As the NHL Trade Deadline was last Monday, this is the stretch run for the regular season. For the East Division, the big question is not so much who will make the playoffs but in what position they are in. The New York Islanders were challenging the Washington Capitals for several weeks. However, this past week saw the Capitals soar and the Isles fall so Washington is in a position to really lock up first. This also means that real fight is for second place for that other home-ice playoff spot. The Islanders, Pittsburgh, and Boston will be focused on that prize. The bottom half is what it is. The New York Rangers are the only one of the four with a larger than a really marginal chance to make a late push, but catching Boston is a supremely tall order. The Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils, pretty much have their fates sealed. The Buffalo Sabres are officially eliminated. Here is how the East Division looks prior to Sunday’s games.
As with past years, there are two new columns for the snapshot now that the season is in playoff/lottery mode. There are playoff odds and lottery odds for winning first overall from Moneypuck.
Here is what the schedule looks like in the coming week for all eight teams. Everyone is active today and Thursday. Almost everyone is active on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Everyone is off on Monday and Wednesday.
Let us go over the week that was and the week that may be for all eight teams in the East Division.
The Washington faithful that were worried about the team losing first place can breathe a little bit. They can relax a little more. They can feel good. It was a very successful, near-perfect week for the Capitals. It began in Boston where Washington absolutely steamrolled the B’s in an 8-1 win. That is not a typo. That is indeed a seven-goal win on the road. The hockey continued to be liquid as the Caps flooded the Flyers in D.C. with a 6-1 win of their own. Then, something unexpected happened. At home, the Capitals hosted Buffalo on Thursday night. It was a special night as it was Nicklas Backstrom’s 1000th game as a Capital. And the Sabres totally spoiled it in a 5-2 loss for Washington, featuring a three-goal second period with a shorthanded goal of all things. Would the Washington Capitals struggle in response? No, they took out any frustration from that one out on the Flyers in Philadelphia yesterday. They went back to scoring loads of goals in a 6-3 win. While this 3-1-0 week was happening, the Islanders were losing. This now means the Capitals have a small lead for first place. It is good to be a Caps fan at the moment.
Washington will have a chance to get a little rest with just three games coming up this week. The rest will not be today as they will be in Boston for another Sunday game. They trounced the B’s last Sunday 8-1. I cannot imagine it will go so simply for them. After that game, they will have three days without a game. An oasis in a desert loaded with activity. The Capitals will want to prepare for what could be two crucial games for playoff positioning. They will visit the New York Islanders on Thursday and Saturday. The Isles have turned Nassau into Fort Neverlose 2.0. But if the Capitals want to secure the throne for another season, then they may need to do the rare thing and get points from Long Island. At least they will likely be going into those games in a far better shape than the opponents.
Now in second place: the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite not being 100% and a less-than-impressive start, the Penguins have been rolling along as of late. This past week saw them earn five out of a possible six points. It was enough to get past an Islanders team that had a bad week and now sit three points behind Washington. What exactly did they do? Last Sunday, they went to Newark and like a lot of visitors of the Prudential Center, they left with a win. They beat the Devils handedly 5-2. They had three gameless days before they hosted their hated cross-state rivals of Philadelphia. This one was tight and, unfortunately for the Pens, they lost 2-1 through a shootout to the Flyers. But the Pens picked themselves off the ground and held on to a 3-2 win in Buffalo on national television yesterday. Business was taken care of. Results were earned. Second place - which means home-ice for the first round of the playoffs - is now theirs for the moment.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will continue their charge for home-ice in the first round with four games this week. They will finish their weekend back-to-back in Buffalo today. Then they will get very familiar with the New Jersey Devils again. They will host the Devils on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday to wrap up their season series against them. The Devils have pulled some results against them and even beat them in overtime back in March in their one game in Pittsburgh. However, the Devils have been struggling and the Penguins have been rolling, so the Pens should relish their chances. Again, they need to take care of business to keep up the fight for second (and some hope for first, but one step at a time, Penguins fans).
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders surprised the critics and the pundits that thought they were going to fall out. They have turned Nassau Coliseum into a fortress. They have all but ensured a playoff spot and have been breathing down the necks of the Capitals in the standings. However, they had a really bad week of results and so the dream of first place took a big hit by falling to third place. The week began well enough when they hosted their hated rivals in the New York Rangers on Sunday. They wanted revenge for the 4-1 home loss they suffered to them in the prior game. It started well enough with a 2-0 start only to see goals by Libor Hajek and Brendan Smith tie it up. Overtime was needed; but Ryan Pulock got the game-winner to give the Isles a win. After some time off, the Isles then went to Boston for a back-to-back set with them. This went incredibly poorly as the Bruins beat them on the first night 4-1 and blanked them on the second night 3-0. As much as the Isles have been fantastic at home, they have been much more beatable on the road and those two games showed it. By going 1-2-0, the Capitals expanded their lead on them with their 3-1-0 week and the Penguins have jumped them as well with their 2-0-1 week. They are absolutely in the fight for second, but they found out the hard way that just one bad week could turn things very quickly in this half of the standings.
