Tomorrow is the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline. Today will be a busy, busy day of games in the East. The landscape in the division is the same as it ever was. There is a three-team race for first place that is still being led by the Washington Capitals due to the regulation win tiebreaker. The top four in the East is on lock provided that the Boston Bruins do not blow their games in hand and start to slump. Those four teams should be buyers (or do nothing) at the deadline. The other four should be selling. In fact, the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres already began to do so ahead of tomorrow’s deadline. But this is not about the deadline. This is about the East Division. Here is a snapshot of the standings for the division before today’s games:
It is impressive how Washington has been able to stay just ahead of the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins for a few weeks straight now. This may not last unless the Caps can start out-earning the Isles and Pens in points this week. Less impressive is how the Philadelphia Flyers have also been able to stay just ahead of the New York Rangers for ownership of fifth place. Fifth place in the East will have their season end at the same time as sixth, seventh, and eighth place. Other than odds in a draft lottery, it does not mean a whole lot. But it is something, I guess, for bragging rights? Before Rangers and Flyers fans breathlessly point out how they are just 4-5 points behind Boston, look at that games played count. They are 4-5 points behind Boston at best. At worst for those two teams, it is an 8-9 point gap. Again, the Bruins would need to drop those games in hand and slump for either to have an even remote shot in the postseason. The Boston Bruins still have six games against the Buffalo Sabres to play, so I would not have a lot of hope of that happening.
What will be happening is that everyone is playing today and Thursday. Almost everyone is playing on Tuesday and Saturday. Helpfully, no one is playing on the day of the NHL Trade Deadline. Be on the watch for sudden scratches and players being held out for “precautionary reasons” today. Here is who is matched up with who in this coming week.
Let us go over the week that was and the week that may be for all eight teams in the division.
By the skin of their collective teeth, a 2-2-0 week did not see the Capitals fall from first place. Last week started off well for them. They visited the New Jersey Devils and swept their season series against them with a 5-4 win. Yes, the Devils made it close. But as it has been in 2021, close has never been enough. The Capitals won to go 8-0-0 against the Devils this season. However, the Capitals faltered in their next game in Nassau. The Islanders got one up on them and that was all they needed. The Capitals lost 0-1 as the latest victims at Fort Neverlose 2.0. On Thursday, the Capitals returned to D.C. to host the Bruins. Instead of bouncing back, the B’s scored two on them in the first period, went up 3-0 in the second, saw the lead go back to one by the third period, and extended it again in the third. The Caps lost 4-2 to the Bruins. They had a game in Buffalo on Friday to salvage the week. This was more like their game in New Jersey. The Capitals went up, never lost the lead, but did have to hold on to a one-goal lead to prevail. The Caps won 4-3 in Buffalo to make it a 2-2-0 week. As both wins were within 60 minutes, they added two to that all-important RW column in the standings - which is why they are first for yet another Weekly East Division Snapshot.
The Capitals would be wise to earn better results than just getting by the Isles and/or hoping they falter if they want to keep their hold on first place. It will be a bit tough as the Capitals begin this week with a game in Boston today. Boston has not been as dominant as, say, the Islanders or Penguins at home this season; but they have been great and few have left TD Garden with points. On Tuesday, the Caps will host a Philadelphia Flyers team that jumps back-and-forth between being competitive and being not very competitive. On Thursday, the Capitals will host Buffalo, which should be a win for Washington. Saturday will see the Capitals go to Philadelphia where, again, they will roll the dice in terms of which Flyers team they will see that evening. They do have the advantage of playing more games than the Isles and Pens this week, so a strong week of results could build a small cushion. However, should the Capitals stumble, first place becomes even more up-for-grabs. Isles and Pens fans are probably big fans of whoever plays the Capitals this week. Even if it means wanting the Flyers to do well.
New York Islanders
The Islanders arguably have the best home record in the NHL this season. This past week featured games all at home for the Islanders. Would they sweep the week? Unfortunately for the Isles faithful, no. It seemed like they would. They were a game away from doing so. Their first game of the week, against Washington, saw Brock Nelson score the only goal in the game as Seymon Varlamov stopped everything for a 1-0 win. Their second game of the week, against Philadelphia, saw the debuts of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, an early 2-0 lead, Philly tying it up in the second period, and forced post-regulation hockey. A shootout was needed, but the Isles prevailed to keep Fort Neverlose 2.0 as accurate of a nickname as possible in a 3-2 final score. Their third game of the week, against the New York Rangers, was arguably the most important. You always want to see your favorite team beat your hated rivals. And with the Isles losing just one game in regulation at home all season, odds were good that they would get something out of this one. That did not happen. The Rangers became the second team all season to beat the Isles within 60 minutes in Nassau. They did so with a decisive 4-1 score. That loss kept the Isles tied with the Caps in points and that shootout win over Philly meant the Caps have an edge in the first tiebreaker, regulation wins. Going 2-1-0 is good, but I can understand how some fans may see it as disappointing they remain close to the Caps instead of ahead of them. Especially since it came, in part, at the hands of their hated rivals in Manhattan.
