Atlantic: The Stretch Drive
The Boston Bruins are well on the way to their third division title in four seasons.
They have established themselves as the class of the Atlantic Division. Though they haven't commanded their division the way the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks have, the Bruins return for the final weeks of the season comfortably in front and in position to be no worse than the second seed in the Eastern Conference when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in April.
After the Bruins, there are three distinct sub-layers in the Atlantic.
The surprising Tampa Bay Lightning return from the Olympic break second in the division, one point ahead of the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. The injury-plagued Detroit Red Wings own the second of the conference's two wild-card spots, but the Ottawa Senators are one of three teams that trail Detroit by one point.
The Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres appear to have no chance to make the postseason; the Sabres own the League's worst record and their 38 points are nine fewer than any other team.
Here's a look at the eight Atlantic teams as they prepare for the stretch run:
Boston Bruins (37-16-4)
Position: 1st in division, 2nd in conference
Games remaining: 25 (10 home, 15 away)
What went right: Boston has one of the NHL's most balanced attacks; each of the Bruins' top six forwards has at least 13 goals and 37 points. Rookie defenseman Torey Krug (12 goals, 32 points) has demonstrated that his playoff heroics last spring were no fluke. The power play ranked 26th last season but is tied for sixth this year at 20.4 percent. Goalie Chad Johnson has emerged as a solid backup, meaning the Bruins don't have to burn out starter and Finland Olympian Tuukka Rask. The Bruins are the NHL's stingiest team with 122 non-shootout goals allowed.
Where they've struggled: Injuries have hampered forward Loui Eriksson and defenseman Adam McQuaid, and defenseman Dennis Seidenberg is gone for the season. The Bruins have lost three of four shootouts.
What they're looking for: General manager Peter Chiarelli would like another defenseman but reportedly won't give up any of his young talent or a No. 1 pick to get one. That could limit him to searching for a depth player rather than someone who can play a bigger role.
Scheduling: The Bruins play seven of their final nine games on the road.
Outlook: Barring a collapse, the Bruins will finish first in the division. They still have a shot at catching the Penguins for the top seed in the East.
Tampa Bay Lightning (33-20-5)
Position: 2nd in division, 3rd in conference
Games remaining: 24 (14 home, 10 away)
What went right: Goalie Ben Bishop, acquired from the Ottawa Senators last April, has more than filled the yawning hole in net (28 wins, 1.98 goals-against average. 933 save percentage). At age 38, forward Martin St. Louis has 56 points in 58 games. Rookie forward Tyler Johnson (17 goals, 37 points) and free-agent signee Valtteri Filppula (20 goals, 41 points) have helped the Lightning overcome the loss of Steven Stamkos. Victor Hedman continues to emerge as one of the NHL's top two-way defensemen.
Where they've struggled: The loss of Stamkos, who broke his right leg Nov. 11, cost the Lightning their top scorer. He was unable to take part in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and there's no definite date for his return, though he's expected to be back in the not-too-distant future. His absence has affected the power play (19th at 17.1 percent). The penalty-kill is 23rd (80.5 percent).
What they're looking for: GM Steve Yzerman would probably like to add another contributor on the blue line, though it's doubtful he'd give up a lot for a rental. This is Bishop's first season as a full-time starter, so Yzerman might want to add a veteran backup.
Scheduling: The Lightning play their first four games on the road, then have a six-game homestand. They start April with six in a row at home before finishing on the road against the Washington Capitals.
Outlook: A lot depends on when Stamkos comes back and how effective he is when he returns. The Lightning have survived his absence and his return could be enough to keep them in second place and give them home ice in the opening round of the playoffs.
Montreal Canadiens (32-21-6)
Position: 3rd in division, 4th in conference
Games remaining: 23 (10 home, 13 away)
What went right: Goalie Carey Price rebounded from a two-week slump by allowing seven goals in his last six starts, helping him earn the starting job for Canada at the Olympics. Peter Budaj has been an excellent backup. Forward Max Pacioretty is on pace for a 40-goal season. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov give the Canadiens lots of offense from the blue line. The penalty kill is third in the NHL at 86.0 percent and has scored six shorthanded goals. The Canadiens are 27-0-3 when leading after two periods.