The Islanders will get the benefit of being back at home for most of this week coming up. They will end their three game road trip today in Philadelphia. The Isles should have an advantage in fatigue as they were off on Saturday while the Flyers lost to the Capitals on Saturday afternoon. The Isles then return to Nassau to host their hated rivals in the Rangers again on Tuesday and then host Washington on Thursday and Saturday. Those latter two games could provide a big swing for the Isles to get back to fighting for first place. And beating their rivals is always a priority. Can the Isles keep Fort Neverlose 2.0 going? We shall see.
The Boston Bruins may be in fourth but by no means are they not contending for much more. This past week was not an ideal one, but it was successful and it maintained their lead on fourth place while staying somewhat in range of the Islanders and Penguins in the standings. The beginning of this past week absolutely stunk with an 8-1 loss to Washington. After acquiring Taylor Hall at the trade deadline, the B’s needed a shootout to beat Buffalo in Boston. They did win that shootout so they can say they beat Buffalo, but that is an auspicious sign. Where they get much more credit was their back-to-back home games against the Islanders. They were decisive. They were on-target. They allowed just one goal in a 4-1 win on Thursday and none at all in a 3-0 win on Friday. Hall scored in each game, matching his goal total with Buffalo this season in just three games with Boston. Boston ended their week with a 3-1-0 record and still have those potentially crucial two games in hand. They are just four points behind the Islanders. Do not count out the B’s.
Boston will need to keep up their results and do so on the road most of this week coming up. The Bruins will be at home for today against Washington. They surely want to do much better than whatever they were doing last Sunday against the Caps. Much to the chagrin of the Rangers, Islanders, and Penguins, the Bruins will get to play Buffalo three times this week. While the Sabres have been more respectable as of late, they are still the doormats of the East. Boston should relish their chances in Buffalo on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. They should come out of those three games with a winning set of results. If they do, they will likely be even closer to securing a playoff spot and possibly even closer to moving up.
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers had a near-perfect week and the best set of results of anyone in the East. They earned 7 out of a possible 8 points. Their playoff hopes are still faint, but they are a far sight better than the hopes of the teams beneath them in the East. Last Sunday, they made a come back from a 0-2 first period to make it 2-2 with goals from unlikely defensemen Libor Hajek and Brendan Smith. The Rangers forced overtime; where they lost due to a score from Pulock. The 3-2 overtime loss was their only blemish. In three straight games against their hated rivals in the New Jersey Devils, they beat them 3-0 in Newark on Tuesday, 4-0 in Manhattan on Thursday, and won again 6-3 yesterday in Manhattan. That 6-3 win kept the Devils off the board for first half of that game, so Igor Shesterkin had a shutout streak of nearly 200 straight minutes against New Jersey. While the Devils made a game out of that one, they pulled away with two empty net goals to secure a 3-0-1 week. The only issue is that despite all that, they gained no ground on Boston. They remain behind the B’s now by four points and the Bruins have two games in hand on them, so it could be as much as an eight point gap. While the fans may enjoy these wins, the cause for making the postseason did not really get appreciably better.
All the Rangers can do is take care of business. Like Boston, they play four games this week. Unlike Boston, they need to continue to get wins to keep pace. Every week from here on out is a potential spoiler for them. They need a lot to go their way and Boston to fall apart. As mentioned earlier, Boston is playing Buffalo three times after Washington today. The Rangers will finish up their season series against New Jersey today and look to sweep all four straight games against them. It may get much harder after then. The Rangers will go to Long Island for another hated rivalry game. While they acquitted themselves this month in Nassau, it is hard to keep it up. Then the Rangers will host Philadelphia in a back-to-back set. The Rangers have absolutely embarrassed the Flyers earlier this season and multiple times. The Flyers will want to avenge those blowout losses just out of respect. New York fans will be paying a lot of attention to Boston’s games but they need to be sure their own team takes care of business. As we saw with the Islanders and Capitals, a divergent week of results changes the picture quickly. And this season is not far from over.
