The National Hockey League returned to action as the regular season began last Wednesday. The 2020-21 season, or more accurately the 2021 season, is very different than past seasons. The season will be only 56 games long, it will run from mid-January through to early May, all of the games are within the division, teams have been re-aligned into four divisions (Boston and Buffalo are replacing Columbus and Carolina), and the top four team in each division will make the playoffs. How a team performs within the division will be crucial. Keeping track of what goes on in each division for all involved is important.
For the unaware, I put up a post every Sunday at 11 AM ET of the division snapshot that the New Jersey Devils are in. While the expectations may be low for the Devils, it is good to have an idea of where the divisional teams just did and what they have coming up. This is good for the sake of curiosity. This is also good for bragging rights as I do not need to tell you that if the Devils are not going to make the playoffs, then it would be nice to see Our Hated Rivals (likely) and the Second Rate Rivals (not so likely) fail as well.
The post contains a headline photo representing the current division leader as of late Saturday night or early Sunday morning based on the NHL’s standings and tiebreakers. It does not need to be a flattering photo, but that is why a Devils blog has a non-Devil photo on a post. It will contain a listing of the standings with each team’s record in the previous week, the potential number of points they can earn in this coming week, and how many weeks they won. If a team wins more than half of the potential points, then they won the week. If they earn half or fewer than half of the potential points, then they did not. There is also a chart showcasing all of the games coming up. In past years, games within the division would be highlighted for its importance but that is not necessary since all of the games are within the East this year. Lastly, there is a summary of each team’s previous week in order of the standings. With that all stated, let us get into it.
It was a shortened week but the first few days of the season see the Philadelphia Flyers atop the East. This is due to tiebreakers. They have the exact same record as the Washington Capitals. But since they have not played each other and they have the same number of Regulation Wins (RW) and Regulation/Overtime Wins (ROW), it goes to goal differential. Philly is at +6 and the Caps are at +3. Likewise, goal differential is why the Pittsburgh Penguins (-6) are below the Buffalo Sabres (-3) to own last place. It also the reason why the New York Rangers are ahead of the New York Islanders. This will all not likely last. But for this moment, for this morning, Philly is in first in the East.
As this is a New Jersey Devils blog, let me highlight that the Devils are in third place for this first division snapshot of the season. It feels good to see that too.
However, Philadelphia does have a real opportunity to stay in first if they get hot and win out this week. They will play more games than anyone else in this coming week. If they can take care of their business, their business volume will carry them to another first place finish next week. In the East Division, that is much easier than done.
There are games on every night (and some in the day) except on Wednesday. Rivalries resume between the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers; the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers; and the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins standing out among them. And given how the schedule is all within the division, there may be some makeshift ones forming early on in 2021.
Let us go over what everyone did last week and what is up next.
The Philadelphia Flyers opened up 2021 by playing their most hated rivals in the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pennsylvanian Rivalry is always heated. And there is always extra heat when both teams have fairly high expectations. To that end, the Flyers faithful have to be very pleased with how the season started. They opened the season with a 6-3 win powered by a third period that yielded three goals in response to Pittsburgh making 3-3 early in that period. In their second game, Philly went up 3-2 in the first period, maintained that, and then tacked on two more goals in the third for a more comfortable looking 5-2 win. Two wins, both in regulation, and over a hated rival. You cannot ask for a better start to the season.
The Flyers will certainly be busier in their first full week of the season. Unlike the other East teams, they have four games to play. They will have a back-to-back set with Buffalo in Philadelphia on Monday and Tuesday. After a night off on Wednesday, they will rekindle their rivalry with Boston on Thursday and Saturday in Massachusetts. As stated earlier, if Philly takes care of business, they can still be in first by next Sunday. That said, the Orange and Black can ill afford to take Buffalo lightly and definitely cannot take Boston lightly.
Whereas Philly opened up with a rival, Washington got to host one of the new teams to the re-aligned East Division: the Buffalo Sabres. The Capitals went to upstate New York and came away with wins in consecutive nights. The season opener on the 14th was a high scoring affair with the two teams trading goals and Buffalo pulling within one in the final two minutes. An empty-netter sealed a 6-4 win for the Caps. On the following night, the 15th, the two teams played a stingier game. Washington was able to score only two on Linus Ullmark; which was enough as Buffalo only beat the Vitek Vanecek once in his NHL debut. Two wins, both in regulation, and of each extreme of goal scoring. That is a great start for a potential favorite to win the East.
The Capitals will remain on the road for their next two games. They will visit Pittsburgh today for a noon start on national television. With Pittsburgh looking for a win, the Caps will need to be a bit careful about their time at the Paintcan. If not on Sunday, then again on Tuesday as the two teams will face each other off again. Washington will make their season debut at home against Buffalo on Friday. That may be a favorable matchup given that the Caps are familiar with them and already beat them twice.
