With three full weeks left in the 2017-18 NHL Regular Season, there is finally some clarity within the Metropolitan Division. After snapshot after snapshot where first place and last place where separated by less than ten points, a playoff picture is becoming clearer. All that had to happen was for some team to fall back a bit and the number of remaining games to fall between 10 and 13 for teams. A seven-point difference in January is not as huge as it is in mid-March.
Here is how the division looks after Saturday’s games:
The Washington Capitals are atop the Metropolitan for another week with a perfect week of results. Every point matters now. Just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins. They got five out of six and lost some ground on Washington as a result. It’s a two-team race for the top now.
Meanwhile, four teams in the East are effectively fighting for playoff spots: three in the Metropolitan and Florida from the Atlantic. Florida remains dangerous with games in hand, but the fall of the Philadelphia Flyers only invites more chaos down the final stretch.
As for the bottom three teams, well, only the New York Rangers announced that they would burn this season. Yet, they’re ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Islanders. Like life, hockey is not fair. All three teams are far behind Florida such that it would take a miraculous hot streak to get back in the playoff picture. They’re the spoilers now.
Oh, and Florida slipped up a bit last week. They still have games in hand, but it’s welcome news for Philadelphia, Columbus, and New Jersey that they’re five to six points behind each of them now.
With that in mind, here is this coming week’s schedule. Games within the division, of which there are plenty, are highlighted in yellow:
In honor of Alexander Ovechkin scoring 600 goals in this past week, this week’s division snapshot will highlight the current active goal scoring leaders for each franchise that are on that team right now. All numbers and the identified players are from Hockey Reference.
Washington Capitals: Ovechkin with 600 goals. The 600 goal mark is an amazing achievement. Only 20 players have ever done it and Ovechkin is the first to have done so playing entirely in a salary cap era of the NHL. If there was any doubt, he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a modern legend of the game.
Washington had an amazing week to stay in first place. They won all three of their games. They prevailed over Winnipeg in overtime and then they smashed the Islanders in a home-and-home set. First it was 7-3 and then it was 6-3. Outscoring the same opponent by a combined 13-6 in two games easily proved who’s the superior squad. The Caps are by no means safe from Pittsburgh, but they have an edge with a one point lead from last week becoming a two point lead as well as a game in hand.
Washington will try to continue to take care of business in this week with four games coming up. They’ll have a big one within the division today at Philadelphia. The Caps will then go on to host a Dallas team who is battling for a wild card spot out in the West before easier (on paper) road games against Detroit and Montreal later in the week. Whether they’ll stay in first will depend quite a bit on Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby with 405 goals. Since Jaromir Jagr is no longer in the NHL, Crosby is the leader. It’s no surprise he’s the team leader. He’s been nothing but a point machine ever since he joined the NHL. What’s amazing is that it’s not so much he has a killer shot like Ovechkin (it’s still quite good), but he’s so quick and smart to get into places where he can finish the play successfully. The last decade plus has featured a Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry of sorts. It’s fitting that both are their respective active franchise leaders in scoring.
The Penguins were nearly perfect last week. Normally, that’s a good thing. In this past week, it cost them a little ground though. The Pens beat Dallas 3-1 to start the week. Their three games ended with a 5-3 win in Montreal. In the middle was the slip-up: a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers in overtime. Yes, in overtime. So they earned 5 out of 6 points. In a week where their direct competition went 6 for 6, they’re now down by two in the battle for first place. So it goes in the Metro. At the least, Pittsburgh has pulled away from their in-state rivals.
The Penguins will look to keep up their good work in this week as they hope Washington slips up somewhere. The Pens will finally get to play on Tuesday in Brooklyn, after being off since last Friday. After the Islanders, Pittsburgh returns home to play Montreal on Wednesday and New Jersey on Friday. That New Jersey game will be a tricky one after two spoilers. But the Pens have something to play for and underestimating this squad is a foolish act.
