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Florida Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk battles for a loose puck with Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews during a playoff game at Scotiabank Arena, in Toronto, on May 12.Dan Hamilton/Reuters

Dylan Larkin paused for a moment to ponder the question.

What, the Detroit Red Wings captain was asked, is it like to play in the Atlantic Division night in, night out?

“It’s like hell,” Larkin finally began.

That description of running what might be the NHL’s most challenging gauntlet is hard to argue.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and, more recently, the Florida Panthers, have shared the spoils as the circuit’s big boys the last number of years.

But it could soon get crowded at the top.

The Buffalo Sabres missed the playoffs by a point last spring – the closest that franchise has come since its last post-season appearance in 2011 – while the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings were in the conversation for long stretches.

And then there’s the Montreal Canadiens, a club that owns the division’s weakest roster on paper, but can still present massive problems to any opponent on a given night.

“There’s superstars and young teams coming up,” continued Larkin, who spoke at the recent NHL/NHLPA player media tour. “Can’t really count anyone out. It’s exciting.”

It’s can also be daunting.

When including the 56-game pandemic season where divisions were realigned because of COVID-19 health restrictions, teams from the Atlantic have made six appearances in the last five Stanley Cup finals – Tampa (2020, 2021, 2022), Boston (2019), Montreal (2020) and Florida (2023).

“The division was tough to begin with,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said. “A couple of years there that were a little top heavy. But you could see the talent that’s been developing with some of those teams and organizations, and the way they’ve been building and the challenges that they present.

“As they gain more experience, more maturity, their depth is improving, their expectations really start to rise, and their belief starts to really grow.”

The Sabres, Senators and Red Wings are tired of knocking on the door – they want to bash it down.

“We’re definitely in the mix,” said Buffalo centre Tage Thompson, whose club owns the NHL’s longest active playoff drought at 12 painful seasons. “We all know now is the time. [Last year] left a bitter taste in all of our mouths, and now we know what we’re capable of.

“Anything short of making playoffs is definitely a letdown.”

Ottawa, meanwhile, hasn’t made the spring dance since 2017. It’s a script captain Brady Tkachuk is eager to flip with a new owner and a rejuvenated fan base in the nation’s capital.

“Our group has experienced the lows,” Tkachuk said. “Each year we’re getting closer to where we want to get to.

“We love the group we have … makes it so much more exciting going into this year because all of our goals are aligned.”

Larkin played five playoff games as a rookie in 2016, but Detroit hasn’t been back since.

After a frustrating finish to 2022-23 when the team sold off veterans at the trade deadline despite still being in the postseason mix, he sees brighter days ahead.

“It has been tough it was a difficult pill to swallow,” he said. “I was pretty sour. But I didn’t really see where it was going. Two, three months later I was really thrilled with what we’ve done.”

There’s a chance the Atlantic could finally see a power shift.

Toronto had plenty of change to its roster over the summer, Tampa will be without injured star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for the first two months of the campaign, Florida has to rebound off that long playoff run, and Boston lost centres Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to retirement.

Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk, whose team stunned the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins in the first round back in April, said that last group especially remains a force.

“People have got to be careful with knocking Boston,” he said. “They didn’t have Bergeron or Krejci in their lineup for Games 3 and 4 against us, and they smacked us.

“Very capable team without those guys.”

But Tkachuk, Brady’s older brother, added the rest of the pack has closed the gap considerably.

“Ottawa is, from what I’ve seen and heard, a favourite to come out and be a playoff team,” he said. “Same with Buffalo, everyone’s very high on them same with Detroit. They’re all up-and-coming, they’re talking about having a lot of successes.

“That puts the rest of the teams that have been in the playoffs on notice there are six, seven teams that could all be playoff teams.”

But Tampa defenceman Mikhail Sergachev cautioned there have been similar preseason narratives in the past.

“Sometimes the expectations are very high,” he said. “And the team comes in and just dips. You never know.

“That’s why this is the best league in the world.”

Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen said his young roster still in the midst of a rebuild is realistic about its chances.

“We’re up against some really stiff competition,” he said. “Teams aren’t going anywhere, and everyone’s getting a little bit better. But at the same time, we have a lot of optimism. We know that we’re gonna get a little bit better, too.”

Added Montreal sniper Cole Caufield: “We can surprise some teams.”

While some divisions have a roster or two in transition, there are no easy nights in the Atlantic.

“We understand that and the challenge that brings,” Tavares said. “Something that will push us that we need to embrace.”

The grind starts next week.

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