March 18, 2012; Philadelphia, PA USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) faces off against the Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux (28) during the 1st period of a game at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE

Atlantic Division Top Dog in NHL

The Atlantic Division has been a difficult division post-lockout. The dominance of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the continued success of the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, the emergence of the New York Rangers and the promising future of the New York Islanders have made the atlantic the class of the NHL in 2011-12.

Currently, the top four-teams in the Eastern Conference reside in the Atlantic, with the Rangers, Penguins and Flyers separated by just three points for supremacy.

The Rangers were expected to make a jump this season with the addition of Brad Richards over the summer and with a young core coming into its own on Broadway. Oh, and Henrik Lundqvist, a top-3 goalie in the world. But this season has been one giant leap in the right direction for the Blueshirts.

Ater a slow start that saw the team fly to Europe, make a pit-stop on Long Island before heading out to western Canada, the Rangers have been one of the most consistent teams around. They’ve sat atop the Eastern Conference since Dec. 26 thanks to great goaltending, staunchy defense and re-emergence of Marian Gaborik who is currently fifth in goals scored.

The Rangers were up by 10 points on Feb. 21, but have slowed a bit and allowed the surging Pittsburgh Penguins to cut that lead to just one point. The Penguins, who could be the most balanced team in the NHL, had won nine games in a row before adding Sidney Crosby back into the lineup after a three month rehabilitation stint for concussions symptoms.

What have they done since? In three games against the Rangers, Devils and Flyers, the team went 2-0-1 and controlled play in all three games. They receive timely goal scoring throughout their lineup, starting with Evgeni Malkin who is having a Hart Trophy type season. The team has also gotten great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, who could be the most underrated goaltender in the NHL.

The Flyers, who completely re-tooled their lineup last summer, have underperformed, though still just find themselves three points out of the top-spot in the East.

The team dealt Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to make way for Claude Giroux to take over. He hasn’t disappointed, registered 84 points in 68 games, also getting his name in the Hart talk. Scoring has come from all parts of the lineup, including Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds and the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr.

The biggest question mark throughout the season is the mental state of Ilya Bryzgalov. Those questions, though, have been answered, as the goaltender has found his game over the last few weeks, including posting four shutouts in five starts earlier this month.

The Devils were a bit of an enigma entering this season, but has showed they can play with the big boys in the east. Led by Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrick Elias, the Devils have been a force in the east and a thorn in rivals’ side.

Martin Brodeur looks more and more like the Brodeur of yester-year, giving his team a chance to win night after night. New Jersey may also have the 2011-12 Calder Trophy in its lineup, as Adam Henrique has made teams notice him.

The Islanders are the Toronto Blue Jays of the NHL. If they played in probably any other division, they’d be a playoff contender. But when you have to face the previously mentioned teams 24 times each year, you’d better be able to compete.

The Islanders are led by John Tavares, arguably the best young player in the NHL. On a last place team, the former first overall pick has 70 points in 72 games. P.A. Parenteau and Matt Moulson have complimented J.T. very well. On the backend, Travis Hamonic is turning into a great defenseman, and Evgeni Nabokov has played great between the pipes.

Some could argue the Central Division is just as difficult, but the biggest factor is physicality in the Atlantic. These teams flat-out hate each other, and it shows every game these foes faceoff.

The best part? The 4-5 matchup in the first round should feature two Atlantic teams. We’re not sure who it will be, but getting their is half the fun.

Follow Matt on Twitter @MattCalamia

Tags: Atlantic Division Claude Giroux Eastern Conference Henrik Lundqvist John Tavares New Jersey Devils New York Islanders New York Rangers Philadelphia Flyers Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby

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