This week is the first full one in April and the last one in the NHL regular season before the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline. Maybe not much will happen. Maybe more will happen than we may think once some initial moves are made. The East Division appears to be set about who is making the playoffs. However, there is much competition in between the two halves of the division. The only certainty is that the Buffalo Sabres will be last short of a miraculous surge over the next five weeks. (If one happens, then last week was the genesis of it.) To that end, here is what the East Division looks like this morning:
The race to the top is still a three-team race. The Washington Capitals have the edge based on fewer games played than the New York Islanders. But that is only a tiebreaker and the Islanders could still conceivably jump them in short order. It could even be this week. The Pittsburgh Penguins are also very much in the picture and without the mighty Evgeni Malkin available as of late. The darkhorse remains the Boston Bruins, a quality team beset by injuries. But as they get healthier and they start making up games in hand, do not be surprised if they are a late arrival for the title picture. In the lower half, the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers may end up being the best of the lesser four. Although the New Jersey Devils are not totally out of that conversation. The only sure thing, again, is that Buffalo will be last for a long while. A lot can happen over the next five weeks. With the trade deadline in a little over a week from today, all eight teams will have some tough decisions to make.
For this upcoming week, all eight teams are active for six of the next seven days. Wednesday is the only day without a game within East Division. This will make for a hectic Tuesday and Thursday.
Let us go over the week that was and the week that may be for all eight teams in the division.
The Washington Capitals remained at the top of the East for a week. They did so despite splitting their results in this past week. In two games against the New York Rangers, they won one and lost one. Last Sunday, the Capitals survived a late third period surge to hold on to win 5-4. On Tuesday, the Capitals scored the first two goals and proceeded to allow five unanswered. The Rangers scored four in the third period to complete the comeback and lock up a decisive 5-2 loss for the Caps. The low point of the week was their trip to Long Island last Thursday. Mat Barzal styled all over Washington and the Isles never relinquished a lead in a massive 8-4 loss for the Caps. That was not a typo. The Capitals conceded eight in one game. On Friday night, the Capitals had to pick themselves back up against the New Jersey Devils. They did so with a sturdier defensive effort and one fortunate post shot. But they could not put more than one past the Devils in regulation. Dmitry Orlov took a scoring chance by the Devils that they did not finish into an end-to-end rush that finished overtime with 20 seconds left (with a little help of Yegor Sharangovich’s stick) for a 2-1 overtime win. The win salvaged the week and ensured another first place finish. However, even their two victories were flawed. Perhaps the Caps are due for a downfall. Should one happen, they could quickly fall into third.
The best away to avoid a fall is to stay up. The Capitals can do that starting this afternoon. They will play the Devils and hope to sweep the season series. Yes, the Capitals could go 8-0-0 against the Devils on this day. Washington will have two tougher games after this one. They will go back to Long Island on Tuesday. I am sure they want to avenge their blowout loss to the Islanders. Can they stop Barzal? That is a lot harder to do and very few teams have came away from Nassau County with points this season. On Thursday, Washington will return home against a Boston team that could be finding its form again. It will not be a simple game. Friday night will be a trap game as the Capitals will travel up to Buffalo. Buffalo is no longer on an epic losing streak but they are still quite bad. Washington should be able to beat them. Will they? We shall see. A good week of results could keep them at the top again, but that Tuesday night game in Long Island will play a role in that.
New York Islanders
Home has been superb for the New York Islanders this season. They entered this week with a 13-1-2 record at Nassau. This is notable as the Islanders started their week on the road for one game and then would go back to Nassau for their next six games. Fort Neverlose 2.0 is in-effect. It is not mobile, though. That first game was a 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. The Isles went down two goals in the first period and could only answer one of them. They would rebound in a big way in their first home game on Thursday night. They hosted the Capitals and absolutely smashed them. Mat Barzal scored a beautiful hat trick of gorgeous goals and provided two assists. They chased Vitek Vanecek after two goals on nine shots and then proceeded to light up Ilya Samsonov with six goals on 24 shots. The Islanders won 8-4 over Washington. The homestand continued into Saturday night when they hosted the Flyers. This was not a blowout. There was a bit of a scare. After Anthony Beauvillier scored twice in the first two periods, the Flyers came back to tie it up in the third. The game required a shootout. Would the Flyers get a rare win in Nassau? No. Barzal was the lone scorer in a four-round shootout to keep Fort Neverlose 2.0 as, well, Fort Neverlose 2.0. The 3-2 win has now made their home record an indomitable 15-1-2.
