Already the end of January is here. It has been an action-packed first month of the season, even though it was technically a half of one for the National Hockey League. We have seen some big blowouts, close contests, dramatic winners, and surprising roster moves from the ice (e.g. New Jersey Devils goaltender Corey Crawford retiring before the season) to the front office (e.g. Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford resigning within this past week). And this is all within the East Division. The other three can claim a similar kind activity.
For the final day of January, Washington is on top of the East as they were in last week’s snapshot. By no means are they safe in first place. They will get to watch as other teams could jump them in this week coming up. More importantly, no one in the East is really out of anything yet. The season is just eight or nine games old for all eight teams. However, the teams near the bottom may want to pick up the pace really soon before they fall further behind the pack. A small gap can quickly become a large one in the NHL. Here are the East Division standings ahead of Sunday’s games.
This coming week’s schedule is not limited to just four days of the week like last week’s set of games. There is just the one on Wednesday and Friday, but one is greater than zero. And I feel bad for Boston and Pittsburgh on the basis of having to play four games in six nights coming up. Here is what is coming up in the East:
Let us go over what everyone in the East did last week and what everyone has to do this week.
The Capitals began a five-game homestand last week. It was a tight one to watch as only one of out of the four games they played was won by more than one goal. It began with a loss. A shootout loss to Buffalo that required the Capitals to convert a third period power play to even get the game beyond regulation. The Capitals rose from that minor setback with a 3-2 win over the Islanders where Justin Schultz scored the game-deciding goal with 27 seconds left in regulation. On Thursday, Washington beat the Isles more decisively with a 6-3 final score. Yesterday, the Caps hosted Boston and jumped out to a 3-0 lead. The B’s battled back and tied up the game 3-3 with 58 seconds left. But the returning Alex Ovechkin was the hero of the night as he scored in OT to give the Capitals their third straight win. It was not easy but they earned 7 out of 8 points to stay in first in the East. Well done.
Washington gets to recharge a bit for this week. They only have two games coming up this week. It is relatively simple. They host Boston on Monday for their fifth-straight home game. That may be a tougher game as I would think the Bruins would want to salvage some pride from Saturday night. But the Caps have every reason to be confident ahead of that game. Washington’s only other game is a trip up to Manhattan to play the New York Rangers for the first time this season. After then, the team has no games until the following Sunday, which is back in D.C. Washington is entering this light week in a great spot. We shall see if they fall in the standings when idle. If not, then they have every reason to feel even better to start February. If so, then they should be in a position to take it back quickly.
After a rough week, the Flyers rebounded in their three games in this past week. They went to Newark on Tuesday and Thursday night and pulled away with regulation wins. While the performances were not entirely or always in their favor, they were able to finish their chances and take advantage of New Jersey’s mistakes in both of their 5-3 and a 3-1 wins. The Flyers pulled out ahead of the Isles early on Saturday night with a 2-0 lead in the first period. The Isles answered both goals and the game was tight as overtime was needed. However, Scott Laughton ensured the Flyers would sweep the week by scoring in the fourth period for a 3-2 final score. Three games, three wins, and they jumped past Boston to take second in the East.
This coming week is all about staying home for the Flyers. All three of their games this week are at home. Tonight is the only one that is tricky based on the schedule as Philadelphia will host the Islanders for the second straight night. The Isles have proven to be difficult opponents at a minimum. After that, then they will get a should-be-appreciated two days without a game before they host Boston on national TV on Wednesday night. There is a second against the B’s, but it is on Friday. Three games in seven nights is actually quite nice in the larger context of the 2021 season. Maybe they will take advantage of it again as they did in the prior week. But any game against Boston this season is far from nice. Gear up, Flyers; with great expectations comes great pressure.
The Bruins certainly did not have a bad week. They took 5 out of a possible 6 points. They won their third week of the season that is three weeks old. Yet, they dropped to third. Life, like hockey, is not fair. I still would think the week went rather well for the Bruins. While they conceded a fairly late equalizer to Pittsburgh in the third period last Tuesday, Craig Smith scored with 11 seconds left in overtime to make it a 3-2 win for Boston. On Thursday, the Bruins did not need overtime. They just smacked the Pens down decisively in a 4-1 win. Last night, they took on Washington. They did rally from a deficit to get something out of the game. Unfortunately, Ovechkin was the hero and he ended the overtime period quickly to hand Boston their one blemish from this past week. That is still a successful week of results. It is these kinds of weeks that will help keep them firmly in the playoff picture if they keep it up. They have a game in hand on Philly and Washington anyway, they are not really far behind either.
