Atlantic Division Quickly Becoming a Two-Horse Race

Doug GausepohlCorrespondent IDecember 17, 2009

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 12:  Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scrambles to find the puck as David Clarkson #23 of the New Jersey Devils attempts to score in the second period at Mellon Arena on November 12, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Devils won 4-1.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The sound of the gun that fired ex-Flyers coach John Stevens, and the frustration on the face of Rangers coach John Tortarella, as he slammed a chair out of his way at his latest post-game news conference, are two things that will tell you all you need to know about the Atlantic Division this season.

It belongs to the New Jersey Devils and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Flyers were picked in the preseason to win the Stanley Cup according to The Hockey News yearbook. Yeah, that doesn't look likely.

Sorry Philadelphia, but at least you still got those damn Phillies. No one feels bad for you.

The Rangers started the season 7-1, but then lost 18 of their last 25, to end up 7-18. Not a bad power play percentage, but it's a horrible W-L record.

Sorry, Rangahs.  And as a Devils fan, you have no pity here. 

The Islanders; eh, why bother?

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On with the Penguins and the Devils.  They are currently deadlocked at 47 points —the Devils technically get first place since they have played two less games than Pittsburgh, have the same amount of wins, and own the season series 2-0. 

Last year, the Devils won the Atlantic Division. 

The Penguins won the Stanley Cup. 

Go figure. 

Usually the division doesn't mean too much, as Pittsburgh proved last year, though this season, it seems whoever wins the Atlantic could very well be the number one seed going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Whoever didn't win would be the fourth seed. 

Now would you rather face the Florida Panthers,currently the eighth seed, or the Boston Bruins,currently the fifth seed? 

It's not that much of a slam dunk with the Panthers —they beat the Devils last Friday and took the Penguins to overtime only to lose the night after—but I'd rather take my chances with them than Boston.

The vital question remains: Which team will win the Atlantic? 

Both teams have strengths over the other. 

Devils' Strengths

  • Games in hand.  They currently have two games in hand and the same amount of points as the Penguins.  Now that doesn't mean too much with 50 games to go, but as time winds down, all those points count. 
  • Defense.  69 goals allowed in 32 games. Absolutely disgusting.  In comparison, Pittsburgh has allowed 88 in just two more games played.  It has a lot to do with my next point.
  • Martin Brodeur.  He is an edge over any team's goalie.  I don't care what anybody says, he is the best goalie in hockey right now.  Especially over Marc-Andre Fleury.
  • Road Warriors.  They are 11-3 on the road this season, the best in hockey.  Two of those wins came at the Igloo.  Good teams win 20-25 road games.  The Devils might just win 30. 

Penguins' Strengths

  • Offense.  Washington is the only team who scores more.  With Sidney Crosby and Evengi Malkin, they are a lot less likely to go into a scoring drought than the core group of secondary guys the Devils have found success with. 
  • Battle tested.  The Penguins certainly are.  They won the Atlantic and the East in 2008 and won the Cup in 2009.  What do the Devils have in those two seasons?  One Atlantic Division championship, and two first round exits. 
  • Battle tested—part two.  Impossible to stress how important this is.  I'm not sure who I like to win it right now, but if the Devils don't have a big lead on Pittsburgh with ten games to go, I'd be scared.  If the Penguins can smell it, they'll go for it like hell.
  • Power play.  A knowledgeable NHL fan would read that and say, "Hey!  The Penguins power play is currently ranked 29th in the league!"  Well, you're right.  But if they're this good when their power play is awful, imagine how good they'll be when their power play starts to click.  And with Gonchar, Crosby, and Malkin, it's gonna click sooner than later.

It's anyone's guess who will emerge victorious. 

Many predict the Penguins will, but counting the Devils out, as it has proved throughout the years, is a very bad idea. 

However, it's OK to count the other three teams out.  They're already 20 lengths back, and falling further with each passing day. 

There's just one horse left to fall.