Northeast Division Preview

Northeast Division Preview

Northeast Division Preview
By Judd Hall

Last year the Sabres were supposed to finally reach the Promised Land after falling in two straight Eastern Conference Finals. Montreal was slated to be cleaning the basement with Milton and his red Swingline. Instead the Habs came out of the Northeast Division as the top seed in the East while Buffalo was making tee times in April. What does the 2008-2009 season hold?

Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens were able to surprise everyone and with the Northeast because of their success with the power play. You can expect to win a lot of game when you convert 24.2 percent of your advantages during the season. Montreal was knocked out of the playoffs by a Flyers team that was not afraid to smack them in the mouth. The physicality of Philly got to the young team and eventually cost Carey Price and company a spot in the conference finals.

Montreal went about toughening itself by signing veterans Alex Tanguay, Robert Lange and George Laraque. Les Habitants did nothing in the offseason to replace Mark Streit on the blue line. That means they’re pinning hopes on Ryan O’Byrne to be the man to step up in Streit’s absence. Price will also need to show he is mentally tough to handle a full season worth of work after his great run last year.

Ottawa Senators

This is as close to a “put up or shut up” moment as we’re going to see this season. Ottawa got off to an ungodly start, and then scraped by in the second half of the year. The Senators’ infantile performance in the playoffs led to major shakeups in the club. Gone is John Paddock behind the bench. Bryan Murray is out of the way as well, relegated to the front office by the ownership. Enter hard nosed tactician Craig Hartsburg to guide this club.

Hartsburg’s first order of business will be to bring accountability to the three-headed threat of Jason Spezza, Daniel Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson. This group accounted for 87 points per player last season, but just two points against the Penguins in the first round of the postseason. Odds are good that one of these three will end up on the trading block if they don’t cut the mustard. They let Wayne Redden run to the Blueshirts in the summer that should serve as a wake up call alone to the stars of the team.

The Sens will also need to see what Martin Gerber does in goal this year now that the malcontent Ray Emery is in Russia now. If the former Carolina netminder plays like he did at the end of the year to secure the No. 1 job, great. If not, then Alex Auld will take over and that is a crapshoot in and of itself.

Boston Bruins

It isn’t so much that the Bruins made the playoffs last year that was so amazing. It was the fact they played into the spring after suffering so many injuries in 2007. Their biggest piece gone for much of last year was pivot Patrice Bergeron. The four-year vet suffered a season ending concussion after 10 games. Now Bergeron is back at full strength physically…mentally, on the other hand, is the $64,000 question.

Boston success this year will be on whether or not they adhere to the solid defensive scheme that Claude Julien. Provided the B’s stay healthy while getting quality goaltending from Manny Fernandez and Tim Thomas. All signs point to this being another postseason appearance for the Bruins this season.

Buffalo Sabres

There were two vastly different sides to the Sabres last year. You had the side that was able to score goals in bunches, 252 of them to be exact. Problem was they played loose in their own zone, as evidenced by the 242 lamps lit against Buffalo.

Buffalo’s success during the regular season falls on how well Ryan Miller plays in goal after signing his big contract during the summer. Of course, that means the blue line actually helps out. So look closely at guys like Jaroslav Spacek and Craig Rivet to man up. The Sabres’ attack also need more help from Tim Connolly if he can stop taking hits like a prize fight with a glass jaw. I’m not totally sold on that happening, but they’ll be in the playoff hunt all the way until the end.

Toronto Maple Leafs

This year won’t be pretty.

Toronto’s front office finally acknowledged they need to rebuild before even thinking about making the playoffs. That meant cutting ties with longtime Leafs like Mats Sundin and Bryan McCabe. It also spelled the end for Paul Maurice, who was replaced by Ron Wilson behind the bench. Wilson brings his entire staff from San Jose along for the ride, so the youngsters on hand will have a group to buy into fast.

Given how young the club will be, Vesa Toskala will be doing a yeoman’s work between the pipes. Toskala’s workload at the beginning of the year will be extremely heavy as the club learns how to play the tight-checking style that Wilson prefers. That style should also lend itself to a lot of ‘under’ plays as well.

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