Should Philadelphia finish sixth in the East, then this week may prove to be a pivotal point to how they got there. As the Rangers were chasing them for weeks, they finally jumped past them. While they were getting points and wins, the Flyers faltered. They started this past week with a 5-3 loss at home to Buffalo. Yes, they lost to Buffalo again. At home. The Flyers doubled-down on the losing by getting downed by Washington in a 6-1 defeat in D.C. The high point of this week for the Flyers was their Thursday night game in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has turned their home arena into a fortress and the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh hatred is very real. To that end, the Flyers have to appreciate taking down the Pens 2-1 through a shootout. They got a win. They proceeded to not build on that as Washington put them down 6-3 in Philly yesterday. The 1-3-0 week saw them fall back to sixth and fall four points behind the Rangers. They should be fine there as they are a whopping twelve points ahead of the Devils. But this past week confirmed the fears out of Philadelphia throughout March that this possibly playoff quality team was going to miss the playoffs. It is just about spoiling-only time for the Flyers.
The Flyers will have some time to breathe a bit as they only three games coming up this week. They will not have it today. They will visit the Islanders, who did not play yesterday. Being in Nassau against a more-rested Islanders team is a tough situation to play in. The Flyers will have three days without a game before visiting the Rangers in a back-to-back set on Thursday and Friday. They will want to avenge themselves for their previous routs by the Rangers; games that saw the Flyers’ goal differential dive deep into the red and the Rangers’ own differential soar into a positive value. If nothing else but respect. And to spoil the Rangers’ own playoff hopes. Again, it’s spoiling time, Flyers.
New Jersey Devils
This was a terrible week for the Devils. In four games, they scored a total of five goals. They lost all four of those games. On Sunday, they lost at home 5-2 to Pittsburgh with a poor performance. On Tuesday, they were shutout at home by their hated rivals in the Rangers, 3-0, in another poor performance. On Thursday, the Devils went to MSG where they previously won twice and put in arguably their worst performance of their season in a 4-0 shutout loss. On Saturday, the Devils came out a little better before the Rangers ran up three goals on them, and went back to hoping to score one. They did score one and they did score two more in the third period to make the game close. But it was ultimately too late and they conceded two empty net goals for a much poorer looking 6-3 loss. The Devils have now lost their last five games. General Manager Tom Fitzgerald did emphasize wanting the team to be competitive after the deadline. This was not it, chief.
The New Jersey Devils will try to end their slide with four games coming up. They will play their final game of the season against the New York Rangers. In this rivalry game, the Devils have played second-rate hockey in the last three games against them. This is their last chance for some redemption in the rivalry. After that game, the Devils will hit the road - where they have been a better team for reasons - and go to Pittsburgh. Just Pittsburgh. They will visit the Penguins for three straight games to finish their season series with them. The Devils did come away from the Paintcan with an overtime win back in March. Getting a second win from there will be tough yet necessary to end this losing streak. And to ward off a Buffalo team that may have a reason to believe they do not need to settle for eighth place.
Buffalo just had one of their better weeks in this long, ugly 2021 campaign. They went 2-1-1 to win their third week of the season. They did so while spoiling the hopes or scaring their opposition. Last Sunday, they went to Philadelphia and came away with a 5-3 win. It was a game that helped further kneecap the Flyers’ faint playoff hopes. They nearly did a solid for the Rangers on Tuesday when they took Boston to the limit and into a shootout. They fell in the shootout for a 3-2 loss but that was far better than a whole lot of their losses at home this season. Last Thursday, they stunned Washington in D.C. with a big second period with three goals that the Caps never had enough answers for. They won 5-2. Yesterday, they hung tough with Pittsburgh but ultimately fell 3-2 to them on national television. After so many weeks of being the doormats, they legitimately played well throughout all four games and got some great results. Some respect was salvaged, I think.
Unfortunately, it was not enough to save them. All of their past failures caught up to them. While they were realistically out of the playoffs back by, say, the end of February, they were mathematically eliminated with yesterday’s loss. The Buffalo Sabres will not be in the 2021 NHL Playoffs.
The Sabres earned some respect last week. Can they earn some more? As ever, it will be a challenge but it is not impossible. The Sabres will host Pittsbugh again today and try to acquit themselves well. After today, the Sabres will see a lot of Boston. They will host the Bruins on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. The Bruins and Sabres made one of the major trades at the deadline last week: Hall and Curtis Lazar for a second round pick and Anders Bjork. With Hall now scoring goals and the Bruins having something to play for, the B’s may have some additional push in those games. But no one expected the Sabres to force Boston into a shootout last week or beat Philly and Washington. Their season has long been done, but if they can muster up some results, then they may have seventh place in their sights should the Devils continue to struggle and they do well.
That was the fourteenth Weekly East Division Snapshot of the 2021 season. What do you expect to happen in this week coming up? Will the Capitals further secure first place? Who will take second place? Will the Islanders bounce back? Will the Rangers keep faint hopes alive? Can the Devils win a game? 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.