That said, it will be a challenge to take advantage of that game in hand. Boston will get to “enjoy” four games in six nights in this week coming up. After suffering a decisive loss to Washington, I think the B’s may relish their chances against the Capitals on Monday night. Their road trip will continue North to visit Philadelphia on Wednesday and Friday night. The former will be on national television, so it will get plenty of attention. After the game in Philly, the Bruins will rush back up to Massachusetts to host Buffalo on Saturday night. At least that game will start a little over 24 hours after the second game in Philadelphia. If that reads like a difficult slate of games, then that is because that it is. (Spoiler: They get to do it again in the following week.) If they remain in third with a fourth straight winning week, then I would take it if I were Boston. Of course, it’s up to them.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the week with five out of eight points earned, which was enough to edge out Buffalo for fourth place. I can understand if Penguins fans are not as pleased about the results. As always, the details suggest it was a tougher week than a 2-1-1 record shows. Last Sunday went well. The Penguins extended their winning streak to four when they prevailed over the Rangers, 3-2. However, they fell to Boston on Tuesday in overtime and more directly in a 4-1 loss on Thursday, both as mentioned two paragraphs ago. The Penguins went into last night’s game in Madison Square Garden hoping to win to at least make the week positive. It was not easy at all as the two teams traded goals back and forth. It was 4-4 when regulation ended. Similar to how Ovechkin was an overtime hero for Washington last night, Sidney Crosby was the same for Pittsburgh. He scored 2:27 into the fourth period to secure a 5-4 win for the Penguins and move the Penguins up to fourth place for this snapshot. It was not easy but it rarely is in hockey.
What is busier than four games in seven days? How about four games in six? That is what is coming up for Pittsburgh. Just like Boston. The Penguins will visit Our Hated Rivals on Monday night. Given the forecasted snowstorm in the area, I hope the game even happens and the Pens are able to travel afterwards. They have to return to Pittsburgh this Monday night since they are scheduled to host New Jersey on Tuesday night. Once they recover from that, they will host the Devils again on Thursday night. After that game, the team will need to head back to the New York Metropolitan Area to visit the Islanders at Nassau. There could be some really tired members of the Black and Yellow by that one. They will get more of a respite in the following week; they just have to endure this one first. The Penguins do not have a game today and that is to their benefit. I hope they rest up.
The Buffalo Sabres charged up the standings in this past week with an impressive 7 out of 8 potential points earned. It may have not been ideal as four of them came from shootout wins, but there cannot be too many complaints for a team jumping up from last to fifth. The Sabres enacted some revenge on Washington last Sunday by beating them 4-3 through a shootout (they lost the prior game 4-3 through a shootout). Buffalo returned from D.C. to upstate New York to take on the Rangers. They came back from a 2-1 deficit in the first period to go up 3-2 after the second and held on for their first regulation win of the season. Buffalo tried to do the same on Thursday with an equalizer to make it 2-2 in the third but they could not get the go-ahead goal. Instead, they fell in overtime. Buffalo capped off the week with an afternoon game against New Jersey. It was a dramatic third period as they went down 2-1 early, tied it up quickly, went up 3-2, conceded the equalizer, and failed to score on a power play as regulation expired. Overtime was not enough, but the shootout was as Jack Eichel’s lone goal was enough to give Buffalo their third win of the week. While having 3 or 4 regulation or overtime wins would be great, a 3-0-1 week is still a great result after their first two weeks of the season.
Buffalo will continue their busy week with another afternoon game at home against New Jersey. Now that they saw what the Devils could put out, maybe they have an advantage. We shall see. After Sunday, Buffalo is back on the road. They will go to Long Island to play the New York Islanders on Tuesday (oddly at 6 PM ET) and Thursday. The Sabres have not played them yet so there will be a feeling out process. After those two, Buffalo gets to face a familiar opponent from seasons past for the first time this season: Boston. The Sabres will play the B’s on Saturday night to close out the week. Should they win another week, they could start to be seen as potential spoilers in the East.