Where they've struggled: The offense has generated 145 non-shootout goals. The Canadiens are 23rd in 5-on-5 goal ratio at 0.90 and are 28th in 5-on-5 scoring with 88 goals. The goaltenders see more than 30 shots a game. Free-agent signee Daniel Briere hasn't produced the offense that was expected.
What they're looking for: GM Marc Bergevin would like some help on the blue line. Some size up front probably wouldn't hurt.
Scheduling: The toughest hurdle is a four-game, six-day trip to California and Arizona in early March. Thirteen of their next 20 games are within the division.
Outlook: The Canadiens are 11 games over .500 despite outscoring their opponents by six goals. They've built a bit of a cushion over the bottom tier of playoff contenders but will probably go only as far as Price takes them.
Toronto Maple Leafs (32-22-6)
Position: 4th in division, 7th in conference (1st wild-card berth)
Games remaining: 22 (9 home, 13 away)
What went right: Offseason acquisition Jonathan Bernier has been everything the Maple Leafs could have asked in goal; he has a .927 save percentage despite seeing a barrage of shots on a nightly basis. The line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk has emerged as one of the best in the NHL; Kessel's 31 goals are second in the League. Toronto's nine shootout wins (in 13 tries) is tied with the San Jose Sharks for tops in the League.
Where they've struggled: Toronto is allowing a League-high 36.2 shots per game and is being outshot by an average of 8.4 shots every night. No team in the past 15 years has made the playoffs with that kind of shot differential. The penalty kill is 28th in the NHL (78.0 percent) and has surrendered 44 power-play goals, tied for the most in the NHL. Forward David Clarkson, last summer's big free-agent signing, has struggled all season with inconsistency and injury.
What they're looking for: GM Dave Nonis would love a rugged top-four defenseman, but he'll likely have to settle for adding depth. Getting center Dave Bolland back from injury might be bigger than any move the Maple Leafs could make.
Scheduling: Toronto is 11-12-5 on the road and has three games in four days in California during a five-game trip in March. The Maple Leafs play four in a row at home before ending their season with three straight on the road.
Outlook: Toronto owns the first wild-card playoff berth despite being badly outshot on a regular basis. The Olympic break should give some rest to Bernier, who has moved past James Reimer into the starter's role. History says Toronto can't make the playoffs allowing this many shots, but if the Maple Leafs can play .500 hockey the rest of the way, they could prove that wrong.
Detroit Red Wings (26-20-12)
Position: 5th in division; 8th in conference (2nd wild-card berth)
Games remaining: 24 (11 home, 13 away)
What went right: Merely surviving a barrage of injuries that would have decimated a lesser team is an accomplishment in itself. Young forwards Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have stepped up and shown they can be contributors at this level. Backup goalies Jonas Gustavsson and Petr Mrazek have done a solid job, helping the Red Wings survive injuries to starter Jimmy Howard.
Where they've struggled: Detroit won six of its first 23 home games and is 11-11-8 at Joe Louis Arena, usually one of the toughest places in the NHL for visiting teams. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit's two stars up front, have missed substantial time with injuries. Zetterberg was knocked out of the Olympics with a back injury that required surgery.
What they're looking for: With Zetterberg out at least eight weeks and Datsyuk's health coming out of the Olympics uncertain, GM Ken Holland could go looking for a scorer.
Scheduling: The Red Wings have more road games left than home games, but there's no trip or homestand longer than three games.
Outlook: The Red Wings own the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference as play resumes. Extending their streak of postseason appearances to 23 figures to depend largely on Holland's ability to find a replacement for Zetterberg's offense.
