The Florida Panthers control the division and could separate themselves from the rest of the pack soon.
The Florida Panthers lead the Atlantic Division with 65 points and that’s a shocker. They have won four games in a row and have gone 7-3-1 in their last 11 games. In their most recent matchup, they defeated the Washington Capitals in convincing fashion, allowing just two goals and scoring five against the best team in the NHL. No one could have predicted that the Panthers, a team that has failed to qualify for the playoffs in three consecutive years, would be in the top spot.
Most people would have guessed that the Montreal Canadiens or the Tampa Bay Lightning would have control of the division at this point in the season. The Canadiens, however, have been on a downward spiral since December, dropping from first to fifth place in the Atlantic Division and 12th place in the Eastern Conference. They have had an up-and-down season, but the team has gone 5-19-1 in the past 25 games and can’t seem to recover.
Thus, the Panthers are here. After winning only four games in November, they quickly turned their season around and went 11-3-0 in December, when the Canadiens began their descent. Aside from their notable record, the Panthers allow the fewest goals per game in the league (2.18), thanks in large part to their All-Star goaltender Roberto Luongo. Most importantly, there is a good chance that the Panthers will run away with the Atlantic Division.
Let’s take a look at the three contending teams, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings, and Boston Bruins, and examine the reasons they will be unable to catch the Panthers. All of these teams have 58 points, but they each face unique obstacles heading into the second half of the season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Just a few weeks ago, the Lightning were watching their season slowly slip away. However, after having a players-only meeting on January 6th, the Lightning have won seven straight games and find themselves in playoff position.
Tampa Bay is led by All-Star veterans Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop. Since they are the recent Eastern Conference Champions, it seemed like just a matter of time before they figured things out. Yet, there is a chance that this recent success could be the calm before the storm. Rumors have been swirling about a possible trade involving Stamkos, and a deal of that magnitude could easily cause the Lightning to falter again.
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings, like the Panthers, have been on a roll. In January, they amassed 15 points out of a possible 22. Unlike other teams in the division, the Red Wings have experienced a relatively steady season.
Despite this stability and consistency, however, the Red Wings have had offensive trouble. They score just 2.47 goals per game, which ranks last among teams in the Atlantic Division. The Red Wings also have a zero goal-differential, both scoring and allowing 121 goals so far this season. This lack of offense will prevent the Red Wings from catching the Panthers.
Similar to the Canadiens, the Bruins’ season has been characterized by streakiness and inconsistency. The Bruins are led by Patrice Bergeron (19 goals, 25 assists), who is on pace to have one of his best personal seasons, and David Krejci, who ranks third on the team with 38 points (12 goals, 26 assists).
An interesting storyline for the Bruins going forward and a major factor in terms of chasing the Panthers is the case of Loui Eriksson. Eriksson ranks second on the team with 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists) and will be a free agent after this season. He is an irreplaceable player in terms of his production, and the Bruins are a much better team with him on the ice. Thus, the fate of the Bruins’ season seems to rest on decisions their front office makes at the trade deadline, and their ability to control their erratic play.
Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
The Panthers found their stride over two months ago and have continued to dominate in the Atlantic Division. Since December, their season has not been characterized by streakiness, unlike the Bruins. The three teams chasing the elusive top spot have question marks and distractions surrounding their best players or cannot compete with the consistent and balanced effort of the Panthers. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if the Panthers run away with the division and leave the other teams battling for the remaining playoff spots.
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