Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)
With the regular season coming to a close in several days, it is time determine who the top performers in the NHL's Atlantic Division were in the 2011-12 season.
Top Forward: Evgeni Malkin, C, Pittsburgh Penguins – Though the Atlantic Division may lay claim to seven of the top 13 scorers in the NHL, none have been as prolific as Penguins star Evgeni Malkin. From the onset of the season Malkin has been one of, if not THE top player in the league and has only gotten better as the season has progressed. He leads the NHL in points (105), shots (335), and is second in the league in goals (48) and points-per-game (1.44). But the statistics don't do proper justice to Malkin's on-ice abilities. The center brings a unique blend of size, speed, strength, and unpredictability to the ice that makes him next to impossible to defend against. Teams make him the focus of their defensive efforts on a regular basis and are often completely ineffective in their attempts. Simply put, no one in the NHL right now is playing on the level of Malkin.
Top Defenseman: Kimmo Timonen, D, Philadelphia Flyers – Like the forwards, an easy case could be made for several defensemen in the Atlantic Division including Kris Letang and Mark Streit. Still, no defenseman is more important to his team this season than Kimmo Timonen, who currently leads all Flyers defenseman with 43 points. Timonen is the top puck-mover on the Flyers, meaning he controls the powerplay and plays in the Flyers first defensive pairing. His value however has been even more pronounced this season with the loss of captain Chris Pronger, who has missed all but 13 games this season because of concussion problems.
Top Goaltender: Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York Rangers – Though the Atlantic Division boasts the presence of Martin Brodeur and Marc-Andre Fleury, neither have been as dynamic this season as the 30-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, who is in the process of setting career highs in wins (39), goals against average (1.93), and save percentage (.931). He has done so while missing one of the Rangers top defenseman, Marc Staal, for half of the season. Lundqvist will have to continue this prolific pace into the playoffs as well as the Rangers are not a particularly dynamic offensive team, and will count on their goaltending to win games for them.
Top Coach: Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins – It's hard picking against Dan Bylsma, the recipient of the 2011 Jack Adams award, which goes out to the NHL's Coach of the Year. For the second season in a row, Bylsma has led his team to success despite the fact they were among the league-leaders in man-games lost to injury. The team was so banged up at times, particularly on defense, that they would ice a roster that was a quarter or more minor-league players. The Penguins currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 104 points, and while there is no question they wouldn't be in that spot if not for the play of stars like Malkin or Fleury, Bylsma deserves equal share of the credit as the Penguins played without two of their best players in Letang and Sidney Crosby for much of the season.
Most Valuable Player: Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Pittsburgh Penguins – On a team that has missed three of their top four defensemen for a quarter or more of the season, Fleury has had to be at the top of his game for the Penguins to remain competitive. The 27-year-old netminder has set a new career mark with 41 wins, but it has been his reliability that has been his most valuable trait. The Penguins play a wide open, rope-a-dope style of hockey that allows opposing teams to get a fair amount of scoring chances, often off odd-man rushes, so Fleury has to be sharp at all times. Compounding matters, his backup, the historically reliable Brent Johnson, has faltered this season, meaning Fleury has started on numerous back-to-back occasions and has remained out on the ice even if his performance has been less than stellar that night. Simply put, the Penguins would not be much of a playoff contender, let alone among the favorites to compete for a Stanley Cup, if it wasn't for the man known as "Flower".
Atlantic Division Notes
New Jersey Devils – The Devils will take their red hot power play into Detroit tonight. New Jersey has scored at least one power play goal in their last four games, all of which were wins.
New York Islanders – John Tavares picked up his 200th career point Tuesday when he assisted on a Matt Moulson goal.
New York Rangers – With Henrik Lundqvist nursing a bruised forearm, backup Martin Biron will start in net tonight when the Rangers visit the Penguins. Biron is 2-4-1 in his last seven starts against the Penguins.
Philadelphia Flyers – Flyers assistant coach and former NHL tough guy Craig Berube added fuel to the playoff fire on Monday when, in an interview with Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia, he had choice words regarding Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. "Crosby and Malkin are the dirtiest players on their hockey team," Berube commented. "They slash, they punch guys in the face, they do all these little things", said Berube. Berube played 1054 games in the NHL and over that time managed 61 goals, 98 assists, and 3,149 penalty minutes.
Pittsburgh Penguins – The Penguins can clinch home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs if they defeat the visiting New York Rangers tonight. Center Joe Vitale is reportedly okay after taking a Zdeno Chara shot to the face.