Can Montreal Canadiens Hold Lead in Northeast Division?

By Mark Donatiello

The Montreal Canadiens enter play on Sunday as the division leaders in the Northeast with a 9-4-1 record.  The Habs have won three games in a row behind strong goaltending efforts and impressive, clutch scoring.  Whether through an exciting overtime victory or a slugfest with a strong offensive team, this current win streak has shown that the Habs are for real.

Still, the Northeast is a physical, talented division.  The Boston Bruins have games in hand on the Montreal Canadiens, and the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres are capable of going on a run.  Even if the Ottawa Senators fall off due to injuries, this is a division that will be won by the team that can best endure a physical grind against deep, bruising, skillful teams.

The Senators are likely going to collapse down the stretch without their top scorers, particularly defenseman Erik Karlsson.  Despite the strong goaltending of Craig Anderson, I don’t expect the Senators to be a threat in this division going forward; There may even be a fire sale at the deadline.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have received surprisingly effective goaltending play after an offseason characterized by rumors of Roberto Luongo trades.  The Leafs have played well despite the absence of one of their best scorers, Joffrey Lupul.  Still, you have to wonder how long the Leafs can hold it together with suspect goaltending and a lack of scoring depth.

The Sabres have been extremely disappointing so far this season after sacrificing skilled scorers this offseason in an effort to get a little tougher.  So far, the experiment has been something of a failure as the Sabres round out the bottom of the division.

The division will likely come down to the intense rivalry between the Canadiens and the Bruins.  These two Original Six franchises are the class of the Northeast, as Boston is just a point out of first place with two games in hand.  After last season’s miserable campaign, the division was all but handed to the Boston Bruins, but this year the Habs seem poised to contend for a division title.

Tuukka Rask has filled in as the starting goaltender for the Boston Bruins with remarkable success, but Carey Price has been just as good for the Habs.  Price is 8-3 with a GAA of 2.06, while Rask is 6-1-2 with a GAA of 2.07.  If both goaltenders continue to play well, the Habs and Bruins will be one and two in the Northeast at season’s end.

The Bruins may have slightly more depth offensively, but the top four defensemen of the Montreal Canadiens might be the best in hockey.  Both teams have an incredible home ice advantage, and both are playing well on the road at the quarter-way mark of a lockout-shortened season.  All else being equal, it looks like this division will come down to the consistency of a streaky Carey Price and an unproven Tuukka Rask, in what could be the tightest division title race in hockey this year.

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