New Jersey Devils
It is so great that I do not have to wait until end of this post to write about my favorite team and the subject of this blog. The New Jersey Devils hosted the other new team in the re-aligned East Division: the Boston Bruins. After an absolutely crummy first period in their season opener, the Devils clawed back to tie up against Boston and forced overtime. They nearly won through multiple scoring chances in OT but it was not to be. New Jersey fell in a shootout. On Saturday afternoon, the Devils played a better game overall compared to Thursday, took the lead first for a change, lost it due to a shorthanded goal, and needed overtime again. However, the Devils prevailed with a dramatic and magisterial goal by Egor Sharangovich with less than two seconds left in overtime. The 2-1 win was New Jersey’s first, it earned them a ROW, and that means they are in third place ahead of Boston for the time being. After last season, that is something to be proud about.
The Devils will hit the road for the first time in this coming week. They will not have to travel far. Tuesday night will see them go to Manhattan to play the New York Rangers. They are New Jersey’s most hated rivals, so the performance will be another measuring stick for a young team with a new coaching staff in this season so far. After that, the Devils will then visit the New York Islanders on Thursday night. Hopefully the Devils enjoy this light week of games. The next time they will just have two games in a week will be in the middle of March.
The Boston Bruins ended up taking three out of four points from the Prudential Center. That is good. However, I can understand those who may feel disappointed about the results. Boston won the President’s Trophy last season. The expectations against a young Devils team with not a lot of aspirations had to have been higher than scoring just 3 goals in regulation, zero at even strength, needing a shootout to beat the Devils, and then falling to them in in the final seconds of an overtime. However, this is a results-oriented business and a results-oriented post. They went 1-0-1, which is a solid start to any season that is just two games old.
The Bruins will seek to improve and perhaps get some non-shootout wins in this coming week. On Monday, they will visit the Islanders for a 5 PM matinee on the holiday. On Thursday and Saturday, they will host a potentially hot Philadelphia team - pending their results against Buffalo. It is not an easy week but they do have some time in between games to tweak their gameplans as needed. The thing with Boston is that just as it is not easy for them, it is not going to be easy for their opponents. The Devils also needed post-regulation play to beat the B’s and only scored four goals in two games against them too.
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers opened the season by getting embarrassed by one of their most hated rivals, the New York Islanders, in a 4-0 loss. If MSG had fans in the arena, they would have booed the Blueshirts off the ice. The two teams had a re-match on Saturday night. Revenge was on the menu. The Rangers served the Isles a 5-0 victory, stunning those expecting the Rangers to roll over to the Isles. Thanks to the goal differential tiebreaker, they are just ahead of the Isles in the standings despite having the exact same record. I’m sure Rangers fans are pleased about that. As they probably should be.
The Rangers will have a light schedule in this coming week. They’ll host their other hated local rivals in the Devils on Tuesday night. It will be interesting to see whether the Rangers build on the win against the Isles or play more like they did in their loss to them. The Rangers will follow that game by travelling to Pittsburgh to play the Penguins for their first road game of the season. The Pens may be itching for a win by that point; it will be a tough one on the road.
Similar to the New Jersey Devils, I think the Buffalo Sabres’ expectations are just to be the more competitive than they were last season at a minimum. I suppose to that end, they are on their way to doing just that. While they lost both of their games to Washington, it was not like they were pounded in both games. They tried to keep up with Washington’s scoring in the first one and they made it interesting late. On the following night, Ullmark stood tall and the team only lost 2-1 to the Caps. They are winless, they are pointless, but they are not doormats. Thanks to goal differential, they are not even in the basement of the East. It is not the start the fans may have wanted, but it is was not a trash-fire of start either.
Buffalo will be looking for their first result in this coming week against tough opponents. They will visit Philadelphia for two games back-to-back on Monday and Tuesday. After then, they will get to visit Washington for their third game of their season series. At least they will know what to expect from the Caps. But if the Flyers decisively smack them down, that may not matter much given the potentially low morale of a team winless in their first four games. Even taking a point from Philadelphia would be a positive step to take to the nation’s capital.
Oh, Pittsburgh. Oh, this was the opposite of what you were looking for to start the season. Just as Philadelphia can feel glorious about their two wins, Pittsburgh can feel mystified about the two losses. It is not like the Penguins were severely outplayed. Philly just ran away with each game in the third period. But two regulation losses is still two regulation losses. In a 56-game season, a potential losing streak in January could be a massive blow for making the postseason, never mind trying to do something in it. It is just two games, so a lot can be turned around. It just needs to be soon. But who would have thought Pittsburgh would start off at the bottom of the East?
Trying to get out from the bottom will mean getting results. Today at noon, they will host Washington. That will be a challenge, but the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry may spark a Pens squad to finish a job by the third period if not within it. If not on Sunday, then they will get another shot at the Capitals on Tuesday night. If Washington disposes of the Penguins similarly to how Philadelphia did, then that game against the Rangers on Friday will be huge. I apologize if I seem overly worried for Pittsburgh, but a five-game losing streak is entirely possible by next week’s snapshot. That would be surprising as it would be irritating to the Penguins faithful.
That was the first Weekly East Division Snapshot of the 2021 season. The first full week of the season is coming up and the schedules are about to get busier and busier. What do expect to happen in the first week of the season? Who will come out on top by next week’s snapshot? Will Buffalo or Pittsburgh win a game? How well do you think the Devils will fare against the two New York City teams? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the eight teams in the week that was and the week ahead in the comments. Thank you for reading.