2013-14 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Atlantic Division

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2013

2013-14 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Atlantic Division

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    The NHL's Northeast Division was perhaps the league's best last year.

    Four of the division's teams—the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs—made the playoffs last season.

    That division remains intact along with the additions of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. And one other team—the Detroit Red Wings.

    After decades of toiling in the Western Conference, the Red Wings join a division that includes three of their Original Six rivals, and they get to play the large majority of their games in the Eastern Time Zone. That's what the Red Wings have wanted for years.

    While the Red Wings will be newcomers, don't expect them to be polite. They struggled most of the 2012-13 season before turning it on at the end of the year, making the playoffs and advancing to the conference semifinal round where they extended the eventual-champion Chicago Blackhawks to overtime in the seventh game.

    The Boston Bruins could not push the Blackhawks to that level in the Stanley Cup Final.

    The Bruins, Red Wings, Canadiens, Senators and Maple Leafs appear to be the division's best at the start of the season.

The Favorite: Boston Bruins

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    The Boston Bruins made a memorable run to last year's Stanley Cup Final and were minutes away from extending the series to a seventh game when disaster set in.

    They gave up two goals in a 17-second span and saw their season slip away, as the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup and celebrated on TD Garden ice.

    That was the last image of the 2012-13 season for head coach Claude Julien, but he knows his Bruins had plenty of opportunities to take charge in the series. Boston had a two-goal, third-period lead in the first game and lost it in triple overtime. Had they won that game, they might have won their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

    The looking-back part is over for the Bruins, who can now look forward with Patrice Bergeron (32 points, plus-24 in 2013), David Krejci (33 points), Milan Lucic (27 points, plus-eight), Brad Marchand (18 goals), Zdeno Chara (19 points, 70 penalty minutes), Dennis Seidenberg (17 points, plus-18) and Tuukka Rask (2.00 goals-against average, .929 save percentage) all returning in key roles.

    Additionally, the Bruins have brought in Jarome Iginla (14 goals, 19 assists for Calgary and Pittsburgh) and Loui Eriksson (12 goals, 17 assists for Dallas) to play on the top two lines because Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin are gone.

    The Bruins need their new right wings to fit in, and there's little doubt they have the talent to do that. The Bruins have depth up and down the lineup to outlast the competition.

    They certainly have weaknesses, and teams with high-end speed and superior quickness could give them problems. However, the Bruins bring it nearly every night, and they appear to be a strong favorite in a very impressive division.

The Challenger: Detroit Red Wings

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    The Detroit Red Wings are new to the division and the Eastern Conference, but there is not going to be any excuses made as they attempt to get used to their surroundings.

    The other teams in the Atlantic Division are going to find that the Red Wings are going to be difficult to beat because they have confidence, talent and perhaps the best head coach in the game in Mike Babcock.

    There was some trepidation about the Red Wings last year because they had lost Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement and appeared to be in transition, but that issue did not even last a full season. The Red Wings earned a playoff berth in the final week of the season and asserted themselves in the postseason.

    The Red Wings are not going through any sort rebuilding process. They have stars in Hernik Zetterberg (48 points in 2013), Pavel Datsyuk (49 points, plus-21) and Niklas Kronwall (29 points) to lead the way, along with goalie Jimmy Howard (2.13 GAA, .923 save percentage), who almost never receives the credit he deserves as one of the best goalies in the NHL.

    There are some issues, most notably a young defensive crew that features Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser, who could be the next Detroit superstar. However, that unit showed some growth last year and should get better this year.

    The Red Wings seem like worthy challengers to the Bruins and the other playoff teams in the division.

The Bottom-Dweller: Buffalo Sabres

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    Ron Rolston is trying to put together a consistent team, but the Buffalo Sabres appear to have a long way to go and a lot of challenges to overcome if they are going to be competitive.

    The Sabres have failed to make the playoffs for the last two years, and their competition is loaded. 

    Rolston needs to help this team find an identity. One of the things he is trying to do is put players on the ice who will stand up for each other. That was the primary reason the Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs engaged in a preseason brawl Sept. 21. 

    Rolston put enforcer John Scott on the ice after Buffalo's Corey Tropp got knocked out by Toronto's Jamie Devane. Scott is not much of a player, but he was unwilling to stand by when one of his teammates got hurt, and the Sabres have not always been willing to stand up for themselves in those situations.

    The Sabres have talented players like Thomas Vanek, Tyler Ennis, Tyler Myers and goalie Ryan Miller, but there is little cohesiveness on this team.

    They don't often appear to be on the same page, and that's something that Rolston has to fix if the Sabres are going to have any chance of competing.