The Islanders will get a chance for revenge immediately. They will host the Rangers today as their six-game homestand ends. They should not need a lot of motivation for this one. We shall see whether they play like they should. The Isles will then get three days without games to recover, rest a bit, and prepare for a stretch run to the end of the season. This stretch run starts off with a doozy: a back-to-back set against Boston on the road. While the Isles have been the team that best represents home supremacy this season, the Bruins have been very good at home as well. Should the Isles want to stay with or get ahead of the Capitals, then they need to get results in those two difficult games. Given how successful the Isles have been in Long Island this season, their goal should be to secure home ice for the playoffs. But weeks like this that could go awry could see them ending up in third place real fast. And Boston possibly beating them twice could help close the gap between the B’s and the other three playoff teams in this division. As ever, it is never easy to be at or near the top.
Should the Penguins want to take first or second place, they would need to out-earn the two teams ahead of them. They did not do that in this week. It is the result of how they started the week. After eating a loss in a goal-fest to Boston to end last week, the Penguins had some time to prepare for Tuesday’s game at Manhattan. In another goal-fest, the Penguins suffered another loss. An 8-4 loss to the Rangers. Hardly the start they wanted to the week. They would rebound from that loss in their back-to-back set after Tuesday. On Thursday, the Penguins would get revenge in a decisive 5-2 win over the Rangers in Manhattan. On Friday, the Pens headed across the Hudson to get up big on the Devils and hold on to win 6-4. That completed a 2-1-0 week where they kept pace with the Isles and Capitals. But, again, it was not enough to gain ground. They remain in third for now. At least they have the edge in regulation wins over Boston should Boston win all three of their games in hand on Pittsburgh.
The Penguins will be in Newark this evening to start their week. The Penguins have had some success at the Rock so they may continue to have more of it. Then they will be off until Thursday when they will host their hated rivals in Philadelphia. That is a big game regardless of the standings. The Penguins will end their week with an afternoon game in Buffalo on Saturday. On paper, the Penguins could very well sweep this week. They may need to if they want to be any higher than third place for next week’s snapshot. But can they get the job done to move on up? As ever, we shall see.
The Bruins ended up winning their week by taking 5 points out of 8. However, the beginning and the end of their past week was a let down. Last Monday, the Bruins saw a 2-1 lead fall in the third period and lost in overtime to Philadelphia 3-2. That one point did get them the edge of winning the week, but it was still a lost point. And at TD Garden, no less. The Bruins would get revenge with a solid 4-2 win in Philadelphia on the next night. While the Bruins lost a 2-0 lead in that one, they recovered it with a two-goal third period to make it 4-2. On Thursday, the Bruins put up a big statement win at Washington D.C. They went up 3-0 and never lost that lead in a 4-2 victory. With a chance to take another step forward, the B’s went back to Philadelphia yesterday. However, Sean Couturier broke ahead in the third to make it a 3-2 win for Philly. Which means a 3-2 loss for Boston to end their week at 2-1-1. As Philly is not on pace to be a playoff team, those lost points hurt a bit. But Boston still has the games in hand to stay safe from Philadelphia and the Rangers and still scare the Pittsburgh fans who are aware of the standings.
Boston’s week will be another opportunity to make some statements. Namely to restore TD Garden to its role as a place where opponents fail to succeed. The Bruins will be home all week for all four games. They will host Washington today and hope to prevail again over the Capitals from their recent win. They will host the hapless Sabres on Tuesday. I regret to inform the fans who want Boston to fail that this is the first of six games the Bruins will play against Buffalo over the next few weeks. Boston will get a big back-to-back set against the Islanders on Thursday and Friday. Both are in Boston. Both could be a great opportunity to really pull closer to the three-team race at the top and try to make it a foursome. Likewise, it could be a great source of pain should the Isles win both to keep the Bruins further back.
The Flyers’ shot at being a playoff team in 2021 has become increasingly faint. They at least won their week to stay just ahead of the Rangers by one mere point. They did start off the week with a spirited comeback win to beat the Bruins 3-2 in OT. They fell back when they lost 4-2 to the same Bruins in their own building the next night. But they did force overtime and a shootout in Nassau, which has been something that few teams have done this season. They lost 3-2 from the shootout but getting anything from Long Island has to be seen as a positive. The Flyers followed that up with a game featuring a big third period goal from Sean Couturier to go up and prevail 3-2 over Boston. The 2-1-1 week was enough to hold onto fifth place for another week. While it does not look like they are too far behind Boston, they are not really that close due to the games in hand with Boston. But that should keep the Flyers from trying to salvage something from what looks to be a lost 2021 season for them.
The Flyers will try to at least spoil the two of the top three in this coming week. First, they will get to host Buffalo. Given that the last time these two faced each other, the Sabres smoked them in a 6-1 game that ended an epic of a winless streak for Buffalo. I would think Philly will not take them lightly. The Flyers will go to Washington D.C. on Tuesday to play the Capitals. The Flyers lost their last three to Washington. It certainly won’t be any easier knowing that Washington has a division lead to preserve. This will also be the case on Saturday when the Flyers host them that afternoon. In between those two games, the Flyers will visit Pittsburgh. Their cross-state and very-hated rivals. Even with not much to really play for, one always wants to win a rivalry game. Not many have won at the Paintcan (Pittsburgh is 16-3-1 at home. It’s close to Islanders-level dominance). However, the Flyers will want to be up for that one and they could very well spoil the Pens’ aspirations for home-ice in the playoffs.
New York Rangers
The Rangers went 2-1 with two rather impressive wins. Last Wednesday, they scored 8 out of 12 total goals in a big 8-4 win at home over Pittsburgh. They proven that they do not need to face the Flyers with 1980s-Level Goaltending to score a boatload of goals. Their other win was even more impressive. Last Friday, they did something only one other team had done this season: Win in regulation in Long Island. They beat the Islanders, their cross-city and hated rivals, 4-1. More than just a victory, it was a decisive one. Like the Flyers, they do not have much to play for this season so those are the kinds of games they can surely relish. Like the Flyers, their slip-ups further ensure that they do not have much to play for this season. Their game last Thursday against Pittsburgh was a decisive 5-2 loss wherein the Pens obtained revenge for that 8-4 win. Still, 2-1-0 is positive and they remain breathing down the Flyers’ necks in the standings. That’s something.
This week will be all about rivalries for the Rangers. They will visit Long Island again today and hope to be the first team to beat the Isles twice in regulation in their building this season. I am certain the Isles will do whatever it takes to prevent that. Then, the Rangers will get to enjoy the New Jersey Devils for four straight games; three of which are this week. On Tuesday, they will be in Newark. On Thursday and Saturday, they will be in Manhattan. So far in their season series, it is split at 2-2-0 with the visiting team taking wins in each game. The Rangers could really help their cause for fifth place by getting multiple games over their rivals. If they falter, well, their already long-shot odds for the postseason may be close to shot.
New Jersey Devils
It was a rough week for the New Jersey Devils in terms of results. They went down big to the Washington Capitals last Sunday and made a comeback effort that came up short in a 5-4 loss. Last Tuesday, they went down big to the Buffalo Sabres and did not make nearly enough of a comeback effort in a 5-3 loss. Last Friday, they went down big to the Pittsburgh Penguins and did make a comeback effort - that came up short in a 6-4 loss with an empty netter allowed. The Devils are scoring goals but their issues continue in allowing their opposition to score bunches and before the Devils do. The one victory came last Thursday in Buffalo. They won 6-3, which was their first multiple goal victory since February 16. At least they won one game. The Devils’ season was lost weeks ago; it is all about spoiling others for the next few weeks.
This week is no different. The Devils will try to do better by their home fans in a second straight game with Pittsburgh. They have beaten Pittsburgh in New Jersey before. It is possible. We shall see if they can do so. Then begins a Week of Hate for them. Their most hated rivals, the New York Rangers, will be their opponent for the next four games. Three of which are this week. It begins in New Jersey on Tuesday and it will continue in Manhattan on Thursday and Saturday. The Devils really do not have much to play for but if they can get the majority of the results in those three games, they can all but kill the Rangers’ faint playoff hopes. It is not much but it is something.
The Buffalo Sabres have continued to make themselves a bit more respectable. That is all they can hope for as they continue to sell assets by the deadline (goodbye Brandon Montour). They managed to get their ninth win of the season last Tuesday when they went into Newark and beat the Devils 5-3. They were close in a follow-up game last Thursday against the Devils, but the Devils pulled away for a 6-3 loss. Last Friday, they took on the Capitals. Despite obtaining many laughs for a bizarre ten-men too many men on the ice call, they made it interesting late when Tage Thompson made it 4-3 within the final 80 seconds. But it led to a close 4-3 loss - far better than some of the previous beatings they have taken this season. This is where the Sabres at: trying not to be beaten real badly in games.
The Sabres can try to get fortunate and get one over one of the four teams they will play against this week. They begin in Philadelphia to play the Flyers, whom the Sabres last beat in a big way 6-1 two weeks ago. Another win against them would be, well, funny. On Tuesday, the Sabres will visit Boston. The Sabres will see a lot of the B’s from here on out. They are still looking for their first result against them. On Thursday, the Sabres will play the Capitals for the last time this season. Buffalo has beaten them once through a shootout way back in January. This is their last chance to get another point from them. On Saturday, the Sabres will host the Penguins. Pittsburgh is 4-0 against them this season, so this is another chance to end a streak of ‘L’s. Again, these are the Buffalo Spoilers at this point. Will they spoil any of these four? We shall see.
That was the thirteenth Weekly East Division Snapshot of the 2021 season. What do you expect to happen in this week coming up? Will the Capitals finally fall from first? Will the Bruins close the gap between them and the top three? Will the Flyers and/or Rangers see their fading playoff dreams go up in smoke this week or get filled with more (possibly false) hope? 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.