The run at home will continue throughout all next week. The Islanders will play three games at Nassau. First, they will host Washington on Tuesday night. I am sure the Caps will want revenge. I am also sure the Islanders would love nothing more to make it rain on them again - especially with first place possibly on the line. Second, the Isles will host the Flyers again on Thursday night. The goal will be to try to beat them again as they did on Saturday. Third, their hated rivals in the New York Rangers will come to Nassau on Friday. The Isles have not played them a lot - that will come this month - but they have had the better of their cross-city rivals. It will certainly be an intense Friday night on the Island. Should the Isles continue to get wins at home - which is likely because, again, they are 15-1-2 at home - they could very well overtake Washington should the Capitals slip a bit.
What demise of the Pittsburgh Penguins? The Penguins went 2-1-0 in this past week and are now breathing down the necks of the Islanders and Capitals in the standings. The Penguins have reason to be confident in their chances to take first place. In this past week, the Penguins edged the Islanders in Pittsburgh in a 2-1 win. The Pens have taken a page from the Isles to make the Paintcan a place where few teams come away from it with anything. They will not get to extend that for a bit of time as they started a six game road trip in Boston on Thursday night. It started off quite well with a decisive 4-1 win, Pittsburgh’s first win in Boston for quite some time. Unfortunately for them, the Pens did not sweep the week and keep the good times rolling in Massachusetts. In a goal-fest, the Penguins saw their winning streak in a 7-5 loss to Boston. Still, it was a positive week for the Penguins. And they did it without a healthy Evgeni Malkin. Yes, the Penguins could conceivably be better than this.
Pittsburgh will continue to be on the road for this week. They will visit Manhattan for games on Tuesday and Thursday night. Pittsburgh has been quite good against the New York Rangers this season with a season series record of 5-1-0 against them. Two more wins are entirely possible. On Friday night, the Penguins will visit the New Jersey Devils. The Devils have not been successful at home this season but one of their four home wins came against the Pens. Both teams will have played the night before, so this one may come down to who wants it more. While the schedule may not allow them a good chance to jump into second or first place. However, the Penguins just have to keep pace on the top two teams. That would be fine for them for now.
Second chances against opponents went in favor of the Bruins in this past week. They played two games each against the Devils and Penguins. They won the second game against them after dropping the first. Last Sunday, the Bruins were denied by Mackenzie Blackwood from start to finish and lost to the Devils 1-0 for their second 1-0 home loss to the Devils this season. On Tuesday night, it seemed like the Devils would beat the B’s again as they went up 4-2 in the third period. But the Bruins clawed their back way onto the scoreboard, tied it up in the third period, nearly scored near the end of regulation, and survived a power play in overtime. In the shootout, the Bruins took care of business to beat the Devils for the first time on their home rink this season, 5-4. Then came the two games against Pittsburgh. On Thursday night, the Penguins took down the Bruins in a decisive manner. Boston lost 4-1. Yesterday afternoon, goals were all over the place at TD Garden. Brad Marchand put up a hat trick and his Perfection Line teammates, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, each scored a goal. They put down the Penguins in a 7-5 win to finish the week at 2-2-0. That win was useful as they are now seven points back of Pittsburgh in the standings. While they have to win them, Boston has four games in hand on Pittsburgh so that is a gap that could be made up. They just need to get back to where they were earlier in this season.
The Bruins will get a chance to improve their form with four games coming up in this week. This will mean one of those four games in hand on Pittsburgh will be used. Fortunately for the B’s, most of this week will be against Philadelphia. The Bruins have beaten the Flyers in each of their five games against each other earlier this season. It will not be easy but a sweep is still possible. The Bruins will host Philadelphia on Monday, visit them on the next night on Tuesday, and then visit them again on Saturday. The only non-Philadelphia opponent for the Bruins this week will be Washington on Thursday. This will be a tough one in Washington D.C. But if the Bruins want to remind people that they can be a contender, then a win there would help their cause. So would continuing to beat the Flyers.
