The Holidays are upon us! Vacations are taken. Schools are closed. Even the National Hockey League breaks from the 24th through the 26th. Christmas and Boxing Day take center stage in the middle of this coming week as New Year’s Day is right around the corner. So this is a common time for families to get together as teams reflect on where they are in the standings. This is your pre-holiday weekly Metropolitan Division Snapshot.
The remainder of the division, well, playing beyond early April is not looking good at this point. As a point of reference, Montreal currently owns the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 43 points. So, no, teams in fourth through eighth, you are not actually all that close to a playoff spot.
While this week is effectively four days long, there are plenty of games happening. There are five within the division, which are highlighted in yellow.
If you’re into hockey and any of these eight teams, then you should keep today, Thursday, and Sunday open.
Let’s run down what each team accomplished and what team has to do in this coming week. Since it is the holiday season, I shall choose a cliche to join them. I like the show Seinfeld. So let’s put a Festivus spin on it. I will include what grievance I think a fan of each Metropolitan Division team may air at this time.
The Capitals went into their big home game against their rivals Pittsburgh with three days off and five straight wins on Wednesday night. The night of violence, chirping, and tension ended with a 2-1 loss to the Penguins. But the Capitals rebounded quickly. They prevailed over Buffalo 2-1 at home and then blanked Ottawa in Ontario last night 4-0. That’s a 2-1-0 week to stay strong in first place with a four point lead. They have a relatively short week coming up. They’ll host Carolina on Thursday and then visit Ottawa again. I think they could pick up two more wins and head into 2019 as the Metropolitan Division leaders.
A Possible Grievance: “Yeah, the record’s nice, but can we be better in 5-on-5?” According to Natural Stat Trick, the Capitals are one of two teams with a points percentage above 60% with a Corsi For% ranked in the bottom ten of the league. A 48.45% is not bad, but as the first-place team in the division, you’d expect them to be at least near the league median in a crucial 5-on-5 stat. It’s not just CF%; the Capitals are also below break-even for shots for, chances for, and high danger chances for percentages. Strange as it seems for a first-place team, the best time to remediate this is now before the team hits some struggles by way of the goaltending or shooting not being as hot.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus had the best possible week from a results standpoint. They had three games and they won all three in regulation. They edged Vegas 1-0; they beat the Devils 2-1 in a game not as close as the score would suggest; and they beat Philadelphia 4-3 with that third goal being a late consolation goal for the Flyers. The Blue Jackets did not make up a ton of ground on Washington, but they have held off Pittsburgh for another week. Columbus will visit the Devils for an afternoon game today, enjoy three days off, and then visit the Rangers and host Toronto in a tricky back-to-back. Columbus has played Toronto twice already so they know it is a tough matchup, much less coming off a game the night before. Pittsburgh will be sort-of watching what happens then.
A Possible Grievance: “What does a fan have to do to get a dang power play goal around here?” Columbus’ success rate on the power play this season is a meager 14.3% per NHL.com. While there is one team worse within the division (Philly), Columbus has had no issue scoring goals in 5-on-5. They have 84 of those, the sixth most in the NHL. It is not like they are lacking for talent. Yet, they are a mere 16 for 112 with 3 shorthanded goals against. Per Natural Stat Trick, they have a bottom-ten shots for rate and a bottom-ten shooting percentage. The puzzle pieces are not fitting the way their coaches think it should. This is one of those things that improvement could help Columbus get some more respect and maybe some more wins (and more comfortable wins) in the standings.
Pittsburgh had another four-game week and went 3-1-0 in it. The loss came on Monday, 4-2 to Anaheim. The wins followed: 2-1 at Washington, 2-1 against Minnesota, and 3-0 over Carolina. Now I can write they are on a three-game winning streak entering Christmas. I can also write they are a mere point behind Columbus, although the Jackets have a game in hand on them. Still, the Penguins are getting back to prominence. They will have to wait before playing, though. They’ll host Detroit after Boxing Day and visit a sluggish St. Louis team on Saturday. They may not catch Columbus based on what the Jackets do, but if they slip then the door opens again for the Pens in the short term.
