Prior to last night, the New Jersey Devils were at the very top of the NHL. They had the best record and they did it with a massive and historic win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then last night, the Washington Capitals brought the Devils down to Earth. Even prior the loss, it was apparent that the Devils' position wasn't all that safe as the Penguins also had 53 points on Saturday night. Going into today's games, the Devils still lead the Atlantic, but the Penguins can overtake them with a win tonight (they play Toronto, who sucks, so it's probably going to be a win for the Pens). As for the three bottom teams, the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers had good results in the last week which has them rising up a little bit in the Eastern Conference. The gap between the top two and the bottom three has been narrowed to at least 13 points.
While the Devils may end up behind Pittsburgh, they do have three factors in their favor. First, the two teams play the same amount of games this week. So even if the Penguins win tonight, a win tomorrow night against Atlanta will put the Devils right back on top. Second, since the Devils and Penguins both play four games this week, the Devils have a two win "bubble" as they will continue to have games in hand over the Penguins (and at least one over everyone else in the division). Third, the two teams will play each other on Wednesday and a Devils win can re-establish superiority if both teams win out their other games.
With respect to the bottom three teams, the last week is a good indication of what they need to do. They need to build up overall positive results. Last week, the Islanders and the Flyers were in 13th and 14th, respectively. A gain of 4 points out of 6 helped them up two spots in a the giant mess that is the lower half of the Eastern Conference. Last week was very good for the Rangers, who are now outright flirting with the eighth place in the conference. It's a good result (5 points out of 6) building on a positive performance from the prior week (5 points out of 8). Not that any team should rest easy, a string of losses can and will push them back down further in the standings.
Here's what's up ahead for each team:
A few inter-division matchups this week: the big one is obviously on December 30 between the Devils and Penguins. I'm sure the Penguins want revenge; and the Devils want to continue stomping on the Penguins, as they are 3-0 against Pittsburgh this season. Philly will have a big week. Philadelphia and the Islanders will wrestle for, er, fourth in the division today and the Flyers get to a chance to take the Rangers down a peg on Wednesday. Then, of course, is the big, national TV game with Boston in the Winter Classic.
I believe the Devils will stay close to the Penguins as the week ends. Mathematically, the other three teams can't touch the Devils or the Penguins this week. Given that it's nearly halfway through the season, I'm pleased with the current position of the team. It wouldn't surprise me if the Devils stay on top of the division by next Sunday, assuming the Devils get the job done on Wednesday.