(takes a breath)
So let us go over this again. Last Monday, the Flyers needed a massive three-goal comeback in the third period to tie the Buffalo Sabres who were on a 17 game winless streak. They did win the game in OT for a 4-3 win but still, that was heinous. The Flyers followed that up by being the team to lose to the Buffalo Sabres. They ended their winless streak. Worse, they were absolutely dominated in the game. They lost 6-1 to a team that did not win in over a month! 6-1! Who cares whether or not they beat the New York Islanders or not last night. They didn’t. It was a 3-2 shootout loss, so they were close to winning in Nassau at least. The Philadelphia Flyers were routed by a Buffalo Sabres team that was on a 18 game winless streak that saw their coach getting fired, trade away Eric Staal, Taylor Hall publicly stating he will waive his no-movement clause, played depressingly bad hockey throughout March, and had nothing to play for since the end of February.
Anyway. The Flyers will continue to play games even after taking one of the most embarrassing losses in the NHL this season. They will be tough games. The Bruins have consistently beaten the Flyers all season long. This fact is relevant as the Flyers will face the Bruins three times this week. They will play a back-to-back with Boston on Monday and Tuesday, and they will close their week with a home game with Boston. Amid all of that, the Flyers will go back to Long Island on Thursday night. It is a place where very few have had any kind of success. The Flyers have a chance to hold back the Rangers for another week. But at the rate things have been going plus this week of games coming up, a fall to sixth place seems imminent.
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers acquitted themselves well in this past week. The week started off roughly with a 5-4 loss to Washington. New York did make a spirited comeback to make it real dramatic by the end, turning 5-2 into 5-4 in the third period. But it was too little, too late. The Rangers would get vengeance on Tuesday night as they pulled away from a 2-0 deficit into a decisive 5-2 victory. On Thursday, they hosted the Buffalo Sabres who were just fresh off a 18-game winless streak being snapped against the Flyers. The Rangers nearly became victimized by the Sabres when they conceded an equalizer in the final four seconds. But they prevailed in overtime for a 3-2 win, their second of the week. Last night, they played in Buffalo and it was another tight one. Another game where Buffalo equalized in the third period. Albeit within the last four minutes instead of seconds. But the Rangers could not capitalize in overtime or in the shootout. Only one goal was scored and it was by a Sabre which meant the Rangers lost 3-2 in a shootout to Buffalo. That’s better than, say, losing 6-1 to Buffalo. And they did win the week by going 2-1-1. However, not all winning weeks are equal. The dropped point last night (and that first loss to Washington) means they are behind Philly via tiebreakers at the moment. That game in hand will be made up this week and with Philly flailing about in games, the Blueshirts could still make a leap by next Sunday.
The Rangers will have a three-game week coming up that may make it a bit harder to catch Philadelphia, but it is possible all the same. Is it probable? I am not so certain. The Rangers will host the Penguins on Tuesday and Thursday. The Rangers have only beaten the Penguins once out of their other six games against them this season. The one win was at MSG but that also means the Penguins did get a victory there too. Right after the Thursday game, the Rangers will travel to face their cross-city rivals in the Islanders. The Islanders have enjoyed most of their previous meetings against the Rangers and Fort Neverlose 2.0 is still operational. If nothing else, fifth place will still yield a race in the standings.
New Jersey Devils
Believe it or not, the New Jersey Devils won this past week. The Weekly East Division Snapshot only cares about results and the Devils did take four out of a possible six points. That is a winning week. However, one could wonder if they threw away an additional point or two in the process. On Sunday, the Devils relied heavily on Mackenzie Blackwood to be great. He was great and so only one goal was enough to beat the Bruins in Boston for a third time. The Devils were in a position to go 4-for-4 in Boston this season by finishing four plays for goals against the Bruins within the first two periods. But the Devils could not keep the Bruins quiet, they were caught leaving them open too many times, and Blackwood could not bail them out forever. The Bruins tied it up. The Devils could have won it in overtime with a power play but they squandered that power play and then got beat in the shootout for the fourth time out of four this season. The Devils lost 5-4 despite entering the third period up 4-2. On Friday, the Devils returned home to play a Washington Capitals team that has had their number all season long. The Devils did not really take advantage of a Caps team that played and got wrecked the prior night. But they did keep the game in front of them as much as they could; Blackwood was fantastic again; and the game was dragged into overtime 1-1. The Devils had three glorious scoring chances in overtime but Vitek Vanecek and Lady Luck denied them. The last one led to Orlov taking a rebound, rushing up ice, and ramping a shot off Sharangovich’s stick and past Blackwood with 20 or so seconds left to make it a 2-1 OT loss for the Devils. In both games, a better power play or even just better finishing would have led to a win. Then again, if the Devils had a better power play or better finishing, then they would likely be in a better position than seventh in the East.
