- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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There's no other way to put it: The Northeast Division is a train wreck with the playoffs just around the corner.
That may end up meaning nothing once the second season begins, but I doubt the way the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators have played of late comforts any of their fans as the postseason approaches.
The Bruins host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night having dropped five of their past six games, unwilling to cement a division title the Habs have tried to hand them on a silver platter. Bruins coach Claude Julien was incensed after the team's road loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night, saying among other things in a terse dressing down of his team: "We're running out of time to get this stuff going."
The Bruins should be able to beat a tired Tampa team Thursday night (the Lightning played at home Wednesday night) before visiting the Washington Capitals on Saturday, then closing out their season Sunday night at home against the Senators. Odds are the B's should win the beleaguered division, with the emphasis on should as a word that doesn't imply certainty.
The Canadiens? Mercy, they've fallen apart worse than any other club in the division -- and not just because, like Boston, they've lost five of their past six games. Rather, it's the manner in which they've lost: clobbered in most of those games and looking nothing like the juggernaut that surprised everyone this season. The team's defensive coverage has been porous and star netminder Carey Price has looked downright shaky.
Having said all that, I think the Canadiens finally showed some promise in the final 30 minutes against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, and perhaps that's what they build on heading into Thursday night's road game against the Winnipeg Jets. Maybe.
Otherwise, if Montreal loses again Thursday and the Maple Leafs beat the Florida Panthers, the Habs could lose home-ice advantage in the first round if Toronto beats them in regulation in Saturday night's season finale (the Leafs own the tiebreaker on the Canadiens).
Of course, the fact that the Leafs could end up with the fourth seed (and possibly the division title) would also have to suggest they have a clue right now. They've been outshot a whopping 183-114 over their past five games. They've won two of those five, but even in those wins, they were outshot 32-13 by New Jersey and 50-22 by the Senators.
On Wednesday night, with a golden chance to cut the gap to two points on both idle Boston and Montreal, the Leafs fell 5-2 in Tampa against a Lightning team that sits 14th in the Eastern Conference.
Combined with losses to the New York Islanders and Capitals last week, Toronto is mired in a mediocre stretch that mirrors that of the Habs and Bruins.
"There's things we have to shore up for sure," Leafs blueliner Cody Franson told TSN.ca on Wednesday night after the game in Tampa. "The last thing we're going to do is just hit the panic button over it. We know the mistakes we're making, and it's just a matter of paying attention and shoring them up."
A win in South Florida on Thursday night against the last-place Panthers would make a lot of people in Leaf Nation breathe a little easier. But just a bit.
And finally, what of the Senators?
A five-game losing streak earlier this month had people thinking perhaps the injury-riddled club had finally hit a wall. But four straight wins again made believers out of Sens fans. Then came a demoralizing home loss to the hated Leafs on Saturday, followed by another home loss to a Pittsburgh Penguins team missing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a game Senators players said was one of their most uninspired efforts in a while.
All of which has left the Sens just one point ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg, although with Ottawa having two more games to play than the Jets -- who wrap up their regular season Thursday night -- you have to think the Sens will get in without a problem.
Perhaps the game-changer Ottawa has been waiting for will arrive in the form of Erik Karlsson. The reigning Norris Trophy winner is on the verge of returning from what was supposed to have been a season-ending Achilles injury, taking a regular shift at practice Wednesday alongside normal partner Marc Methot, which had people in Canada's capital buzzing. Word is Karlsson and the Senators will decide after the morning skate Thursday in Washington whether it's a go that night or if he'll wait for Saturday's game against the Flyers.
The Sens will take any boost they can get, that's for sure.
Frankly, so would any playoff-bound team in the Northeast. It's ugly right now in this grouping. Somebody show the way!