The New Atlantic Division and You!

Written by Luke Peristy (Graphics by Kevin Lee)

Earlier this summer, the NHL underwent conference realignment for the first time since 1993. This realignment effected several changes. Firstly, a new/old playoff format was implemented such that the first two rounds of the playoffs will be inter-divisional. Secondly, geographical oddities, such as Detroit playing in the Western Conference or Winnipeg playing in the Eastern Conference, were eliminated. Thirdly, the NHL created new geographical oddities by putting the two Florida teams in the same division as Boston and Montreal. Finally, the word "Metropolitan" was applied without irony to the state of North Carolina for the first time in recorded history.

So where does this leave the Ottawa Senators? Well, Ottawa's NEW Atlantic Division has some new faces and some old ones. Let's take a closer look at all the teams you are about to hate even more than you already do.

Florida Panthers

If you've ever wondered, "Hey, whatever happened to that guy?" about a player, chances are he now plays for the Florida Panthers.

Hey, whatever happened to Brian Campbell? He's on the Panthers!

Hey, whatever happened to Ed Jovanovski? He's on the Panthers!

Hey, whatever happened to Bobby Butler? Just kidding! No one cares about that guy. (He's on the Panthers.)

Other "whatever happened to" players include Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall, and Kris Versteeg. Florida's like an expansion draft team that formed naturally in the wild. Isn't nature amazing!

The Panthers also have a few sexy prospects in the form of Erik Gudbranson, who is like Jared Cowen only without the history of devastating injury, and Jonathan Huberdeau, who won the Calder Trophy last year thus raising his profile from "obscure outside of the World Juniors" to "I read about that guy once".

The Ottawa Senators do not have a particularly interesting history with the Florida Panthers. Most people agree that the most interesting Panthers-Senators game was that one time the Panthers broadcast the game using a camcorder operated by a 12-year-old. Also, Sens fans should not expect to deal with chirpy Panthers fans as they aren't really known for being particularly provocative. In fact, the only person Panthers fans have ever pissed off is Patrick Roy (Degree of Difficulty: 0.0), and they were duly punished for their insolence.

Sens-Panthers Rivalry-meter: 0.5/10
There ain't no party like a Party City party.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have the potential to be a surprisingly successful team this year. Their forwards are led by Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, who are an ageless offensive force and a human statistical anomaly, respectively. They also have solid goaltending in the form of young Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop. Their one glaring problem is that their defense consists of Brian Lee and five cardboard cutouts with question marks for faces. Then again, as Meat Loaf once said, "Two outta three ain't bad".

This past off-season, GM Steve Yzerman proved that he isn't afraid to make bold moves when he used a compliance buyout on Vincent Lecavalier. The buyout will pay Lecavalier nearly $33 million over the next 6 years to NOT play NHL hockey. To put this in perspective, this is practically identical to the contract Ottawa gave Alex Kovalev, only 3 times as long.

As with Florida, Ottawa has a dearth of prior history with the Lightning, although Ottawa did beat them in a 2006 5-game playoff series that was proof positive that Ray Emery was the Sens' goalie of the future. Also, the Lightning currently have bragging rights as the only team from the 1992 NHL expansion to win the Stanley Cup. This is because justice and rightness are purely philosophical constructs that don't actually exist in our universe.

More recently, Tampa Bay has been a trade partner for Ottawa when the Senators acquired Cory Conacher and a 4th round draft pick in exchange for the aforementioned Ben Bishop. The trade has been regarded as a total steal for the Senators, as everyone unanimously agrees that there's no way Ben Bishop could have ever done this:

Sens-Lightning Rivalry-meter: 1.5/10
Ben Bishop demonstrates how he would handle Jonathan Bernier in a fight.