The Devils will now play four games every week from now until the final full week of the season in May. This one will see the end of two opponents for 2021. The Devils will play their final game of the season against Washington this afternoon. They are 0-5-2 against them. Hopes are low that they can avoid the sweep. I hope I am wrong. On Tuesday and Thursday, the Devils will play Buffalo for the last time in Newark and Buffalo, respectively, this season. I want the Devils to win both just on the general principle that the Devils should be able to beat a team as poor as the Sabres. Especially on Tuesday; I do not want to turn 38 watching the Devils drop another game to Buffalo at the Rock. After Thursday night in Buffalo, the Devils will return home to host Pittsburgh. Hopefully, the Devils will have something left in the tank to spoil the Pens’ hopes of contending for first in the East. That is really what the Devils are at this point in the season. They are here to spoil others. They cannot be so bad to fall behind the Sabres. They could still catch the Rangers or Flyers, but that does not mean a whole lot. April is the month of Spoiling Others for the Devils.
The Buffalo Sabres won a game! They won a game! They won! A game! In the NHL! On purpose! Amazingly, they could have had three this week. They entered this week with an epic 17 games of futility. On Monday, the Sabres had their best chance to end it since their last game in Philadelphia. The Sabres were up 3-0 on the Flyers going into the third period. But Buffalo collapsed in the third period and conceded three to allow Philly to tie it up. Ivan Provorov scored in under a minute in overtime to extend the Sabres’ streak to 18 games with a 4-3 overtime loss. But the point earned was their first since that game in Philadelphia back on March 9. On Wednesday, the last day of March, the Sabres had one more chance to get that elusive win. They not only got it, but they took out a lot of frustration out on the Flyers. They won 6-1. They hammered the Flyers. They blew them out. They made the Orange and Black the laughing stock of the hockey world for a change. The win was surely ecstatic. It would lead to a little more hope for future games. On Thursday, the Sabres nearly won a second game in a row. They hosted the Rangers and were mired in a 2-1 deficit for much of the third period. With four seconds left, Tage Thompson emerged with an equalizer to make it 2-2 and force overtime. Could the Sabres win in OT? Mika Zibanejad said no. He scored with 26 seconds left in OT. But the Sabres got a result for a third straight game. Last night, they hosted the Rangers again and a similar tale played out. The Rangers scored in the first and then Buffalo tied it up. The Rangers went up 2-1 in the second period and with less than four minutes left, the Sabres tied it up. But there would be no overtime heroics. In the shootout, Tage Thompson was the only one to score. That meant the Sabres won 3-2. Yes, the Sabres won two games this week. And with six points earned out of eight, they have won their second week of the season. Congratulations to the suffering Sabres supporters.
The Sabres will have two days to catch their breath before playing three games in four nights starting on Tuesday. Buffalo will visit New Jersey for the final time this season Tuesday and then host the Devils for the final time this season on Thursday. The Sabres have done well in New Jersey. They have not done so well at home to anyone, including the Devils. Should the Sabres want to get a win this week, then those two games are going to be more likely to get one. The third game in four nights is against Washington. Sure, it is at home, but the Capitals have been very good on the road (and in general) this season and Buffalo has been poor at home (and in general) this season. The goal for the remainder of this season is to not concede the league’s longest winless streak since 2003 for a second time. Will they do that? I think so. But will it be prevented in this week? View hazy, ask again later.
That was the twelfth Weekly East Division Snapshot of the 2021 season. What do you expect to happen in this week coming up? Who will be in first place by next week’s snapshot? Will the Bruins continue to rise up in the standings? How will the Devils do? How much shame do you think the Flyers feel at the moment? 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.