Philadelphia Flyers: Claude Giroux with 206 goals. Giroux has been a dynamic forward of all sorts for Philadelphia. He racks up assists like few others in the league. But he can be and has been a finisher as well for Philly. Whether it’s in 5-on-5 or power play situations, #28 on Philadelphia is one to watch for. The fans know he’s been a stud forward for many years and he will continue to be one for many more.
The fans know that things have been bad for Philadelphia in recent weeks. After a fantastic February, they’ve had a miserable March. Once again, the Flyers won only one of their games in this past week. Once again, it came at the end of the week to avoid a winless one. In this past week, the Flyers lost to Vegas and Columbus before beating Carolina - all results in regulation. The lack of wins plus that loss to Columbus has opened up their third place position in the standings up for grabs. Instead of looking up at Pittsburgh and Washington and trying to make the race for first a three-team race, they’re now with Columbus, New Jersey, and Florida as they will battle for wild card spots. It’s a reversal of fortune and they’re reeling.
The Flyers will need to sort things out and fast. They’ll have a game today to get started on that; except it’s against a Washington team on a winning streak. The Flyers will have two non-playoff teams after facing the Caps. They’ll go to Detroit on Tuesday and host the Rangers on Thursday. Given that the Flyers have won all of two games in March so far, they can’t really look past anyone at this point. If they end up with one win out of three again, they’re going to start looking for a lot of help - and fast.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Cam Atkinson with 137. While Rick Nash is still in the league, he isn’t a Blue Jacket. Atkinson is and he typifies what Columbus is all about as a team. They have talent, they work hard, they put up solid numbers, and they’re tough to handle.
Right now, nobody is tougher than Columbus. The Blue Jackets have won seven games in a row. No other team in the NHL has won more than four at this moment. Columbus has surged up from being on the edge of the wild card to, well, being in a better spot. That speaks to the performance of New Jersey and Florida; the Blue Jackets could still find themselves on the outside if they falter. That didn’t happen last week: they beat Montreal, they beat Philadelphia, and they beat Ottawa. You couldn’t ask for better from Columbus from a division standpoint.
The trick will be in seeing how far they can take it. In this coming week, they have a tough back-to-back to start it. Both games are on the road and the first one is against Boston with the Rangers right after. Boston is one of the best teams in the NHL and the Rangers are proving to be effective spoilers. After that, the Blue Jackets will host Florida in a game that both teams would want to win at all costs on Thursday. Saturday night has the St. Louis Blues coming to town. Depending on how their week goes, they may be fighting for a shot at an active wild card race in the West. That makes for a tricky opponent. At the moment, it looks like Columbus can beat anyone. We’ll see how many they’ll beat soon enough.
New Jersey Devils: Travis Zajac with 166. While Zajac has never been known for being a significant producer, he has been utilized in a lot of situations in both ends of the rink. He has played with some excellent offensive talent over the years. As a result, he’s the leader. And it will take quite a lot of time and goals for Kyle Palmieri (75) and Taylor Hall (51) to reach him.
Currently, the Devils are halfway through a very difficult six-game road trip. So far, they have impressed by winning their first three games on it. In this past week, they only had two games and were at risk of falling out of the wild card spot just by a lack of games. But they received enough help and, more importantly, won their two games. The Devils absolutely embarrassed Vegas with a 8-3 win on their week. Yesterday afternoon, the Devils shutout Los Angeles, 3-0. You could not ask for much better than that. Problem is that they need to keep it up to stay with or get past Philadelphia and Columbus. The good news is: they can.
Despite winning their last three, their upcoming schedule for this week still is incredibly intimidating. They’ll visit a fresh Anaheim team that needs points for their own wild card race tonight. On Tuesday, they’ll visit a San Jose team that seeks to stay ahead of their California compatriots. At the end of the week, they’ll visit Pittsburgh on Friday and host Tampa Bay on Saturday in what may be their toughest back-to-back set of the season. Making matters worse: both of those teams have something to play for so expecting them to not take the game so seriously is not going to happen. If the Devils can come out of this four-game week with a positive record, that’s a huge gain for their playoff hopes. Still, Devils fans should still be scoreboard watching.