Buffalo Sabres

Poor Buffalo. Their roster has more young disappointments and facepunchers than an illegal MMA fighting ring. This past off-season, they revealed 3rd jerseys, normally an occasion for the joy and celebration that usually precedes any ~$200 purchase, only to have the jerseys panned all over the internet. Naturally, they were modeled by Steve Ott, because you want that sort of thing to be introduced by your star players. As if things weren't bad enough, the Sabres also have to live up to expectations as the Buffalo sports franchise most likely to make the playoffs this season. On the bright side, Buffalo has fairly stable ownership in the sense that their owner has yet to complain about all the money the team is hemorrhaging. Also, I'm pretty sure the Sabres' play-by-play guy is Rodney Dangerfield so that's gotta count for something, too.

Ottawa and Buffalo have met in the playoffs four times, most painfully in 2006 when Buffalo assassinated a 1-seed Senators team in a 5-game series where every game was decided by one goal and Ottawa lost 3 times in OT. Of course, it goes without saying that Ottawa might have won that series if Dominik Hasek hadn't been out with a strained groin relationship with the team. Ottawa would exact their revenge the next season when they defeated the 1-seed Sabres in another 5-game series that restored my faith in karma for about 9 days.

Since 2007, Buffalo's gone into a double-dip recession and might I add that team's not doing that great either. (Hey-o!) But seriously, the Sabres are in the point of their rebuild where they're about to sell off their two remaining good players, so be nice to Thomas Vanek; he might play for Ottawa soon.

Sens-Sabres Rivalry-meter: 4.0/10
Robin Lehner in one of his off-season film sessions.

Detroit Red Wings

The Detroit Red Wings are one of four Original Six teams in the Atlantic Division. They and have a long and storied history, although their continued success is in direct opposition to the fate of the city in which the franchise is based. Their locker room boasts the largest known concentration of Swedes outside of an Ikea, and their head coach, Mike Babcock, is noted for instilling positionally sound, disciplined hockey. Also, the team has made the playoffs every year since 1990.

Basically, it was really quite a bit better for everyone when they were playing in the West. The Red Wings are the opposite of Ilya Kovalchuk in that sense.

The Senators and Red Wings have no real history of on-ice animosity. That said, tensions between the two teams got ratcheted up a notch this past off-season when Detroit stole free agent and beloved (former) Senator, Daniel Alfredsson, right out from under Ottawa's nose using a controversial technique called, "Offering him a lot more money". Presumably, this was retribution for the time Ottawa hired Paul Maclean from behind the Red Wings' bench. "They hire your assistant coach, you hire their captain. They get one of yours a Jack Adams trophy, you get one of theirs a Stanley Cup!", said Mike Ilitch, probably with a Scottish accent.

Both Detroit and Ottawa are expected to be fighting for a playoff spot this year, so relations between these two teams could get real interesting real quick. Also watch for Ottawa to lose a bunch of weight and start making a big deal about how happy they are with their new captain, Jason Spezza.

Sens-Red Wings Rivalry-meter: 5.5/10
Uh, yeah Chris Neil wears his helmet when he's playing darts. Why, is that weird?

Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins are certainly the powerhouse team of the new Atlantic Division, which is a little irritating given that they were the powerhouse team of the old Atlantic Division. With two Stanley Cup Final appearances in the last three years, they're well constructed to contend for championships. Boston also possesses an inexplicable ability to trade their most promising prospects with impunity, so I haven't got a clue about how they're going to get any worse in the near future. Related: I wouldn't recommend investing in any Dougie Hamilton jerseys, Boston fans. Call it a hunch.

Boston and Ottawa have no playoff history, and despite Ottawa's best efforts to develop some animosity towards the Bruins, Ottawa is regarded as a slightly annoying, but generally amusing younger sibling by Boston fans. This is understandable when you consider that Ottawa has never defeated Boston in an important game, and former Senators Zdeno Chara and Chris Kelly have gone on to be core players for Boston. Hopefully Kaspars Daugavins' valiant attempts to destroy the Bruins from within last season will dampen Boston's enthusiasm for former Ottawa players.

