Merry Christmas and welcome to the final week of 2016. The National Hockey League is paused at the moment, but the regular season will resume on December 27. We’re just a few weeks away from the halfway point of the 2016-17 regular season. It’s clear that one of the biggest stories in the league is the dominance of the top five teams in the Metropolitan Division. They’re a cut above the rest both within their division and within the entire league. Here’s how the division looks on this holiday:
Yes, your eyes are not deciving you. The Columbus Blue Jackets are in first place. They have not lost a game since a shootout loss in Florida on November 26. The Blue Jackets edged Vancouver in overtime, prevailed in a shootout over Los Angeles, wrecked Pittsburgh, and beat out Montreal to go into Christmas with twelve straight wins. That put them over the top. And with three games in hand over Pittsburgh plus four games in hand over the New York Rangers, the Blue Jackets can make this more than just a flash in a pan. Embrace your new leaders of the division, even if it is only for this moment. The 5th Line sure is.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers now have a little separation. The Pens absolutely stomped all over the Rangers in a 7-2 win. While Columbus tap danced on their heads in a 7-1 loss, the Penguins made up for it by decisively downing the Devils 4-1. That win over the Devils put them in sole possession of second place. The Rangers beat the Devils in a shootout on Sunday but then were creamed by Pittsburgh on Tuesday and then again by Minnesota on Thursday. Generally going 6-4-0 in their last ten games isn’t bad, but in December in the Metropolitan, it makes one vulnerable. And the Rangers are starting to look that way in the standings.
Namely, the Rangers are vulnerable to the Washington Capitals. The Caps are only three points behind with four games in hand on them. The Caps have been hotter with a 7-1-2 record in their last ten and they picked up three out of four points last week. It was not ideal to drop a point to the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout but they made up for it by owning a depleted Tampa Bay squad by 4-0 final score. As for the Flyers, they’ve stumbled a bit after their ten-game winning streak ended. They did pick up a point in a shootout loss to Nashville and they did prevail in a shootout over the Caps. But they were beaten down by the Devils, which was enough to keep them where they are in the standings. The good news for them is that they’re currently safe in a wildcard spot with a seven point lead on the next best team: Carolina. That large amount of games played will make for some tense watching, but the Flyers in fifth place here is better than being in fifth place in other divisions. After all, the Flyers entered Christmas with the eighth best record in the NHL. That’s how strong these five teams have been in the division.
Speaking of the Carolina Hurricanes, they really are the best team outside of a wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes have been playing well with a 6-2-2 record in their last ten games. More recently, they swept their short week as they beat Buffalo and edged Boston in overtime. That helped them stay above the rest of the non-playoff pack in the East and solidified their sixth place spot. If the Canes can continue getting good results, then who knows how much ground they’ll make up in time. At a minimum, they’ve separated themselves from the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders. The Devils finally ended their seven game losing streak in this last week by beating Philadelphia 4-0. Unfortunately, it was sandwiched by a shootout loss to the Rangers, getting trashed by Nashville, and Pittsburgh slicing them apart. While much was made about how the losing sent them down in the division standings, the Devils have fallen down in the league standings to 25th. The Devils are perilously close to falling behind the New York Islanders for the division’s basement. The Isles had a good week. While Ottawa made mincemeat out them on Sunday, they put together bigger wins against Buffalo and Boston to make it a winning week. Perhaps 2017 will be kinder to them as their 2016 part of the season has absolutely stunk.
Since Sunday is Christmas and Monday is Boxing Day, the Metropolitan Division will only have five days of hockey to close out the calendar year of 2016.
The new leaders will stay out of the division to close out 2016. Columbus will host Boston before hitting the road to Winnipeg and Minnesota. We’ll see how long they can stretch their winning streak. The Pittsburgh Penguins will stay more local with games against the Devils, Carolina on Wednesday night, and a home game against Minnesota on New Year’s Eve. They’ll try to claw their way back up in the standings while holding off the Rangers. Those Rangers will host Ottawa on Tuesday before going to the warmer climes of Arizona and the colder climes of Colorado. We’ll see whether the top three will remain the top three to start 2017.
As for the two teams chasing those top three, the Philadelphia Flyers will be the only team with two games coming up. The Flyers will be visiting St. Louis and play on national television for reasons. They’ll then go to San Jose. Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals will stay within the division. They’ll go to Brooklyn before having a home-and-home with the Devils to close out the year. The Caps will have the chance to get ahead of the Flyers, we’ll see if they will this week.
Down at the bottom of the division, the Canes will get back in action on Wednesday by visiting Pittsburgh before a tough back-to-back set with Chicago and Tampa Bay. They should be able to stay above the Devils and the Isles by at least the new year. As for the Devils, well, the schedule remains unkind to them with a rematch against a Penguins team that has outplayed them in two games already and a Capitals team that means business. The Islanders will get those Caps first before going on the road to Minnesota and then Winnipeg. Maybe the Blue Jackets and Islanders can compare notes before their second road game? Perhaps.
That was the week that was in the Metropolitan Division and now we know what is coming up next. Can anyone stop Columbus? Will the Penguins take back the throne? When will the Capitals pull away from the Flyers - assuming that even happens? Can the Devils avoid the basement? Please let me know your answers and other thoughts about what the eight teams did in the division last week and what they may do this week in the comments. Thank you for reading.