The NHL’s Atlantic Division has a hot three-team race right now with the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins all within two points of each other going into Friday’s games, and the Flyers-Rangers game on Monday will be this year’s edition of the NHL’s annual Winter Classic, as they play outdoors in Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. The Notebook takes a look at all five Atlantic teams, with their point totals and rank within the conference overall in parentheses (note that the top eight make the playoffs in each conference).
NY Rangers (48, T2nd): The Rangers aren’t spectacular, but they execute very well in 5-on-5 situations when no power play is in effect either way. They’ve got good depth on their frontline with Marian Gabornek being a very good scorer on the left wing and ably spelled by Ryan Callahan. At center, you have a solid assist man in Derek Stepan, with Brandon Dubinsky doing a good job on the second line. The team is getting good goaltending from Henrick Lundqvist. Overall, they could use a little more productivity from their power play, but a bad power play compensated by strong 5-on-5 work was the formula that produced a Stanley Cup for Boston last year. New York’s a legit contender this time around.
Philadelphia (48, T2nd): Philly’s done well so far this year, but they’ve slid from the frontrunning position in the conference to come back to the pack and I don’t believe they’re done sliding. The goaltending problems that drove them from last year’s playoffs early haven’t been solved and when aging Jaromir Jagr is your best offensive option, you have problems. Philly’s got a lot of them and they won’t stay at second in the East in scoring much longer. I look for them to make the playoffs, but as one of the lower seeds.
Pittsburgh (46, 5th): Everything hinges on the health of Sidney Crosby, who’s dealing with problems from his concussion. Evgeni Malkin is a very good distributor of the puck at center, but without Crosby there’s no one who can finish. Marc-Andre Fleury is a good goalie, but he’s not going to carry a team through the playoffs. Without Crosby, the Penguins are a shaky bet to even be playing in late April.
New Jersey (41, 6th): The ageless Martin Brodeur is still in net, but his effectiveness is a far cry from his glory days, as the save percentage is at 89 percent (you need to above 90 percent to even join the conversation). The Devils are getting it done by being the best in hockey at killing opposing power plays, and they have good depth at left wing Ivya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, with a nice center in Adam Enrique. If Brodeur can nudge that save percentage up, the Devils can get back in the playoffs.
NY Islanders (30, 15th): Still the worst in the Eastern Conference, the Islanders only redeeming virtue is a respectable defense, but with goalie Al Montoya out with a concussion even that’s on shaky ground. Hard times in Nassau Coliseum for the franchise that owned the early 1980s.
The Atlantic’s performance so far is strong, filling half of the conference’s playoff berths. But outside the division I look for improvement from Washington and Montreal after their coaching changes, and the Flyers and Penguins are good bets to fall. This division is the Rangers’ to lose.