Ottawa Senators (26-22-11)
Position: 6th in division, 10th in conference
Games remaining: 23 (12 home, 11 away)
What went right: Erik Karlsson leads NHL defensemen in scoring and looks completely recovered from an Achilles tendon injury last season. Forward Bobby Ryan is on pace to score 30 goals. Kyle Turris (19 goals, 44 points, plus-17) has blossomed into an excellent No. 2 center behind Jason Spezza. Forward Clarke MacArthur has 18 goals, three fewer than his career-high for a full season.
Where they've struggled: The Senators generate 32.3 shots per game, fourth in the NHL, but they allow 34.4, more than every team except Toronto. It's a big reason the Senators have allowed 185 non-shootout goals, third-most in the NHL. Goalies Craig Anderson (3.09 GAA, .908 save percentage) and Robin Lehner (2.82, .919) have been inconsistent. Discipline has been a problem; the Senators have faced 230 power plays, more than any team except the Philadelphia Flyers and 36 more than they've received.
What they're looking for: GM Bryan Murray would like a scoring wing to play with Spezza. The Senators have eight NHL-caliber defensemen, so they have some chips to make a deal.
Scheduling: The Senators play four games during a week-long trip through Western Canada and Winnipeg in the first week of March. They have a five-game homestand in late March and early April as part of a stretch that will see them play five games in eight days.
Outlook: Ottawa returns to action one point out of a playoff berth, but the Senators won't make it unless they get better at keeping the puck out of their net.
Florida Panthers (22-29-7)
Position: 7th in division, 15th in conference
Games remaining: 24 (14 home, 10 away)
What went right: Forward Aleksander Barkov, the second player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft, has held his own as an 18-year-old and was good enough to make Finland's Olympic team, though he missed most of the tournament after being injured. At 39, Tim Thomas has been reliable in goal after sitting out last season. The Panthers have improved since Peter Horachek replaced Kevin Dineen as coach in November.
Where they've struggled: Forward Jonathan Huberdeau hasn't built on his Calder Trophy-winning season and is among a number of young players who are experiencing growing pains. Jacob Markstrom, expected to be the Panthers' goaltender of the future, struggled and was sent to the minors. Another late veteran signing, forward Scott Gomez, has one goal and eight points in 28 games. There's still not enough offense; forward Scottie Upshall leads the team with 27 points.
What they're looking for: GM Dale Tallon is likely to shop some of his veterans for more young players and draft picks.
Scheduling: The Panthers have a four-game trip to California and Arizona in mid-March, then play eight of their final 10 games, including the last five, at home.
Outlook: Tallon will be looking at Horachek, who has the title of interim coach, and a roster that's under construction to see who can contribute next season.
Buffalo Sabres (15-34-8)
Position: 8th in division, 16th in conference
Games remaining: 25 (10 home, 15 away)
What went right: Goalie Ryan Miller has excelled despite a lack of support offensively and defensively. The Sabres have played better after Ted Nolan replaced Ron Rolston as coach in mid-November, and the new front office, led by former Sabres star Pat LaFontaine, appears to have a solid plan for the future.
Where they've struggled: The offense has 104 non-shootout goals, by far the fewest in the NHL. Buffalo is on a pace to score 149 times, the fewest by a team in a schedule of 70 or more games since the 1950s. The Sabres are being outshot by 7.4 shots per game and have a 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio of 0.58, by far the worst in the League.
What they're looking for: The Sabres are almost certain to be sellers at the NHL Trade Deadline, with Miller sure to draw a lot of interest. Forward Matt Moulson and center Steve Ott will also attract suitors. The Sabres will want draft picks and young talent; expect any deal that involves Miller to involve a top-flight young goaltender.
Scheduling: Buffalo returns with three straight games at First Niagara Center but plays 10 of its 14 games in March on the road and has an April stretch in which five of six are away from home.
Outlook: LaFontaine and new general manager Tim Murray will spend the final weeks of the season assessing the talent they have and making moves to get ready for next season. The Sabres should have the best odds at the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft in June.
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist