The NHL Trade Deadline is a bit over two weeks away. The final full month of the regular season begins on Thursday. While the East Division is looking pretty set between the contenders and the non-contenders, a lot can still happen given how many games are still set to play for so many teams. For this moment in time, the Washington Capitals remain as your division leaders. Not that they should rest easy with the New York Islanders and, soon, the Pittsburgh Penguins, breathing somewhat down their collective necks.
The Capitals can appreciate having two games in hand on the Islanders, although one will get used up today. Philadelphia Flyers fans can be happy that their team finally stopped giving away so many goals and won a game. But they really are not that close to the playoff picture as the Boston Bruins have three games in hand. Chasing a team ahead of you by three points who also has a potential six points to gain is far from close. I would also not rest so easy if I were a Pittsburgh Penguins fan. The Bruins have five games in hand on the Pens and will still have four after this evening. The Penguins’ seven point lead is large, but the Bruins can still mathematically make it up in time. It is not fully safe. Not much is safe in terms of positioning in the first half of the division. Or in the second half between Philadelphia and the New York Rangers.
The games coming up will continue to factor how the division looks. Here is who everyone is playing in this week coming up:
Let us go over the week that was and the week that may be for all eight teams in the division.
The Washington Capitals got the best of both worlds: a break in the schedule and victories to stay atop the East for another week. They were off from Sunday through Wednesday. They took to the ice on Thursday and hosted the New Jersey Devils to begin a back-to-back set that represented their games for the week. The Capitals quickly answered every goal by the Devils and took the game 4-3 to continue to dominate the Devils this season. On the following night, the Capitals just crushed the Devils. They took advantage of lax defensive coverage, turnovers, and a strong performance from Ilya Samsonov to win 4-0. The two regulation wins not only gave them the four points needed to stay with the more-active Islanders this week, but they also matched the Isles in regulation wins and regulation and overtime wins - two important tiebreakers. It was a good week for the Caps even with just two games played.
The break is now a thing of the past. The Capitals will resume a heavy schedule of games with four this week. They will host a New York Rangers team this afternoon and on Tuesday night. The other New York team has been more competitive than some may give them credit for. The Rangers did win in D.C. earlier this month, too. These are not two simple games for the Capitals. Following those two is another back-to-back set. They will visit the Islanders, who have remained fantastic at home, on Thursday and then play a rested Devils team on Friday. It is a tricky back-to-back set that could see the Caps slip a bit. Of course, they have been so good this season that they can prevent a slip-up from spiraling out of control. They have also been so good that they may not even have a slip-up at all.
New York Islanders
A week after their winning streak ended, would the New York Islanders fall apart? Hardly. They went right back to work with another successful week of results. It could have gone a little bit better, but they took care of business by going 2-1-0. The week began with the Philadelphia Flyers giving them quite a handful. They peppered the net with shots. They kept the Isles from scoring. But the game went into OT thanks to an Oliver Wahlstom-scored equalizer in the third period and Anthony Beauvillier was the quick overtime hero with a wraparound goal to give the Isles a 2-1 win. On Thursday night, the Isles went to Boston in a game that was a bit more of a struggle as they went down two goals in the first period. But they clawed their way back into the game and Wahlstrom put the Isles ahead late in the third up 3-2. They conceded a goal to Anders Bjork that led to an overtime situation. Once again, Beauvillier was the hero with a goal 21 seconds into the fourth period to give the Isles a 4-3 win in Boston. The Isles were set to possibly sweep the week with three wins in Pittsburgh last night. However, the Penguins put a button on that by scoring five goals within the first 30 minutes of the game. The Isles did get some goals on the board, including another from Beauvillier, but it was too little, too late in a 6-3 loss to the Penguins. The Isles had a chance to get past the Capitals in the standings. Instead, they will have to deal with just being behind them in points (and in games played, which hurts the Isles’ cause for first place).
The Islanders will have a somewhat lighter week but definitely not in terms of quality of opponent. The Islanders will still be on the road for a Monday night game against Pittsburgh. They will seek some revenge; although, it is unknown if the Penguins will have any of that. The Islanders will get to return home for where they have turned Nassau into a fortress. They have a big opponent in their first game back: the first-place Washington Capitals on Thursday night. Should the Isles want first in the East, then they should seek to put in a great effort against the top team in this division. On Saturday night, they will host Philadelphia, who may itching to get out from their slide in a hope to get back into the playoff race. The Islanders could keep on keeping on as they have done this season, but it will certainly not be an easy time to do so.
Pittsburgh was an overtime away from sweeping the week. They took seven out of a possible eight points. Their consolation prize is having more pressure on the Islanders in the standings. Pittsburgh’s one downfall came to the New Jersey Devils last Sunday. The Devils kept them to one goal, answered it, and Jesper Bratt wrapped around a winning goal for a 2-1 overtime loss. The Penguins rebounded with a back-to-back pair of wins over Buffalo. First, it was a 5-2 win on Wednesday night. Second, it was a 4-0 beatdown on Thursday night. It continues to be miserable for the Sabres. The Penguins hosted the Islanders on Saturday night and got off on more than just the right foot. They started off on the right stick as they put five past the Isles within the first half of the game. Pittsburgh cruised to a 6-3 win to go 3-0-1 for the week. They are in third place and looking mighty threatening to the teams ahead of them. Of course, they cannot fully ignore a Boston team that could still catch them mathematically.
The Penguins will seek to repeat Saturday’s performance on Monday night when they host the Islanders again. It could be a good start to a week where they could really cut down on Boston’s potential threat to their position in the division standings. The Penguins will visit Boston on Thursday and Saturday. It has been tough for non-New Jersey teams to take points out of Boston. But the Penguins are not third in the East Division for nothing. They can help stave off the Bruin threat while keeping pace (or surpassing?) with the two teams ahead of them. Of course, should the Pens fall down,
Fortunately for all involved, the Coronavirus did not sideline the Boston Bruins any further than just having two games postponed. The Bruins returned to play on Thursday night on their home rink against the Islanders. The start was good with a 2-0 lead after the first period. The remainder was not as good as the Isles tied it up, went up 3-2 late in the game, the Bruins got a fortunate equalizer from Anders Bjork, and Anthony Beauvillier won the game in OT to hand the B’s a 4-3 loss. All that and Tuukka Rask was injured. Not exactly the welcome back they were hoping for. On Saturday, the Bruins hosted the saddest team in the NHL, the Buffalo Sabres. The Bruins were down to the Sabres twice in this game, including 2-1 after two periods due to a tiebreaking score by Kyle Okposo. The B’s took care of business in the third with goals from Nick Ritchie and Craig Smith to win 3-2 and not have the disgrace of ending the Sabres’ epic losing streak. Boston took 3 out of 4 points from a short layoff and remain in a playoff position with multiple games in hand on the teams surrounding them in the standings. That is a good week despite the injury to Rask and the recovery from Coronavirus.
The Bruins’ week will get a bit tougher. They are set to play four games and they are not easy ones at all. The Bruins will host the Devils this evening and on Tuesday night. The Devils are one of the few teams who has been successful against the Bruins this season. They are also responsible for two of the three regulation losses Boston suffered at home. Say what you want about the Devils but they may continue to have the Bruins figured out. After those two games, the Bruins will host a Pittsburgh Penguins team that has been playing much better hockey in recent weeks. Road games continue to be a struggle for the Pens but the Bruins cannot underestimate Pittsburgh. Especially if they want to catch them in the standings. It is back to full business for Boston and we shall see if business is going to continue to picking up for the B’s.
It has been a really bad March for the Philadelphia Flyers. Their goaltenders have been giving up goals at a rate not seen since the 1980s or expansion teams in the 1990s. They have found ways to lose games. While they remain in fifth place in the East, they are further back from the playoff picture than it may seem at first glance given Boston’s games in hands on them and Boston being a really good hockey team. The struggles continued for the Flyers in this past week. Against the Islanders, the Flyers managed to play one of their best games. They out-shot the Isles 37-20. They only allowed one goal in regulation. The problem is that they only scored one themselves and conceded a wraparound for the OT winner to lose 2-1. On the next night, the New Jersey Devils blasted them for 50 minutes to go up as much as 4-1 on them. The Flyers did make a spirited comeback effort within the final 10 minutes but they still lost 4-3 to New Jersey. On Thursday night, the Flyers had an opportunity to redeem themselves for the 9-0 embarrassment they had in Manhattan. In front of a limited audience, they pooped their pants again against the Rangers. Carter Hart gave up 5 goals on 11 shots before being pulled, Mika Zibanejad scored another natural hat trick and all on the power play (!!!), and the Flyers lost 8-3. The only solace after a loss like that is that the Flyers did get their game together on Saturday afternoon. They stopped the bleeding against the Rangers, Brian Elliott put in a far stingier performance, and Sam Morin scored his first NHL goal to give the Flyers a badly needed 2-1 win. Had the Flyers lost that game in regulation, they would have slipped to sixth place in the East. They remain in fifth for now, but any legitimate playoff hopes took another hit with a 1-2-1 week amid getting outscored 15-10 across all four games.
The Flyers faithful must be hoping that Saturday’s win over the Rangers will be a sign of better games to come. They have the perfect pick-me-up coming on the schedule. The Flyers will visit Buffalo on Monday and Wednesday night. Buffalo is mired in a historically heinous losing streak. Surely, the Flyers can beat Buffalo. If they do not, well, that would be just terrible. The Flyers will visit Long Island on Saturday after those two games. That game will be considerably harder as Nassau Coliseum is still Fort Rarelylose. The Flyers did give them their first regulation loss there earlier this month, so it is possible they can do it again. If their spirits are good after the games in Buffalo, then they could. If not, well, the Flyers’ season may continue to spiral to irrelevancy.
New York Rangers
I do not know if anyone expected the New York Rangers to be a playoff team. If the expectations were to be a competitive team, then they have clearly met it. This past week is a good example of that. Last Monday, the Rangers hosted a hapless Buffalo team. They did the professional thing and downed them in a 5-3 win. Last Thursday, they visited Philadelphia and continued their beatdown from last Wednesday. Mika Zibanejad scored so many points in that game that some fans may forget he even struggled to produce earlier this season. They won 8-3 and presumably had a good laugh over it. While the week was won, it did end on a poorer note. The Flyers sharpened up and despite another PPG from Zibanejad (his fourth in these three games for this snapshot), they could not solve the Flyers goaltending yesterday. They lost 2-1. Still, going 2-1-0 and now being right behind the Flyers in the standings is a good week. It shows that they are far from an easy opponent. It may not be for another season or two that they take a step towards the playoffs, but they may end up being the best of the bottom four in the East.
This week’s games for the Rangers will be more difficult for them to handle on paper. The Rangers will visit Washington D.C. for a noon game today and then host them on Tuesday night. The Capitals have been rolling through opponents. While the Rangers have beaten them in D.C. earlier this season, by no means will these games be easy for them. The following two games will be easier. The Rangers will visit Buffalo for games on Thursday night and Saturday night. As long as they do not get the terrible distinction of losing to the Sabres to end their horrific slide, they should be a success after those two. The Capitals games should determine whether they won another week or not.
New Jersey Devils
For whatever reason, the Devils have been a far better road team than at home this season. Seriously. They have been 4-11-2 at home and went into this week at 6-3-2 on the road. Fortunately for them, the Devils started a six-game road trip this week. The results continued to work out in the first half of this week. On Sunday, the Devils prevailed in Pittsburgh thanks to a slick wraparound goal by Jesper Bratt in overtime for a 2-1 win. On Tuesday, the Devils put the Flyers’ lackadaisical defense to the sword and put up four goals on them in the first two periods. The Flyers scared the Devils with two goals late in the third period, but the Devils held on for a 4-3 win, their first over Philadelphia this season. So far, so good on the road. Unfortunately, the goodness ended in the nation’s capital in a back-to-back set. On Thursday, the Devils could not stop the Capitals from responding to each of their goals. Worse, it was due to their own errors on defense so they have no one to blame but themselves for a 4-3 loss to the Capitals. It could have been a night where they got their second result in Washington and maybe, just maybe, their first win. But no. On Friday night, the game went worse for the Devils. The Capitals found the holes in their coverage and made the Devils pay for their defensive errors again. All while the Devils could not beat Samsonov. The Devils lost 4-0 with a performance best described as middling. The Devils ended up splitting this week’s games, which is not so bad. But it continues to keep them in the same place they were last week.
The Devils will finish up their road trip in a possibly more favorable Boston rink. The Devils have been able to get great goaltending performances and win close games with solid efforts against Boston this season. They are 3-0-1 against them this season and 2-0-0 in Boston. The Devils could extend that with a game in the early evening today and on Tuesday night. The Devils will get the benefit of a slightly lighter schedule after Tuesday with just one additional game this week. They will get the detriment of having to host Washington in that one game on Friday night. Home has not been kind to the Devils this season and the Capitals certainly have not been good opponents either. Like the Rangers, the Devils’ goal for this season is to be competitive. Despite the talent disparities on paper, that could happen with these three games coming up. If not, well, it could be worse.
Taylor Hall signed a one-season contract with Buffalo which had a no-movement clause. When he was asked after a 4-0 loss to Pittsburgh if he would waive, he was quick to say he would. I do not blame him. The Sabres continue to be a giant mess on the ice. This past week was no different. On the road against the Rangers on Monday? They lost 5-3. Back-to-back on Wednesday and Thursday night in Pittsburgh? A 5-2 loss on Wednesday (and for a national televised audience at that) and a 4-0 loss on Thursday (which led to Hall’s statement). Yesterday, they were up 1-0 over Boston in the first period and 2-1 after the second period. They were 20 minutes away from their first win since February 24. They gave up 2 in the third period to lose 3-2. The Sabres have now lost 17 games in a row, which broke a franchise record for futility. Ralph Krueger was already fired and replaced by interim head coach Don Granato. Goaltender Jonas Johansson was already dealt away for a sixth rounder and center Eric Staal was moved to Montreal for a third and a fifth round pick in 2021 while Buffalo retains 50% of Staal’s salary. More players are expected to be moved out as the Sabres continue to slide into oblivion.
At this point, Buffalo just needs to focus on just winning one single game. Something they may not do for the entire month of March unless they get some great fortune on Monday or Wednesday night. They will host the Philadelphia Flyers, who just recently ended a slide of their own but have been prone to giving up boatloads of goals to anyone. The Flyers will do their best to not be the team to see the end of Buffalo’s losing streak. Should the Sabres drop both games, it would mean they went winless for the whole month of March. If only they won that shootout in Philadelphia on March 9. The Sabres’ week will continue with a home game on Thursday against the Rangers, meaning the Sabres go back-to-back with the Flyers and Rangers in the middle of the week. The Sabres will host the Rangers again on Saturday night. Will the Sabres make it 21 winless games in a row? Unfortunately, it really seems possible at this point.
That was the eleventh Weekly East Division Snapshot of the 2021 season. What do you expect to happen in this week coming up? Will Washington stay in first place ahead of the Islanders? Will the Bruins continue to rise up through their games in hand? Will the Devils end their road trip positively? Will the Flyers end their slide? Will Buffalo win a game this week? 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.