A Possible Grievance: “Why, oh why, did this team stink it up earlier this season?” While the Penguins have done an excellent job to climb their way into third place and keep it away from the Islanders and everyone else in the division. They had to play quite well to do it and get help from the teams ahead of them from not breaking away. Could you imagine where the Penguins would be if they weren’t slumping in November? They could be leading this division by now. Alas.
New York Islanders
The Islanders hold onto the fourth-place spot, which really does not mean much as the Atlantic Division seemingly has the wild card spots on lock. Still, they are beating their preseason expectations just by not being hot garbage. They continue to do so with a 2-1-0 result from this past week. They decisively beat Colorado and Arizona back to back on the road. Their loss was in Vegas, 4-2. Their road trip will end tonight in Dallas, where they could potentially make it a 6-points-out-of-8 trip. That would be a nice gift going into the three-day break. The Isles will resume at home (Brooklyn) against Ottawa before visiting Toronto. At least Toronto would have played the night before too? Good luck to them.
A Possible Grievance: “Forget Washington, can we stop getting owned in 5-on-5 play?” Whereas Washington has the talent and a good standings position to survive a downturn in shooting and save percentage, the Islanders do not have that luxury. Their PDO - the sum of both percentages - is the third highest in the league per Natural Stat Trick. The team’s 5-on-5 save percentage is above 93% and that plus a team 5-on-5 shooting percentage over 9% is a big reason why they’re in games and getting results despite taking less than 47% of all shooting attempts and shots on net in games. If (or when) those percentages drop, so will the record. Isles fans happy where they are should really hope for structural changes or infusions of talent soon.
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers split the points last week. They lost at home to Vegas in overtime, 4-3 to start off the previous week. They beat Anaheim in Manhattan on Tuesday, 3-1 and they lost in Toronto, 5-3, last night. The three points was enough to secure fifth in the division for another week. The Rangers have Philadelphia today, Columbus on Thursday after Boxing Day, and a trip to Nashville on Saturday. The first game can be nasty and the other two are just difficult opponents. What will the Rangers do?
A Possible Grievance: “Yo, aren’t we re-building over here? I like the wins but, uh, being 21st in the NHL by Christmas ain’t helping the cause.” The Rangers went to “blow it up” back in February. They have blooded youth, changed coaches, and have or plan to make several other changes. The good news is that it has not been a horror show for the Rangers. That said, the Devils saw this before in 2015-16. A not-so-awful season will not prevent a really awful one and while the lottery takes the need out of finishing in the bottom three, the Rangers are not helping themselves if they’re hoping to get the choicest of picks in the 2019 draft. I suppose their plan is to start selling in February and hope it will be enough to fall down. So will staying in next to last in the NHL in CF%. Should Carolina, Philadelphia, or New Jersey get their acts together, that may help. But I can see how all those shootout wins and Lundqvist not being playing like he’s really old and other breaks cause some issue.
It was another week of one step forward and two steps back for the organization that does some things excellently on ice but neither of them are stopping or shooting pucks. Carolina shutout Arizona last Sunday. That was a good start to a week of three home games. Then they got rolled 4-1 by Detroit and shut out 3-0 by Pittsburgh. Carolina remains where they were in the standings. Their homestand will end today with Boston for a 5 PM start. After Christmas and Boxing Day, they will visit Washington on Thursday and New Jersey for an afternoon game on Saturday. It’s a two-game trip, at least.
A Possible Grievance: “League average shooting and goaltending! Why can’t we ever find league average shooting and goaltending!? Why why why why WHY?!” Carolina remains a really difficult opponent to play against in 5-on-5 hockey. They control the puck, their defense is among the best in the NHL, and their players are all committed to the coaches’ schemes. Yet, they cannot score enough goals or stop enough pucks to turn their strong system play into wins. They were a leader in analytics and yet despite the intelligence and promotion of Eric Tulsky, they can’t find a league average goaltender (The team is at 91.14%, which is the eighth worst so, hey, it’s not that dire) or means to get to a league average shooting percentage (They’re currently at 5.35%! Not even 6%!!) to get results with all of that 5-on-5 possession. This has been a problem across owners now. Carolina could be the best playoff team that doesn’t sniff the playoffs in years.
The week was all about young goaltender Carter Hart. He is the latest in the long line of Flyers Goaltenders Who Finally Will Address the Goaltending Problem that Has Plagued the Franchise Since Ron Hextall was a Starter. Hart was called up for his debut against Detroit and Philly won 3-2. Hart started again against Nashville and the team won 2-1. Hart started for a third straight game. Alas, Columbus beat them 4-3. Still, the new answer is Hart. For now.
A Possible Grievance: “No, seriously, why should we believe Carter Hart is the answer?” Because he is at this point. Even with Hart’s last three starts, the Flyers are currently tied with St. Louis with the worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the NHL. Yes, that includes a Devils team with an utterly abysmal Schneider and a Kinkaid who has a sub-90% save percentage when you take away his one winning streak. A team save percentage of 90.22% is not going anywhere. So if Hart can be anything better than that, then he’s the answer for the short term. As for the long term, well, that’s been a grievance since the 1990s so I can’t help there.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils are back in last in the division and in the Eastern Conference. They got creamed by Toronto, 7-2, for their worst home loss of the season so far. They were closer to stealing at least a point in Columbus, but they could not find an equalizer so they lost 2-1. The Devils did put up a better performance against Ottawa by uncommon (to them) achievements like scoring first and second in a game. The Devils beat Ottawa 5-2 to end a losing streak, win their second game in a back to back set for the first time this season, and provide the fans evidence that, yes, they can win a game. The Devils will not have it any easier coming up. They’ll host Columbus for an afternoon game today, they’ll visit Boston after Boxing Day, and they’ll host Carolina for an afternoon game. They’re not easy games and even for the Devils to claw out of eighth place, they’ll need to pull out some wins.
A Possible Greivance: “What the hell happened after last season? What the hell happened after the first four games this season? What the hell happened?” I wish it was as simple as one thing like, say, goaltending. But it’s the goaltenders being bad (Schneider has been the worst in the NHL, Kinkaid has been rather bad overall after said winning streak, which is why Mackenzie Blackwood may get two starts within three games before Christmas) and the power play turning really cold and non-threatening and the defense getting confused, especially when they get pinned back and the offense struggling with consistency without being down by multiple goals in the game and the coaches shuffling bodies around to little impact and an inability to perform on the road and failing to pick up extra points or even perform well beyond 60 minutes and some other things I’m sure I’m forgetting. While the Devils brought back largely the same staff and largely the same players, they’re not really playing like they did in 2017-18. Certain players have not been as successful or even fortunate. What they changed tactically (apparently all defensemen can roam like Moore in their own end) and didn’t (their usual two-to-three in the corner to win a puck and have to pass back to the point for a low-percentage shot approach to offense) has blown up in their face. I’d love it if the Devils would turn things around to be at least be more competitive. But playoffs? This season ain’t it, chief. Not when the team is sitting in last in the Metropolitan and the East on Christmas Eve’s Eve. Plenty has to be addressed by management for 2019-20 to be a better campaign.
That was the week that was and the week coming up for all eight teams in the Metropolitan. Now I want to know what you think. Will Washington continue to have a lead on second place by next week? Who will prevail in the short term between Columbus and Pittsburgh? Once again, will the Islanders stay in place or fall back further? Out of the bottom four teams, do any of them have something to play for? Do any of them have a hope of making a real charge up the standings in 2019? Please leave your thoughts about all of this in the comments. Thank you all for reading and have a happy holidays.
Post-script: I just got a text message from a man with the initials S.A. saying he may be showing up soon. I think I know who it is and I’m already dreading it.