Believe it or not, but the end of the regular season is nigh. The last full week of the season for the East Division is the first full week of May. This coming week is the last week of April with May beginning on Saturday. There is a lot up for grabs amid the top teams in the division as all four playoff teams could still win first in the East for what could be a very important home-ice advantage. Before last night’s games, first place was held by the Pittsburgh Penguins. After the game between the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders, Washington took it back by a point with a huge win in Long Island. The playoff seeding spots look to go down to the wire. The bottom four, well, there are only spoils and pride. Sorry, New York Rangers.
The only “playoff race” is for fourth and that is a false race. The New York Rangers are six points behind the Boston Bruins at best. As the Bruins still have two games in hand on the Rangers (and the three teams ahead of them in the East), that gap could be as much as ten points when it is all said and done. That is why New York’s odds are so low per Moneypuck. How it happened, well, you will just have to read on to see it.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres may manage to jump a hapless and sliding New Jersey Devils team for seventh as they are a point back of them at best and three points should the Devils win that game in hand they have on them. Of course, the Devils have not won a game since April 8, so that is a big ask. Again, the standings race that matters is the one for the good teams in the East.
Here is the upcoming schedule for all eight teams in the East. The playoff seeding competitions will only get hotter given the match-ups coming up in the next seven days.
Let us go over the week that was and the week that may be for all eight teams in the East Division.
Their time away from the top was brief. But they took it back by the end of this past week. The Capitals had a lighter schedule than most of the division. It seemed that it could be their undoing as they got dropped in their first game last Sunday by Boston. The Caps ate a 6-3 loss and would stew on it for a few days. Washington then traveled to Long Island for two big games against the Islanders. These two games would mean a lot as these two teams are in direct competition for first in the East. The Isles have turned Nassau into Fort Neverlose 2.0. However, Washington came out ahead in two very different games. Last Thursday was all about the goaltenders, Ilya Samsonov and Seymon Varlamov, as both sides were 0-0 going into a shootout. Evgeny Kuznetsov provided the difference to make it a 1-0 shootout win for the Caps. Last night, the Caps faced the Isles again and without Alex Ovechkin. It was a close one for two periods - and then the Caps pulled away in the third period with two scores to make it a 6-3 win. The Capitals handed the Isles just their third regulation loss at home this season and it put them back at the top. Albeit by a point, but in first once again.
The Capitals will be off until Tuesday when their season resumes with another game against the Islanders. This one will be in Washington. It is still a big game as the Isles taking points could put them back closer to the first place position. Or even second place where home-ice is still an advantage for the first round. The Capitals will host the other immediate challenger to their first place position on Thursday and Saturday: Pittsburgh. Those will be difficult games too. Washington has been excellent so far to stay in first and they are in the driver’s seat to take the division. Whether they will be is another question. As hard as it is to catch up in this league, it is not easy to hold onto a small lead in the standings either.
The Pittsburgh Penguins turned a poor start to last week into a positive one that saw them take the throne of the East Division for a few hours on Saturday. They remain right by it prior to today’s game, which is a very good position to be in. The poor start came last Sunday in a 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on the road. They had a point streak in the standings end with that loss, in addition to going down as much as 3-0 before they made the score any closer. But the Penguins had the perfect combination to pick themselves back up: three home games against a slumping Devils team. Tuesday night saw the Penguins roll over the Devils for a 6-0 lead after two periods. They were frightened as the Devils attempted the near-impossible comeback and nearly got it as Tristan Jarry was beaten six times in the third period. A third period goal by Sidney Crosby proved to be the difference maker instead of the insurance goal they hoped for in a 7-6 win. The Penguins were more professional in Thursday’s re-match. They went up big on the Devils, 5-1 after two periods, and never really let up in the third period so they avoided any kind of comeback for another win. Yesterday, they played their final game of the season against the Devils. Once again: they went up big by scoring the game’s first three goals. Once again: the Devils got within one goal in the third period. They nearly tied it up in the final seconds but Crosby sealed a third-straight win and a 6-1-1 record against New Jersey with an empty net goal with 0.1 seconds left. The Penguins did their job very well and remain in the mix for first.
The Penguins will have a tough week to stay in the mix. After four games against Buffalo and New Jersey last week, they will play Boston and Washington. Two potential playoff opponents. Two teams they are directly competing against for playoff positioning. Two really good teams. Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night will have the Penguins host Boston. The Penguins have been fantastic at home with a 19-3-2 record this season while Boston has a solid 13-7-3 road record (second to Washington in the East). Both teams will relish their chances to move on up at the expense of the other. On Thursday night and Saturday night, the Penguins will go to Washington D.C. for two massive games for the division. Results there could make the difference over who takes first in the East. But beating Washington is a tall order, much less in their building. The Penguins have proven themselves again to be more than Sidney Crosby and a bunch of dudes. Now we shall see if they can be the division leaders.
