ARMS RACE: Northeast Division Roundup January 27-February 10

by Jacob Saltiel

Hungry for Battle

Northeast Division Roundup is a recurring column covering the Canadiens and the teams they play the most, their divisional rivals.

Boston Bruins – Bear on Bear Crime

For those of you who don’t know, a bruin is a form of bear. This is symbolically fascinating because Shawn Thornton was recently mauled by a bear in the middle of a hockey game. The bear’s name was John Scott, and it’s unclear how Lindy Ruff taught him to skate, but however that happened it’s bad news for every other goon in the league.

Thornton can blame his concussion not so much on John Scott repeatedly feeding him, rights, lefts, and more rights and lefts, but on the antics of Milan Lucic last season. Lucic started the fire by running over Ryan Miller. If the NHL doesn’t suspend Lucic sufficiently, very few players in the league can actually fight him without getting mauled, so he can pretty much get away with dirty plays that other players can’t. This fact screws with the primitive form of retributive justice that makes up the NHL’s code.

Accordingly, the Sabres went out and acquired a player who could fight Lucic, but has no other hockey skills. Because the Bruins are smart, they aren’t going to allow a useful player like Chara or Lucic to fight an otherwise useless player like Scott. This is how Thornton found himself staring up at an extra from Grizzly Man before his brain got tenderized.

Cynical as always, Julien tried to put his other goon, Lane MacDermid out against actual hockey players on the Sabres at the end of the game, and then the Bruins complained bitterly when Ruff called a timeout and his bluff so that he could put Scott back out there.

Julien knows better than anyone that violence begets violence. He and Chiarelli have no one to blame but themselves for the recent arms race for variously tough, gritty, and thuggish players in the Northeast division.

Buffalo Sabres – Stafford To Appear on Milk Cartons Soon

Overshadowed by Vanek’s recent trend of playing like the net is 4 times as large for him compared to any other player is Drew Stafford’s ineffective play. Stafford is a big winger (6″2, 214lbs)  who’s scored 20 goals or more 3 times in the last 4 seasons. He’s occasionally capable of doing things like this. Except this year, he’s produced nothing more than a few assists. The Sabres don’t appear to be able to play defence very well (as of Super Bowl Sunday, they’ve given up 10 more goals than the Leafs, who have allowed the next most goals in the division), so they’re going to need Ennis and Stafford to make something happen if they’re going to stay in games. To this point in Stafford’s career, he’s been prone to stretches of unproductive play. For his $4m/year salary he might want to pitch in a little more, or Furious Ruff and the Sabres will prevent Ric Jeanneret from blowing up microphones in the post-season for another year.

Montreal Canadiens – Pressure Drop

In some ways, the past couple of weeks have been very encouraging for the Canadiens. Superbowl Weekend saw the Canadiens add 4 points to the standings in a thoroughly convincing beatdown of the Sabres and an undeserved 2 points against the Senators. They followed this with a narrow loss to a Bruins team that could have been another solid beatdown without the performance of Tuukka Rask. A night later, what should have been another 2 points against Buffalo turned into a 1 point shootout loss because of the unlucky combination of the second Ryan White Meltdown in a week and a last second goal that should never have counted. Let’s not even mention that hammering by the Leafs and the various ignominies that occurred throughout. Over this period, Pernell returned to the lineup and has played better with each passing game, despite somehow being named the most hated player in the NHL by Sports Illustrated.

Last year, the Canadiens spent the most amount of time shorthanded in the entire NHL. Even with a strong penalty kill and Carey Price in nets, this team will need to cut down on penalties, and by extension shorthanded goals, if they’re going to improve their position in the standings. Since the Canadiens are unlikely to win by 5 every night as they did in Buffalo, they’ll need to increase their chances of winning 1-goal games by putting games in the referees’ whistles. This isn’t an attack on the referees, who, as mentioned in Kerry Fraser’s article linked to above, are occasionally “screened out” and hence unable to see crucial plays in a game.

The careless use of sticks- Subban’s returned along with his traditional slashing minors- and a lack of comprehension about opportune moments about dropping the gloves- step right up, Mr. White- can swing games, and this is a key area for Therrien to address not just to the main offenders, but to the whole team.

Especially since the Canadiens have yet to play against strong teams such as the Penguins, Rangers, or Tampa Bay Lightning this season.

Ottawa Senators

Even without Jason Spezza, the Senators are a tough team. From the 27th of January to the 8th of February, all but one of their games was decided by a single goal. The other game was a 5-1 victory over the Canadiens. Their record, was 3-2-2. How is this possible?

The Senators are one of the few NHL teams with enough depth in young players that injuries at the NHL level can be mitigated by call-ups. Usually, a call-up will be filler, at best a player who can take a few shifts to give the established players a rest, but the young Senators have players that might contribute a little more. Spezza goes down? Here comes Zibanejad. Latendresse is injured (again)? Here comes Da Costa, a highly touted free agent signing from France a couple of seasons ago.

Consider also that the young and talented Jared Cowen never made it to opening day with a hip injury, and that he may never appear this season. That the Senators stay in games and continue to win shows how deep their team and farm team are.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Last week, the Toronto Maple Leafs went 2-1 in a series of one goal games. They played the Bruins close, getting choked out 1-0, but won in OT against the Sabres and in regulation against the Capitals. The latter two teams might not be very good, but keeping it close with Boston is impressive. When Lupul went down shortly after signing a long-term extension, it might have been a problem for the scoring depth of the forwads, but Frattin stepped right up and has been quite productive since receiving the opportunity. Frattin, Kadri, and Van Riemsdyk have 16 goals between them, which is respectable for the young forwards.

The awakening of Kessel coincides with the Leafs winning a couple of games, including a 6-0 pasting of the Canadiens.

It’s still too early to tell whether Carlyle’s defensive emphasis will succeed with the personnel on that team, particularly with their putrid 4th line. They should, however, be able to score goals. Now, if anyone can figure out who Mike Kostka is and how he continues to get minutes. Does he have dirty photographs of Randy Carlyle at a Christmas party in his luggage? WHERE DID HE COME FROM?!


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