How tough is the Northeast Division?
It depends on one’s perspective.
An outsider might say, “North Least?”: the Leafs are surely playing over their heads – did their bubble burst in Boston Saturday night?– the Canadiens are full value for the early criticism they’ve received, the Sabres are a work in progress to fulfill Terry Pegula’s grand vision and the Bruins are just clearing their heads of a great champagne headache.
Now imagine looking through the lens of a Year One rebuilding team like the Ottawa Senators — the view of the NE from within is drastically different. Living among the likes of Toronto, Montreal, Buffalo and Boston can make the Senators feel like a first-year university student trying to survive in a high rent district.
Consider: When it comes to rebuilds, Brian Burke’s Maple Leafs have had a head start of about three years, the Canadiens are always expected to compete for a Cup (the city’s history-adled fans will accept no less), the Sabres are spending like the pre-lockout New York Rangers and the Bruins are built for the long haul, never mind their Stanley Cup hangover. That’s some tough competition for an Ottawa team with eight players that have less than 50 games each of NHL experience.
As the Sabres checked in to Scotiabank Place on Saturday, Ottawa, despite a promising first month, was 1-3 against division rivals, having lost to Montreal and Boston while splitting a pair of games with Toronto.
“We haven’t been good in our division yet and we know that these are the teams we’re going to be battling with down the stretch,” says Senators centre Jason Spezza. “If we want to make the playoffs we’re going to have to beat the teams in our division because we play them so much.”
So, it mattered in the first period that Senators winger Milan Michalek, the man whose quick release backhand is making fans forget Dany Heatley’s forehand, would undress giant Sabres defenceman Tyler Myers before busting a backhand move on surprise (and surprised) Buffalo starter Jhonas Enroth. The Sabres usual fixture, Ryan Miller, had the weekend off to think about his struggles to start the season.
For those scoring at home, Michalek’s 9th of the season came in game No. 15. Last season Michalek didn’t score his 9th until game 40 on Jan. 13 and he is on his way to a career year if he can stay healthy.
No. 9 on the other side, Derek Roy of nearby Rockland, tied the game in the second period on a redirect from newly acquired Ville Leino (about time he did something), and now the 3,000 military guests on Armed Forces night at Scotiabank Place were treated to some action.
Back and forth it went, the Senators denting goal posts (Colin Greening, Jesse Winchester, Stephane Da Costa), the Sabres grabbing a lead on a scramble in front of Senators goaltender Craig Anderson. Erik Condra converted a velvet pass from Zack Smith to tie it at 2-2.
It set up the kind of furious shootout finish fans of the Senators have come to expect – this was Ottawa’s fourth already – in among those early blowout nights.
A combined total of 12 shooters later, the Sabres got the win on a Roy snipe and Ottawa’s divisional record fell to 1-4, not for lack of trying.
With his youth corps still inching along the learning curve, Senators head coach Paul MacLean is less concerned about who the team is playing and more about his own team’s status.
“We take it more on a game by game basis, getting ready for each opponent we face as opposed to breaking it down into a divisional game, or a four-point game,” MacLean says. “We’re just trying to play our way no matter who the opponent is. It’s more developing our game than looking at the standings.”
And yet, in the NHL, divisional rivalries aren’t merely a cliche, they’re significant because divisional teams face each other six times in the regular season, compared to four meetings with other teams in the same conference and just once or twice against opponents from the other conference.
How tough the going will be in the Northeast we’ll know in the weeks ahead, as the Senators are just one time through the loop, like a batting lineup against a starting pitcher. Having just crowned a Cup champ, the division can take a bow, I suppose, although few would contest that the Northeast was deeper and stronger in years past. While graduating three playoff clubs last spring (Boston, Montreal, Buffalo), the division might only grab two spots this time around under the Atlantic and Southeast threat.
In 2009-10, four Northeast teams reached the playoffs, and from 2005-06 to 2008-09, an NE team was tops in the Eastern Conference four years in a row.
This season, the going will be separated by inches a lot of nights, last night’s big scores excepted.
“Our division is tight,” Spezza says. “Buffalo plays tight. Toronto is scoring a lot now but they’ve tried to play a tight game. Montreal and Boston – I don’t know if there are two teams that trap like that around any more. So, you’ve got to get used to playing those games.”
This night was a decent sampling.
Contact Wayne Scanlan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @HockeyScanner.