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders won this past week but only by a point as it was a 2-1-1 week. How it ended may make it feel like a loss to those who wanted to see the Islanders take over first place. The Islanders managed to shut out their opposition twice in regulation. Last Sunday, it led to a 1-0 overtime win over Philadelphia. Last Thursday, it led to a 1-0 shootout loss to first-place Washington. So they split that. The Islanders had two more decisive final scores in this past week. Last Tuesday, the Isles fans were surely delighted as the Isles crushed their hated rivals New York Rangers in a 6-1 week. Last night, the Isles saw a close 4-3 score after two periods end in a 6-3 loss to Washington, who re-took first place with that win. The result of all of these results is that the Islanders are in third place, two points back of Pittsburgh for second, three points back of Washington for first, and only three points ahead of Boston. And, remember, Boston has two games in hand on the Isles so the third-place position is not safe. Yes, they went 2-1-1 but it certainly was not as good as it could have been.
Now the Isles need to keep pace to avoid slipping back. They will have just three games to play so they can at least prepare for the first one. It will be a big one as the Isles will visit Washington. They should want revenge for the last two losses to the Caps. They should want to get a win real badly as to get closer in the race for first. Whether they will is another matter. After that game, the Isles will visit their hated rivals the Rangers on Thursday and host them on Saturday. The Isles would need those points for their own cause. Crushing their rival’s longshot playoff hopes in the process would be a bonus. They have to take them quite seriously as the Rangers could just as easily spoil the Isles’ chances for home-ice in the first round. The rivalry should prevent the Isles from being complacent. I hear their GM hates the Rangers so he will likely see to that. Still, the Isles continue to chase and so they would need help for their cause. All they can do is take care of their own business.
The Boston Bruins were heating up as they entered this past week with three straight wins. They kept the fire burning with three more victories before the streak ended on Friday. Last Sunday, the B’s got revenge against Washington, whom embarrassed them the previous Sunday. While they went down 2-3 to the Caps in the second period, the Bruins racked up three goals in response and tacked on an insurance goal in the third for a 6-3 win over the leaders of the East. The Bruins then headed out to Western New York to play three games in four nights at Buffalo. The first game was a 2-0 blanking of the Sabres; Tuukka Rask’s first shutout of the season. The second game was a decisive 5-1 beatdown of the Sabres. A pivotal result for the standings given that the Rangers lost that night. The third game saw the end to then-six-game winning streak. Buffalo went up on Boston and piled on so many goals that Boston could not answer them all (they came close!) in a 6-4 defeat for Boston. That loss would keep the gap at six at best over the Rangers with two games in hand. Still, Boston’s chances of getting in got a lot better with the schedule winding down. As long as that loss to Buffalo does not lead to cold streak, they should be set - and they can focus more on trying to move up instead of staying in fourth.
Moving up is hard to do in the standings. It requires getting results over the teams ahead of you while also not giving them any points. Boston will be in Pittsburgh, a place where few teams have taken points, today and Tuesday night. Should the B’s get wins, then that should really help their cause for finishing higher than fourth. Those games could be playoff-like given the stakes. The Bruins will return home after those two games to host Buffalo on Thursday and Saturday. They are a pair of trap games. Boston should be able to get wins in both games, but as we saw last Friday, the B’s are capable of losing to Buffalo. Falling to them before the end of the season may end up keeping them in fourth place, which would mean starting on the road in the postseason against the East Division leader. That is not ideal and it still keeps a tiny crack open in the door for the New York Rangers. Should Boston get some results, they will at least avoid that unlikely fate. But they need them if they want to move on up.
New York Rangers
Last week’s snapshot had the New York Rangers’ playoff odds at just below 20% per Moneypuck. Today, it is not even 4%. What happened? This past week happened. While Boston went 3-1-0, the Rangers went 2-2-0. The Rangers only have this week and next week remaining in their season, so even a difference in two points is significant. Especially as they were down by four at best pending Boston’s games in hand. The wins bookended the losses. They survived a comeback effort by the Devils last Sunday, took advantage of an ill-advised penalty by Ryan Murray to convert a late power play, and secured an ENG for a 5-3 win and a four-game sweep of the Devils. Last Friday, they split a back-to-back set with the Philadelphia Flyers with a decisive 4-1 win. In between those two games, they lost. On Tuesday, they went to Long Island. They caught a beating by the rival Islanders in a 6-1 rout. On Thursday, they lost to Philadelphia as Artemi Panarin put them within one late but the squad could not find the equalizer in a 3-2 loss. That game in hurt as Boston waxed Buffalo at the same time. That put the Rangers six points, at best, behind Boston. Losing 3-2 is one thing, seeing playoff odds go from low to nearly-nothing was like a punch to the stomach. With just two more weeks to play, the Rangers need a miracle winning streak and a Boston slump to get into the playoff picture. They can (kind of) control their own games. They cannot control Boston’s games this week.
Could the Rangers get some wins going to keep flickering hopes alight? Maybe? They will get to host Buffalo tonight and on Tuesday. In theory, they should beat the worst team in the East. In practice, Buffalo has not played like the worst team in the East and have managed to get some victories in recent weeks. The Sabres could spoil it all in Manhattan. If they do not do it, there is a closer rival that would love to do it: the New York Islanders. The Isles will visit MSG on Thursday and host them on Saturday. The Islanders fans would love to see their team both get a boost by ending the Rangers’ season if Buffalo does not do it. The Rangers have it all to do between trying to win all four of these games plus cheering hard for Boston’s opponents. I think it may be it after this snapshot.
