goals, an elite finisher. And Daniel Alfreddson is a solid scoring option on the left side, as good as either Horton or Lucic, even if he’s not the #1 threat on his own team.

What Ottawa does not do is play defense. The goaltending is mediocre, with Craig Anderson’s 91% save rate being close to the league average, but Anderson is pounded with shots. Ottawa is one of the worst in the NHL at allowing shots on goal and somewhere we have to look at defenseman Erik Karlson and Filip Kuba and ask why. When you combine this with average to subpar play in special teams and it is difficult to see how the Senators can sustain this run.

Ottawa’s goal differential for the season is (-1). Boston’s is (+68). The Bruins are a much more complete team when you look at the component parts. As a B’s fan I don’t want to get overly confident, because once you’re into the second half of the season anything I can happen and the stupid side of me thinks I’ll jinx a playoff matchup (because we all know playoff series are determined by what’s typed from behind a laptop in Wisconsin). But as an analyst, what would I think if these were two different teams where I didn’t have an emotional attachment? I’d be saying the challenging team looks more like the flavor of the week than a real threat.