If there is an X-factor to be found in this dynamic, it's Robin Lehner. Lehner has only played in 25 regular season games, but he's played the Bruins seven times, posting a total record of 2-3-2 in those games. If there's one thing Robin Lehner hates, it's not having enough whole foods. If there's two things Robin Lehner hates, it's not having enough whole foods and losing. You can be assured that The Hunt is on. Boston players had better watch their backs, or they'll end up like Ben Bishop: playing professional hockey for a below average NHL franchise.


Sens-Bruins Rivalry-meter: 6.5/10
The last frame of our footage before Chiarelli found the hidden camera.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Before I start, let's just enjoy this moment once more for old time's sake:

*Revels in unadulterated schadenfreude* 

Ok, so if you're reading this, there's probably very little I can tell you about the rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators that you don't already know. It's Original Six vs. Bettman Expansion, Big City vs. Small City, Massive Corporate Juggernaut vs. Crazy Bahamian Billionaire. Even the fans are different. Most Sens fans were children when the franchise was created in 1992 and they've grown up with the team, whereas most Leafs fans are Leafs fans because of the crippling fear of disappointing their fathers.

The height of the Sens-Leafs rivalry occurred during the highly contentious, if ultimately one-sided, playoff series of the early 2000s. Given the complex dynamics at play, I think the Toronto-Ottawa feud is easily compared to the Knicks-Pacers NBA rivalry from the 1990s, only instead of Spike Lee, the Leafs have this guy:

Pictured: Not Spike Lee. Not even close.
Since the most recent Battle of Ontario playoff series in 2004, the Sens have vacillated between being competitive and disappointing, while the Leafs have not bothered with being competitive and just settled for being apocalyptically terrible for the most part.

Though it may not feel like it, the truth is that the Leafs and Senators have not played a truly meaningful hockey game in 8 years. This has caused things to cool off slightly since the heady days of my youth. Tensions in the stands and on the ice remain high, however, and should games start to become a matter of playoff life or death, this rivalry will explode like it's David Clarkson leaving the bench during a line brawl.

Sens-Leafs Rivalry-meter: 8/10
Bobby dropping a SUSPENSION on David Clarkson. (Clever, I know)

Montreal Canadiens

Let's not waste time with the on-ice stuff and get down to brass tacks, here: around Ottawa and around the league, Montreal Canadiens fans have long been regarded shall I put this delicately...the worst. Habs fans are the worst.

When the Canadiens first drew the Senators in the first round of the playoffs last season, it was widely assumed that Ottawa would be little more than something small and furry for the Habs to asphyxiate on their way to bigger and brighter things. Habs fans, in particular, were very vocal in this assertion.

However, as the Senators proved themselves more than a match for the Habs on the ice, and as Canadiens fans grew more and more self-righteous in their moral indignation, Sens fans became more and more emboldened by the quality of Ottawa's play.

This dynamic came to a head in the playoffs last season when, while watching the Senators storm to a 6-1 win in Game 3, Sens fans produced likely the greatest spontaneous display of awesomeness ever seen at 1000 Palladium Drive.

When a glorious end to the series was finally reached, the moral victory was Montreal's, but the actual victory was Ottawa's and so was a berth in the 2nd round of the playoffs (which I don't really want to talk about right now, oddly enough).

The series was a great showcase for what makes the Sens-Habs matchup so compelling: Two sets of fans, separated by only a two hour car ride, who are full of nothing but bitterness towards their opponent; the brash brilliance of Pernell Subban set against the ethereal magnificence of Erik Karlsson; the awful turtleneck of Tomas Plekanec vs. the illegal sweater tuck of Mika Zibanejad; the schoolyard taunting of Brandon Prust vs. Paul Maclean's self-body image. I could go on and on.

In the new Atlantic division, Detroit, Boston, Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto all made the playoffs. This year, there's only 4 spots available for those five teams, battles for the post-season will be a fierce as ever, and Ottawa and Montreal are poised to pick up right where the left off last season.

Last year was just a warm-up act, people. I can assure you that this rivalry is just getting good.

Sens Rivalry-meter: 8.5/10
"Pageau, Pageau, Pageau, Pageau...", sings Plekanec, unintentionally identifying who's coming up in the handshake line.
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