As each team gears up for the final playoff push, and with fewer than eight games remaining, only five teams have clinched a spot in the top 16 so far. Three of them, the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, come from the Atlantic Division, the best division in the NHL.
The Atlantic Division is on pace to have four teams in the playoffs for the fourth time since the lockout. Only three other divisions have done so, the Central, Northeast and Pacific Divisions, and none have done it more than once.
The Atlantic Division is set up differently from all other divisions in that each team is in such close proximity to each other. The New York Islanders, Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Flyers are all within three hours and 130 miles of each other. Pittsburgh is considered far away at five-and-a-half hours and 300 miles from Philadelphia, which is nothing compared to the travel to some other divisions. In the Northwest, the Colorado Avalanche are over 900 miles away from their closest rival, the Minnesota Wild while in the Pacific, the Dallas Stars are over 1,000 from the Phoenix Coyotes.
What makes the Atlantic Division so great is that each team flat out hates the others and they don’t have to travel far to be in the middle of a rivalry. There is no brotherly love for the Pens in Philly, the Rangers and Devils have shown all season long they have nothing but disdain for each other and the two New York teams have a trophy awarded to the winner of the season series between the two clubs.
Attend a divisional game between any two teams in the Atlantic and there is guaranteed to be a good mix of fans from both sides as neither have far to travel; Rangers fans have just as easy a trip to away games as the home Islanders or Devils fans do. Fans shoe their true feeling even when they don’t play each other. A “Rangers suck” chant echoes in the Prudential Center in Newark every game and the Madison Square Garden crowd still haven’t forgiven Denis Potvin for his hit on Ulf Nilsson over 30 years ago, likewise chanting “Potvin sucks” each and every game, without fail.
What makes the division even better is the Rangers, Flyers and Penguins are all top Stanley Cup contenders this season and the Devils aren’t too far away either. There really doesn’t seem to be a team in the Eastern Conference, aside from the Boston Bruins, outside the Atlantic Division that looks like it can reach the Cup final. Even looking at individual players, the Atlantic Division takes the cake.
Evgeni Malkin is going to win the Art Ross Trophy this season as the leading scorer and Dan Bylsma has a decent shot at becoming just the second coach to win back-to-back Jack Adams Trophies for best coach. The division boasts two of the leading candidates for the Vezina Trophy in the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and the Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury as well as two of the top Calder Trophy considerations in the Devils’ Adam Henrique and Flyers’ Matt Read. Finally, of the four players who have garnered the most attention for the Hart Trophy, three, Pittsburgh’s Malkin, New York’s Lundqvist and Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux, are in the Atlantic Division.
The only division that can test the Atlantic is the Central as both are certain to send four teams to the playoffs this year. The St. Louis Blues have resurrected in a big way and may win the President’s Trophy, Detroit Red Wings are a perennial power house and the best run franchise in sports, the Nashville Predators have emerged as a true Stanley Cup contender and the Chicago Blackhawks are one of the top young teams in the NHL and only one season removed from a Stanley Cup championship.
But if you factor in the entire division, not just playoff teams, the Atlantic is the clear winner. The Islanders may be in 14th place in the Eastern Conference with 71 points, but they are just seven points away from being a respectable 10th. Meanwhile the Columbus Blue Jackets are firmly entrenched at the bottom of the NHL standings, 16 points from even catching up to the next closest team. And the Islanders can at least say they have a growing core of very talented forwards to build around, while the Blue Jackets have been stuck in neural for some time now.
The close grouping of five teams that can’t stand each other makes for some consistently good hockey, especially when the division holds almost every team with a legitimate shot at coming out of the Eastern Conference. And if the Islanders can improve in a hurry, the Atlantic Division will be the first to send all five teams to the playoffs since the NHL switched to its current six division format before the 1998-99 season.