The first week of the unofficial second half of the NHL regular season was just completed. OK, everyone's well past the actual halfway point of 41 games, but it's now apparent that the postseason is coming and all points really do matter. In any case, the Atlantic Division certainly was eventful in the last week.
The New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, The New York Rangers all had very good results with no regulation losses. The Pittsburgh Penguins continued their surge with two out of three wins; and even the Philadelphia Flyers held strong in their position by picking up 3 points. While no actual positions have changed within the division, everyone has something to be pleased from this last week of games.
Of course, there won't be much time for celebration. Almost everyone's playing today and with a few intra-division games, there definitely won't be any mutual admiration. Find out what has happened and the upcoming schedule after the jump.Everyone was active and got a good amount of results. Even the Islanders have pushed themselves up from the bottom of the East.
Of course, the hot team is the one we all love and support: the Devils. Not only did they win all three games, they got them against the Rangers and the Flyers. Wins are always good, and wins over hand rivals are fantastic. Granted, the Rangers win was from a shootout so New York got 3 out of 4 in their short week. The win over the Flyers not only made the Philly faithful a little disappointed, it certainly made the Pittsburgh fans happy and their team is seemingly breathing down the Flyers' neck in points.
Though, it's not as close one may think. The Rangers remain in control of the Atlantic and they have a game in hand on Philadelphia and two on Pittsburgh. A three point lead with a game in hand might as well be a five point lead, especially since the Rangers have consistently earned results all season long. The Flyers hold a game in hand on Pittsburgh, so their lead is a little larger than it appears. It won't last since that game in hand gets used up in this coming week.
Regardless, the Atlantic Division has collectively set themselves in the East. The Islanders had another strong week and are now getting some separation from Carolina, Buffalo, and Montreal for last in the Conference. There are currently four teams in playoff contention, as the Devils' 6-out-of-6 point week pushes them back up the bubble. Who knows whether it'll last. There's still a lot of hockey to be played and in this coming week, there are a few games within the division that could lead to changes down the road:
This Sunday isn't just for the Super Bowl, it's also for Atlantic Division contests (except for the Islanders). The Devils will host the Penguins; a difficult game for both teams since they're coming off games against tough opponents - Philly and Boston, respectively. The Devils getting a result on Sunday would be good if they have any designs on chasing Pittsburgh. The Rangers and Flyers will go at each other and the loser of that game will get a shot at revenge on this coming Saturday. Since the Flyers are still trailing the Rangers, it would be in Philly's best interest to take both games if possible. This could be their big chance to make a move on first place. While the Rangers would still have a game in hand, the swing in points would push them ahead. The Flyers and Rangers also each have a third intra-division game this week, though not with each other. The Rangers will host the Devils a week after they lost in a shootout in Newark. The Devils-Rangers rivalry has always been heated, so you can bet on the Rangers playing with vengeance. At the same time, the Flyers will host the Islanders. Philly better be careful, the men from Long Island have been playing much better hockey as of late and they won the last Flyers-Isles game. Within the division, it's quite busy.
Outside of those games, it's a tough week ahead for everyone. The Devils will get to host one of the best teams in the West in St. Louis and then faceoff with Florida, a team they're directly competing with for a playoff berth. Keep in mind the Devils played three games last week, so the four games on alternating dates can certainly take a toll on their health. The only solace is that many other teams are in the same boat. The Rangers will get a surging Tampa Bay team in the midst of their intra-divisional games; and the Philly will have to bring their "A" game against Toronto on Thursday as well. The Isles have one fewer game to play, but after Philly they have Montreal and Los Angeles to play and the Kings are a team that needs points. Pittsburgh gets the Montreal and then a little break before facing Winnipeg. On paper, that's the easiest schedule but as we've seen countless times, anything can happen on a given night.
You'll notice some of these games involve teams the Devils are directly competing with for a playoff spot this season. Let's take a look at the upcoming schedule for the other teams in the playoff bubble.
The Devils are technically ahead of Ottawa due to the fact that the Devils have played four fewer games than the Senators. That will cut down to three after this week. Ottawa will play all of this week's games at home, but the St. Louis and Nashville games will be difficult. It's easy for Devils fans here: hope Ottawa struggles as much as possible.
Toronto is more of a concern as they are right behind the Devils in points and only one game ahead. Their week ahead ranges from bad opponents (Edmonton, Montreal) to good opponents (Winnipeg on a back-to-back, Philly). Since the Jets are seven points behind the Devils, it would be in New Jersey's best interest if Winnipeg beat Toronto. Likewise, as much as we hate to do so, cheer on the Flyers on Thursday.
The Southeast Division remain in the mix. While Tampa Bay still has some ways to go before being seriously considered in the playoff bubble, the upper end of the division is in the playoff bubble. Florida and Washington will battle each other again and the Devils should be hoping the winner not only leads the division, but that the win comes in regulation. A third point handed out isn't ideal. Since the Devils will play - and hopefully beat - Florida later this week, a Panthers win on Tuesday may be the better outcome. It would help keep the Caps down. It would also be good if Winnipeg takes points from Washington too to make their bigger concern getting into eighth rather than getting any higher. Anyway, the Jets won't be too much of a concern if Montreal or Pittsburgh beats them and then they beat Washington and Toronto. That would help the Devils dramatically as their closer opponents suffer only for the cost of the Jets hanging in the mix for a little while longer.
As simple as it may be to cheer for New Jersey's opponents, the Devils still have to get points along with their competition suffering. The week ahead is rough and the quality of opponent is high: two division leaders, a hot Penguins team, and a strong team in the league's best division - the Central. At least the Devils don't have to travel far for their one road game. The Devils proved within this last week that they can score several goals, they can hang with teams when the games nasty and dirty, and they're not fazed by whether it's the first-place Rangers or the fourteenth-place Canadiens. Let's hope they have enough gas in the tank and they can get work done.
How do you see the division playing out in this coming week? Will the Devils continue to get points or will they slip after winning their last 3 games? How do you see the Rangers-Flyers games playing out? Will the Flyers catch the Rangers, or will the Rangers extend their division lead? Will the Penguins keep surging in the East with a relatively easy schedule, or will they dip in form? Can the Islanders stay ahead of the bottom of the East and maybe start sneaking up on Winnipeg in tenth place? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this week's schedule and the Atlantic Division in the comments. Thank you for reading.