Best Old Rivalry: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins

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    No, we have not lost our minds.

    We fully recognize that the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens have the best historical rivalry in the long history of the sport.

    That's not going to change any time soon. But when it comes to the 2013-14 season, every game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins will be played with white-hot intensity.

    Last season's first-round playoff series set the stage. The Bruins and Maple Leafs played seven intense games, and the upstart Leafs had the Bruins on the ropes, leading by three goals with slightly more than 10 minutes to go in the third period.

    That's when the Bruins mounted a playoff comeback for the ages, tied the game in the late stages and won it in overtime.

    The Maple Leafs want to overcome the demons that overtook them in Boston, while the Bruins want to show they are still the big dogs.

    Each game will come with overwhelming anticipation.

Best New Rivalry: Detroit Red Wings vs. Montreal Canadiens

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    There was a time when the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings were part of the rivalry in the NHL.

    That's when men named Jean Beliveau and Maurice Richard skated for the Canadiens and Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay played for Detroit. The decade was the 1950s. 

    By the late 1960s, the rivalry started to wane because the Red Wings slipped badly while the Canadiens were still winning Stanley Cups.

    After decades in the Western Conference, the Red Wings have come back to the East, and they will engage their old rivals on more even terms.

    The Canadiens won the Northeast Division last year, as they got solid play from Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher, P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov and goalie Carey Price.

    They have the wherewithal to battle Boston, Toronto and Ottawa. However, their confrontations with their "new" rivals from Detroit should give this division a different kind of flavor that the coaches, players and fans will appreciate.

Best Line: James Van Riemsdyk-Tyler Bozak-Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs made huge strides last year in making the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04.

    They appear to be continuing their climb after adding goalie Jonathan Bernier from the Kings and Dave Bolland from the Chicago Blackhawks.

    If they can improve their overall defense and play in the net, they could prove to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

    They don't have to worry about their top line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel. The unit can create scoring opportunities and is capable of putting the puck in the net. 

    Kessel (20 goals, 32 assists in 2013) has excellent speed and a vicious shot. He can create his own chances or set up his teammates. Van Riemsdyk (18 goals, 14 assists) uses his size and skill to make things happen down low. Bozak (12 goals, 16 assists) has the great vision and soft hands that all top-flight centers must have.

    Any team that wants to beat the Leafs has to find a way to slow this trio down.

Best Defensive Pairing: Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, Boston Bruins

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    Claude Julien will play Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg together in the playoffs.

    He will also play them together at moments during the regular season, but he will also split them up as well.

    If the Bruins have a huge game or they are protecting a late lead, he puts his two heavyweight defensemen together because they are nearly impenetrable when they are both at their best.

    That may not have been the case during last season's Stanley Cup Final, when Chara and Seidenberg were battling an accumulation of physical problems.

    Chara (seven goals, 12 assists, plus-14 in 2013) has a booming shot in addition to his crushing physical style. Seidenberg (four goals, 13 assists, plus-18)  is a smart, physical defenseman who can also carry the puck out of trouble.

    They are almost certainly the toughest pair of defensemen in the league, not just the division.

Best Goalie: Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    Craig Anderson was a perfect fit when he got between the pipes for the Ottawa Senators last season.

    He was a rock, as he recorded a 1.69 goals-against average, had a .941 save percentage and posted three shutouts.

    Anderson has been one of the top goalies in the NHL since he was traded by the Colorado Avalanche to the Senators in 2010-11.

    If Anderson can avoid the injuries that limited him to 24 of the Senators' 48 games last season, this team could steal the division from their more celebrated rivals.

    Anderson has plenty of competition from Tuukka Rask of the Bruins, Carey Price of the Canadiens and Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings, but he has a chance to assert his dominance in the Atlantic Division.

Projected 2013-14 Standings

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    1. Boston Bruins: If newcomers Iginla and Eriksson fit in, the Bruins have too much depth and talent to match up with.

    2. Detroit Red Wings: Babcock will have his foot on the gas pedal as Wings present a formidable challenge.

    3. Toronto Maple Leafs: Bernier will bring stability in goal as Leafs continue to climb.

    4. Montreal Canadiens: Can Price play consistently, and do Habs have enough size and strength?

    5. Ottawa Senators: They have plenty of momentum, but the loss of Daniel Alfredsson will hurt as season progresses.

    6. Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis are an overpowering scoring duo. Will Lightning have enough defense?

    7. Florida Panthers: Much better than last year. Tim Thomas could spur remarkable turnaround.

    8. Buffalo Sabres: Will only avoid cellar if Ryan Miller can recapture 2010 Vezina form.