The Philadelphia Flyers are not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but they are essentially out of it. The week itself was not bad. They went 1-1-1. They fell 1-0 in overtime to the Islanders last Sunday. Hardly a bad result against one of the top teams in the division. They went ahead and held on to win 3-2 in Manhattan last Thursday. However, the Flyers followed that up by taking a more decisive 4-1 loss the next night. On its own, that is a respectable set of results. In the context of the season, it is something to met with a shrug or a sad shake of the head from a Flyers fan who wishes the season would be over by now. The Flyers have consistently failed to take a step forward since mid-March and that is how they fell from fourth place to sixth and five points behind the Rangers. Even the silver linings within results seem dull knowing the Flyers are just playing out to their end on May 10.
The Flyers’ schedule for this upcoming week is simple. They will play the New Jersey Devils four times. Tonight, Tuesday night, Thursday night, and Saturday night. The first and last of the four will be in Philly, the weekday games will be in New Jersey. The Devils enter this one with a nine-game losing streak. The Flyers may want to pour on more misery over a rival team. It will not really help the Flyers short of the Rangers failing this week, but even that would make fifth place possibly in play. Which does not mean much of anything as fifth in the East still misses the postseason. Don’t worry, despondent Flyers fans, the season is almost over.
New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils entered this week with five straight regulation losses. They ended this week with nine straight regulation losses. All four featured the Devils getting outscored in the first and second periods. Three of the four featured the Devils attempting a comeback in the third period only to fall short. This was the case last Sunday when they made up a 0-3 deficit to tie it up 3-3 in the third period. But points were lost when Ryan Murray took a penalty he should not have and Mika Zibanejad punished them in the slot to convert the power play. An ENG made it a 5-3 loss. This was also the case last Tuesday when the Devils were absolutely dominated for two periods and went down as much as 0-6. Somehow, they managed to give Tristan Jarry nightmares with a six-goal third period. But the Devils allowed a seventh goal so they lost that one 7-6. The third case was yesterday. The Penguins went up as much as 3-0. Jack Hughes provided a quick response to the third goal. Miles Wood put them within one in the third. And it was not enough and Crosby inflated the score to a 4-2 loss with less than a second left. The exception: a 5-1 loss to the Penguins that was just a complete effort by the Pens and a complete waste of time by the Devils. Now the Devils are just a point ahead of Buffalo, who is 8th in the East and 31st in the NHL standings. Is that bad? Yeah, that is bad. By the way, the 7-6 loss mathematically eliminated the Devils from the playoffs.
The Devils will play a non-playoff team again for four straight games this week. They will play the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers have won some games recently, so this will be a challenge for a New Jersey squad with one win so far in this month that is ending this week. For the Devils, the goal is simple: Just win a game. Can they do it? Theoretically, yes. Practically, I do not know based on how they have played this month. Can they do it before they get jumped by Buffalo or before Philly takes the week? I do not know. It is possible they do not. To reference a meme, Devils fans are straight up not having a good time.
The Buffalo Sabres have nothing to play for but pride and professionalism. They have done OK at it and so put up a 2-2-0 week last week. The Sabres took down the Penguins in a 4-2 win last Sunday. They hosted Boston for three consecutive games. The first two went as well as one would expect: a 2-0 shutout to Tuukka Rask in the first one and a large 5-1 loss in the second one. But the Sabres surprised many by running five straight goals on Boston last Friday. Boston would answer four of those in the third period, but Buffalo limited it to that and added a sixth for a 6-4 regulation win over the B’s that hindered their aspirations to move up in the East. Regulation wins over a Pittsburgh and a Boston team who will play for something after mid-May is something to be proud about. Despite having an 18-game winless streak, Buffalo can jump the Devils in the standings and not be the worst team in the East for the first time in a long time. It may not be a meaningful goal, but they have one now.
To do that, the Sabres would want the Devils to keep failing as well get points themselves. As usual, that is easier said than done. They will visit the Rangers tonight and on Tuesday. Buffalo could completely spoil the Rangers’ already-low chances at the postseason on those two nights. They could also get put down by what could be a desperate Rangers team to keep their fading hope alive. The Sabres will play a familiar opponent on Thursday and Saturday: Boston. These two games will end their season series and they will both be in Boston. The Sabres have the worst road record in the East Division so getting results on any of these nights will be tough. Then again, the fact that they have nothing to play for this season has removed a lot of pressure and that may have helped them get some of their successes in the past few weeks. Again, the Sabres have a goal of sorts in not finishing eighth. They can be on track for it with even just another 2-2-0 week should the Devils keep on losing. It is something, at least.
That was the fifteenth Weekly East Division Snapshot of the 2021 season. What do you expect to happen in this week coming up? Who will finish first by the end of this week coming up? Will this be the week where the Rangers’ playoff hopes die off? Can the Devils finally win a game? Will they end up in last place if Buffalo gets the results to overtake them? 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.