New York Rangers: Chris Kreider with 102 goals. Since Derek Stepan was dealt in June, the big man who loves charging the net is the Rangers’ franchise leader among current Rangers. That may not last as Mats Zuccarello is right behind him with 100. It may also not last if either becomes the next players to be dealt away as part of their re-building efforts.
Of course, if those efforts involved getting the best draft pick possible, then they took a hit in this past week. The Rangers nearly swept this past week of games. They beat up on Carolina 6-4 on this past Monday, they ended up winning in OT over Pittsburgh on Wednesday, and they lost in OT in St. Louis last night. Despite proclaiming they’re sellers this season, they’re now the closest team to Florida in the Eastern Conference standings. Unless they get some lottery luck, the Rangers will have to settle for closer to mid-round and late-round talent in the first round. Which isn’t a bad thing at all for this year; this class is supposed to be quite deep.
The Rangers can do some spoiling in the wild card race in this coming week. They’ll be hosting Columbus on Tuesday and visiting Philadelphia on Thursday. Expect other teams’ fans to watch those scoreboards; namely New Jersey and Florida fans. The Rangers will close out their week with a home game against a team that has been bad all season: Buffalo. The Rangers could end up being the best of the bottom three for another week by next week’s snapshot.
Carolina Hurricanes: Jeff Skinner with 200 goals. Skinner is a great skater, a great shooter, and a great forward on a team that has not always put it together. Skinner recently cracked the 20 goal mark for the fifth time in his eight-season career (and one year was a lockout-shortened season) and continues to be an offensive cornerstone of the current Hurricanes.
This past week was a punch to the gut for the Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff hopes for this season. They were within striking distance since beating New Jersey back on March 2. Since then, they’ve won one out of six games. This past week was winless and in a pretty decisive way. They lost big-time, 6-3, in Manhattan. They’ve had one of the worst third-period meltdowns in recent history in a 6-4 loss at home to Boston. Last night, they lost 4-2 at home to Philadelphia. Now in seventh, it’s going to take a miracle run just to get back in the wild card picture, nevermind take one of those two spots.
Carolina does have a relatively favorable schedule on paper for this coming week. They’ll be visiting the Islanders tonight, they’ll host Edmonton on Tuesday, they’ll host Arizona on Thursday, and they’ll visit Ottawa on Saturday. These are all teams that the Canes are ahead of in the standings. These are opponents that the Canes are arguably better than, with the potential exception of an Arizona team that has been better than thought in the past two weeks or so. Will the Canes make it a winning week? With the season they’ve been having - who knows?
New York Islanders: John Tavares with 267 goals. You know, Tavares has lived up to the lofty expectations he has had since being allowed to play major junior hockey when he was 15. Tavares has been amazing. He’ll continue to be amazing for another team as of July 1, 2018.
The Islanders have been spiraling down in 2017-18. They finally won a game last week. Their 5-2 win in Calgary snapped a significant losing streak. The losing returned when Washington pounded them in 7-3 and 6-3 results in a home-and-home set. Can a team that has fallen this hard even play for pride?
We’ll find out soon enough as they have four games coming up as part of a five-game homestand. They’ll host Carolina tonight, they’ll host Pittsburgh on Tuesday, and they’ll host Tampa Bay on Thursday. Those are three really challenging games. The Canes are a very good 5-on-5 team and both Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay are loaded with talent and have something to play for. That’s a bad combo for the Isles faithful hoping for some wins. On paper, their best chance for winning is on Saturday against Chicago. Given how things have went for the Isles, is that even going to happen? Again: who knows.
That was the week that was and the week that will be for the Metropolitan Division. There will be two more snapshots for this season. The final stretch is approaching and a lot can happen.
What do you think will happen in this coming week? Will Washington be able to retain first place over Pittsburgh? Who will take third place now that it is up for grabs? Who has the most to be worried about between Philadelphia, Columbus, New Jersey, and Florida? Can the Rangers continue undercutting their rebuild slightly with wins? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the division in the comments. Thank you for reading.