Photo Credit: NHL.com
Just six points separate five teams from the top.
In the NHL’s Metropolitan Division, the race is tighter than ever to both get into the playoffs, and to get home-ice advantage for one or two rounds. The standings have changed on a nearly daily basis as of late, and each team has been fun to watch. Let’s take a look at the five teams competing and their road to competing for the cup.
New York Islanders: 37-20-7, 81 points (T-1st)
Photo Credit: New York Post/Associated Press
The Islanders have been the surprise of the division this season. After losing star John Tavares to the Maple Leafs (Tavares was heavily jeered and booed in his return to Long Island on Thursday), the Islanders went from mediocrity to one of the great surprises in the NHL. Led by Matt Barzal with 52 points and 20 goal-scorers Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, the Islanders do not have anyone that would shock us on the stat sheet, but they are clearly firing on all cylinders. Having the most recent Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz helps as well. The road ahead for the Islanders looks rather favorable, including 10 games against opponents currently outside of the playoffs, and a couple more right on the bubble. With strong coaching, depth, and an easier schedule through the end of the season, expect the Islanders to be competing for first the rest of the way.
Washington Capitals: 37-21-7; 81 points (T-1st)
Photo Credit: NHL.com
The defending Stanley Cup champions raced out to the top of the Metro Division as we have been accustomed to the last several years. A 7-game winless streak in January was a bit of a setback for Washington but they have since rebounded. Alex Ovechkin is having another Alex Ovechkin season with 45 goals and 75 points in 64 games. Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson are also contributing on a daily basis with 61, 59, and 57 points respectively. Each of the aforementioned three has over 40 assists, many of them presumably on Ovi’s goals. Braden Holtby has had some brief struggles in net, but has been solid overall. Tom Wilson leads the team in penalty minutes so no surprises there. The Capitals’ schedule to close the season seems over-the-top difficult; only six games against teams outside of a playoff spot and three matchups against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have 15 more points than the next best team in the NHL, and 23 more than the Capitals at the moment. That said, I have enough confidence in the veteran leadership of the Capitals to at least secure home-ice for the first round, if not a first-place finish in the division.
Carolina Hurricanes: 36-23-6; 78 points (3rd)
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The team known for their crazy post-game celebrations have had a lot to celebrate as of late. After being near the bottom of the division at Christmas time, the Hurricanes have stormed into a playoff position with just over a month to go in the season. 21-year-old Sebastian Aho has quickly put himself on the hockey map with a 73-point year (and counting). Teuvo Teravainen and Micheal Ferland’s contributions have been massive (61 and 35 points, respectively. Justin Williams is looking like 2014 LA Kings Justin Williams. Between the pipes, Curtis McElhinney (17-7-1, 2.24 GAA) and Petr Mrazek (16-12-3, 2.60 GAA) have made the most of their opportunities. Like Washington, Carolina plays only six teams against opponents outside the playoff picture. The biggest concern for the Hurricanes is youth and inexperience. Most players on the roster have not experienced a playoff push like this and with the roll, the Hurricanes are on, only a little adversity could lead to a bigger downfall. I think Carolina will be on the bubble in the end.
Pittsburgh Penguins: 34-22-9; 77 points (4th, in 2nd Wild Card spot in Eastern Conference)
Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Associated Press
The Penguins have had a roller coaster ride of a season. At one moment it looks like they have turned a corner and will soar to the tops of the division. The next they are struggling to find their identity. Matt Murray has struggled in net and many of his defensemen have been hurt at some point in the season. The Penguins’ top two defensemen – Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin are currently hurt. Murray ranks 27th in goals-against average (GAA) among goalies with at least 20 starts at 2.90. His .913 save percentage is not all that alarming, but the Penguins have a concern on the back end nonetheless. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Jake Guentzel all have at least 60 points on the season (83 for Crosby, including 29 goals). The road ahead for Pittsburgh does not look too bad, with nine games against teams on the outside of the playoffs, and most playoff teams the Pens play have a similar number of points. Whether the Pens make the playoffs will be dependent on whether the strong offense or injured defense and difficulties in net outweigh one another. I would personally bet on the former.
Columbus Blue Jackets: 36-25-3; 75 points (5th, outside of playoffs)
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After giving up tons of draft picks to acquire players such as Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Adam McQuaid at the deadline, it is do-or-die for the Jackets not just in making the playoffs, but also having success (making the second round?) in the playoffs. Being on the outside looking in at the beginning of March is not the optimal position for Columbus. Artemi Panarin is having a great year and is quickly becoming one of the superstars in the league. Cam Atkinson is putting together a great year and Pierre Luc-Dubois is blossoming into a young star. However, inconsistent goaltending (especially from Bobrovsky) and struggles on defense by players outside of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski have plagued the Jackets this season. The now or never approach at the trade deadline is interesting. Weirdly enough, the Jackets have been much better on the road than at home this season. Columbus has 11 road and only six home games starting on Tuesday through the end of the season. Only six of those games are against teams on the outside of the playoffs. As a fan, I’m nervous but also look forward to the stretch run…nervously.
I am featuring the top five for this post, but I would also be remiss to ignore the Philadelphia Flyers, who sit in sixth at 70 points, 7 points behind Pittsburgh for the last playoff spot.
My guess is honestly as good as anyone’s, but I’m going to say by the final week of the season, New York, Washington, and Pittsburgh will be rather comfortably in playoff position or will have punched their ticket. Carolina and Columbus will be fighting for their playoff lives.