New Jersey Devils
It was not a positive week for the New Jersey Devils from a results-perspective. While improvements and lessons learned about their performances are appreciated, the Weekly East Division Snapshot is all about results. The Devils earned just three points out of a potential eight in this past week. Last Sunday, the Devils rebounded big time from a 4-1 loss to the Isles in the prior week by shutting down the Isles. Literally. The Devils played a great game to beat the Islanders 2-0. Unfortunately for New Jersey, the Devils could not continue their winning ways against Philadelphia. They kept up and, some times, out played the Flyers in their two games. But both games were lost in the third period as various issues from this season cropped up. The Devils lost 5-3 and 3-1 on Tuesday and Thursday night, respectively. Against Buffalo, the Devils managed to tie it up late in the second period, go up early in the third, concede two in a row, then tie it up a second time in the game, and held on for dear life to force overtime. But they failed to score in the shootout, so they lost 4-3 through the shootout. That was the third and final point earned by Devils. While some fans expected a poor team, other fans feel like New Jersey could have earned more from these games. It depends on your perspective; but, hey, they are not in last.
The Devils played four games in seven days last week. They will do it again this week. They will play Buffalo again this afternoon, two hours after this post goes up. It is their first back-to-back set this season. The Devils’ performances in their second game against a consecutive opponent have been very good compared to their first so far this season. Perhaps it will help the Devils today. Regardless, the Devils will be heading South to Western Pennsylvania to visit the Pittsburgh Penguins after the game. They play the Pens on Tuesday and Thursday. The Devils will return to Newark on Saturday for an afternoon game against Our Hated Rivals: the New York Rangers. It will be the first home game against that team for New Jersey. We shall see whether the Devils go into that game with a chance to win the week or a hope to salvage something from it. Either way, I think New Jersey will be happy to have two game-less days after it. Should they get more than 3 points and stay somewhat close to the fourth and fifth place teams, that may be a success for New Jersey. As always, we shall see.
New York Islanders
No one in the East had a week as bad as the New York Islanders. They went winless in four games and fell all the way to seventh place with just one point earned. Tiebreakers would have kept them from being at the bottom, but it is still not a good place to be. They fell to the New Jersey Devils last Sunday by being shutout in Newark. As difficult as they made it for the Capitals, they lost 3-2 and 6-3 in regulation in their two games against the Caps. Their one point came last night in Philadelphia. They did well to match Philly’s two-goal first period with a two-goal second period. But they could not get the third and Philadelphia did in sudden death. That ended a not-at-all good week for an Islanders team that was coming off a pair of wins. It was rough.
The New York Islanders will have ample opportunity to respond. They will also be very active in this week coming up. Similar to New Jersey and Buffalo, the Isles wrap up a back-to-back set against Philadelphia tonight. That will be the Islanders’ last road game for this week. They will return to the Island for the next three games (and five out of their next six - the exception is in Manhattan). The Isles will host Buffalo for their first and second games against them on Tuesday and Thursday night. After those two, the Isles will have their first game against Pittsburgh on Saturday night. Hopefully for their sake, they turn it around fast. Another bad week is a great pathway to staying in this end of the East.
New York Rangers
While the New York Rangers fans can be pleased their team outperformed their rivals on Long Island last week, their 1-2-1 week was not enough to get them out of last for the moment. The Rangers started off the week with a 3-2 road loss to Pittsburgh and a 3-2 road loss to Buffalo. The Blueshirts won their first road game of the season when their young ace Alexis Lafreniere scored his first NHL goal in overtime in a 3-2 win in Buffalo. The Rangers followed that up by getting into a goal-fest with Pittsburgh. They lost said goal-fest when Crosby scored the game’s ninth goal in overtime for a 5-4 defeat. An optimist will point out that they ended the week better than they started it. A pessimist will point out that it could have gone either way as both went beyond regulation. A realist will say they are in eighth, but in a position to move up soon provided they get some help from their local rivals.
This week is a little lighter than last week for the New York Rangers, so they will need that help to move up. They do not play today and so they have a little time to figure out what to do against Pittsburgh for Monday night. The Rangers and Penguins will have a rematch at that time. Regardless of how that goes, the Rangers will have two game-less days before hosting Washington. They may need the extra preparation time as the Capitals are the East leaders for a reason. After then, the Rangers will take a short ride over the Hudson River and visit the New Jersey Devils for a Saturday afternoon rivalry game. If the Rangers falter again this week and/or do not get the help from the Devils and Isles, then they will likely stay in last. If they can prevail more often than not, then they can start making a charge up the standings. At the moment, they remain in the East’s basement.
That was the third Weekly East Division Snapshot of the 2021 season. February is just about here. What do expect to happen in this week coming up? Who among Washington, Boston, or the field will take first in next week’s snapshot? Who will end up in the basement by next week? Will the Pittsburgh-New York game on Monday night even happen? How tired will Boston and Pittsburgh by this time next week? How well do you think the Devils will do with being on the road for three out of the next four games? 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.