At the beginning of the NHL season, we had predicted that the Florida Panthers would finish first in the Atlantic Division, the Boston Bruins would end up fourth, while the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning would be in a battle for second and third right to the wire.
We predicted that those four teams would be the ones to make the playoffs, leaving the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens out.
With the Maple Leafs facing an extended period of time without games, we thought it was a good time to review what has transpired to this point of the season with the Maple Leafs’ main competition, and take a look at how our original predictions were holding up.
After jumping out of the gate by winning eight games in a row and taking an early Atlantic Division lead, the Panthers have faltered lately. They presently sit third in the Atlantic, four points behind the Lightning and two behind the Maple Toronto.
Florida has hit two big bumps in the road that have hurt them. First, after coaching the team to a 7-0 start, Joel Quenneville resigned over his role in the Chicago Blackhawk-Kyle Beach affair. The Panthers went 3-0-1 in their first four games under interim head coach Andrew Brunette, but have since gone 8-7-3. It’s obvious by those numbers that Brunette is not likely to have the success Quenneville experienced.
The second bump was the injury, or injuries, to Aleksander Barkov. After missing eight games following a knee-on-knee collision with Scott Mayfield on November 16, Barkov played one game on December 7. He was then placed on the injury reserve list once again for an “upper-body injury.” The good news is that he’s not on the LTIR, so the injury is not regarded as long-term. Even if Barkov did go on the LTIR, the Panthers could make it retroactively to December 7, which could still mean he might not be out long term.
The biggest “IF” right now is the Panthers’ coaching situation. If the team does not believe in Brunette, the same way it believed in Quenneville, it could be a tough road for them the remainder of the season. That said, they’re not out of it.
Tampa Bay Lightning
After starting slow, and only winning two of their first six games, the Lightning have returned to form, going 19-3-3 in their last 25 games including a 9-1 stretch over their last 10 games. All this success has been accomplished with Nikita Kucherov missing all but three games and Brayden Point missing 14 games. Point has now returned to the lineup.
Steven Stamkos is playing like the younger version of himself, leading the team with 36 points in 31 games, and sitting fifth in overall NHL scoring. Victor Hedman, with 33 points, leads all NHL defensemen; and, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy just keeps on being, well, Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The knock against the Lightning at the start of the season was that they were forced to give up their entire third line to remain under the salary cap. Despite that, and injuries to supposedly key players, the Lightning just keeps rolling along.
Even with the re-signing Taylor Hall and acquisition of Nick Foligno, the Bruins, on paper at least, did not appear to be as strong this season as they were last season. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were one year older, and the Bruins never did find a true replacement for David Krejci. His departure left a huge hole in their second line.
Their goaltending was also in question. And, in general, this didn’t seem to be a team capable of challenging for a high playoff spot. As it is right now, the Bruins do not occupy a playoff spot.
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The Bruins sit fifth in the Atlantic, three points behind the Detroit Red Wings for the second wild card. They do hold five games in hand over the Red Wings and hold a higher winning percentage at .577 to Detroit’s .532. If we extend their points to a full 82 games, the Bruins would hit 95, while the Red Wings would finish at 87.
Toronto Maple Leafs
We don’t have to tell Maple Leafs’ fans about their team. Led by goalie Jack Campbell’s stellar season and the continued strong play of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, the team is going well. Newcomers Ondrej Kase, Michael Bunting, and David Kampf have added to the value of the team. And young Swedish defensemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have risen to the big club and are playing well.
The team seems in good shape, except recently it’s been decimated by COVID-19 issues. It’s now putting its lineup back together.
Where the Atlantic Division Is Right Now
With the coaching change in Florida, the resurgence of Steven Stamkos, and the Bruins being pretty much who, and where, we figured they’d be, we believe the battle for the Atlantic Division title will go to the wire between the Lightning and the Maple Leafs. It looks as if those are the two teams that will battle for first and second place, instead of second and third.
Florida should remain in third, and the Bruins should finish fourth. If the Bruins catch fire they could actually squeeze past the Panthers into third, but they would have to get boiling hot to do so, and Florida would have to pretty much fall apart.
Our prediction for the Atlantic Division is that the Lightning’s history suggests they will finish in first, the Maple Leafs second, the Panthers third, the Bruins fourth, the Red Wings fifth, the Senators sixth, the Sabres seventh, and the Canadiens eighth.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]
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The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf