With the All-Star Break now come and gone, hockey’s stretch run is now officially on the horizon. With about 30 games remaining in the season, we’re now at the point where the standings will theoretically start to shake themselves out. In the Metropolitan Division, things remain impossibly tight, though. The standings seem to completely reshuffle daily and based on the past few months, it seems unlikely that this state of affairs will let up any time soon.
Things in the Eastern Conference are a bit strange this season. In one division, the Atlantic, the final 30 or so games have essentially no meaning outside of seeding for the top three teams. That is because there is now, somewhat ridiculously, a 17-point gap between the third and fourth teams in that division. And with the NHL’s current playoff format, nothing that anyone in the Metropolitan Division does really has any impact on the Atlantic at this point outside of perhaps home ice in the conference final. I don’t think I can recall a similarly decided situation in recent memory. The last 30 games of the season for the Lightning, Bruins, and Leafs are basically the equivalent of an NFL Week 17 where a team has a playoff spot already clinched.
On the other side of the ledger, this has resulted in all of the drama being focused on the Metropolitan Division. With none of the bottom five teams in the Atlantic presenting a credible threat to the playoff race, both wild card spots in the East are all be guaranteed to be filled by the Metro. And where everything in the Atlantic is essentially decided, absolutely nothing in the Metropolitan Division is. Besides the Washington Capitals (for the moment), no one can seem to break free of the quagmire.
A scant five points separate the 2nd place team in the division from last and the entire division spans only a 10-point range right now between the top and bottom. Compare this to the top-to-bottom spreads in the Atlantic and Pacific, which are 36 and 39 points, respectively, and you can see how much of a tangled mess things are. Only the Central, which has only 14 points separating first and last, is close to as tight as the current situation in the Metro.
There’s an important distinction between the races in the Central and Metro, though. In the Central, likely the league’s best division, it seems like the stretch run will be a lot of fun to watch, with a bunch of quality teams trying to outrun one another. Looking at the Central standings, it’s hard to tell if there’s a single team that isn’t good. The Metro, on the other hand, is shaping up to be the funhouse mirror version of that Central Division race. The Metro is awash in a sea of mediocrity. Every team refuses to die, but nobody seems very interested in seizing control either. Where every single team in the Central has a positive goal differential (totaling an insane +126), only three teams in the Metro are positive, with two of those three being a measly +1 (for a much less impressive total of -26). The Metro might be compelling right now, but damn is it ugly at the same time.
This isn’t to say that the Metro is flat out bad, per se, and I’m not sure you’d even call any individual team within it bad. It’s just that I’m not quite sure any of these teams are actually good either. And with division schedules ramping up these next few months, were going to see a lot of intra-division violence and records that are unlikely to improve by leaps and bounds. The second through eighth place teams in the division are all projected to finish with between 98 and 87 points, so we appear headed toward a dramatic finish one way or another.
It seems like it’s been a roller coaster for every team in this division to this point and no one can escape the tangled mess. Teams like the Devils and Blue Jackets failed to separate themselves when they had the chance earlier on. Other teams like the Flyers and Hurricanes who looked like they could be dead in the water at various points rebounded and remain in the thick of things. The Rangers and Islanders look awful right now and each got stomped into a fine paste by the Leafs on consecutive nights this week, but they remain just a single point out of the playoffs and could each quickly right the ship with a couple wins.
If last night’s Flyers game was any indication, all of this constant pressure and standings shuffling is not going to breed much love over these last 30 games. So while it might not be clear that any of these teams are much better than “meh” at the moment and the Metro Division race might best be described as a slog, that doesn’t mean it can’t make for a lot of fun (and/or misery, YMMV) down the stretch. And if we can’t see world-class hockey in this division, at least we’ll get to see things like Radko Gudas getting punched in his big, stupid face. Can the Devils survive this brutal march to the finish? If they can gut a few more games out like last night, they just might, but only time will tell. In the meantime, expect things to be not-so-friendly for the remainder of this season.