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After summer of improvement, NHL's Atlantic Division is even tougher

Jack Eichel watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final 10 rows from the ice at TD Garden last June. A Boston Bruins fan growing up, the captain of the Buffalo Sabres didn't have a rooting interest in the series-clinching tilt against St.

Jack Eichel watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final 10 rows from the ice at TD Garden last June.

A Boston Bruins fan growing up, the captain of the Buffalo Sabres didn't have a rooting interest in the series-clinching tilt against St. Louis Blues — the team that would go onto to hoist the silver trophy that night.

Eichel had friends on both sides. He just wanted to be there.

"Just seeing the celebration and the emotion that was shown from the guys, I think makes you want it that much more," Eichel said. "It was one of the cooler things I've ever seen, just seeing those guys win it."

The 22-year-old dreams of getting his franchise to the top of that mountain, but the first step in the climb is trying to navigate a high-powered Atlantic Division that got even better this summer — Eichel's Sabres included.

The 2018-19 campaign saw the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Presidents' Trophy, Boston and the Toronto Maple Leafs also top 100 points, and the Montreal Canadiens just barely miss the playoff dance.

"There's so many good teams, good players in the division," Eichel said earlier this month at the NHL/NHLPA media tour. "It's tough, for sure. But I think it's a good challenge."

Tampa, Boston and Toronto are the betting favourites to again grab the Atlantic's top three playoff spots and head into this season as legitimate Cup contenders, but at least three other teams will feel they deserve a seat at the table.

Montreal missed the playoffs by two points last year and have mostly the same roster coming back, while the Florida Panthers hired three-time Cup champion Joel Quenneville as their head coach and signed two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky in hopes of finally solving their goalie conundrum.

"Everyone's working on their team and getting better," Canadiens forward Max Domi said. "We're just focused on ourselves and what we're capable of as a group."

With the NHL's longest current playoff drought at eight seasons, the Sabres also have a new bench boss in Ralph Krueger, who returns to hockey after five years of running Southampton of the English Premier League, to go along with a remade blue line that features a maturing Rasmus Dahlin.

"It really feels like something good is coming up this season," Dahlin said. "We are super excited. Our goal is to, of course, make the playoffs. We're super pumped."

The Bruins had a short summer after again getting agonizingly close to the Cup, but know the grind is real in the Atlantic.

"Every single night it gets harder and harder," Boston defenceman Torey Krug said. "Hopefully that makes our team better and we can cause some damage in the playoffs.

"You're always looking to play against the best teams and to push yourself to your potential."

The Leafs still have a ton of firepower up front, but a new-look back end should help get the puck to their skilled forwards even quicker.

"You can't help but notice within the division there's been a lot of improvements," Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "Teams have gotten better, but I think if you look around the league, that's just what happens. It's very competitive."

Tampa will no doubt be looking to make amends after its 128-point, 62-win regular-season — the Lightning went 23-5-0 against Atlantic Division opponents — came to a screeching halt in a stunning sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs.

"We will put what happened behind us," said Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who got a consolation prize with his first Vezina win. "We just got too comfortable in the regular season. In our heads, our thoughts it was like, 'Oh, we'll be all right in the playoffs because we're doing great in the regular season.'

"But the reality is that in the playoffs, it's way different hockey. We just weren't ready for that. We just got too comfortable in the regular season."

Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau, meanwhile, said things are finally lining up for his team following a busy off-season.

"We've got everything we need to succeed," he said. "Now it's just to do it on the ice. We've got to stop saying it. The Panthers have been talked about a lot.

"We've got make the playoffs this year."

And then there are the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators — rebuilding teams with lots of young talent hoping to carve out some success within the Atlantic.

"It'll be tough to win games in our division," Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot said. "But that's the way it is. Last year, Tampa was amazing in our division and so were Boston and Toronto. It's going to be fun. It's going to be a challenge every night.

"We'll have to battle."

Detroit centre Dylan Larkin said playing tight will be crucial with so much firepower in the division.

"We have good, young pieces and we have great veteran leadership," he said. "For us to be good, we're going to have to play a great team game."

But in the high-powered Atlantic, there's a good chance on a lot of nights even that won't be enough.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2019.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press