Welcome to the final full week of the regular season. Normally, this would be the final division snapshot of the season. However, this is not a normal season. Due to the Coronavirus, the NHL needed to re-schedule some games. This means some teams in the East Division will play their 56th and final game this week and others will have a game or two afterwards. Given how the standings have worked out, some of those make-up games absolutely matter in the playoff picture in the East. We have known who the four teams are - three have clinched - but we do not know where they will be. And home ice is absolutely crucial given how two of the four teams have turned their arena into a fortress this season. For that reason, there will be a division snapshot next Sunday to close out this season.
First, we must look at the current situation. Ahead of the final full week of the season, there is a new team at the top: the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have taken the throne from the Washington Capitals at the expense of them last night.
The Penguins are not safe. They are not quite in the driver’s seat due to tiebreakers at the moment. But they are in a good place for home ice in the postseason at a minimum. Last night saw the New York Islanders clinch a playoff spot, all but ensure their hated cross-city rivals in the New York Rangers would miss the playoffs, and stay ahead of Boston. The end of the season will mean a lot for these four teams. They will play each other in some way or form and something like home ice for the first two games could be a huge factor - especially for the Islanders. They will all have something to play for.
This is not the case for the Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, whom were mathematically eliminated in this past week, the New Jersey Devils, and the Buffalo Sabres. Only the Rangers can get in presuming they win all of their games and they get the most help possible to see Boston lose four straight. Moneypuck has their odds so low that it shows up a 0%, so it all but guaranteed that they are out. That all said, these four teams will have a lot of odd supporters from night to night to hope they can spoil a competing team. Here is how the schedule breaks down and you can work out from there who wants who to win:
This week will be the last of the season for the Penguins, Rangers, and Buffalo. Four teams will have one game to make up after May 8 and Boston has two. Today is a day of rest for the East. It will get busy from Monday through to next Tuesday. For now, let us go over the week that was and the week that will be for all eight teams.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were mired in the middle earlier in the season. It is a real accomplishment that they are not only in the race for the division crown, but they hold it for at least one of these snapshots. They did so against a tough schedule last week. They hosted Boston last Sunday and Tuesday. Last Sunday’s game was a real close one, a traditional goaltender’s duel. Jake Guentzel scored four minutes into the third period and that was enough as the Pens won 1-0. They briefly held first place after that win. They lost it amid losing 3-1 to Boston on Tuesday, a big result for the B’s in their own quest to secure the postseason. The big pair of games was then up. Two games in Washington. Two games that could turn the title race on its ear. The Penguins managed to do so. The Penguins went up 4-3 in the third only for Tom Wilson to crash the party with an equalizer with 15 seconds left. The result clinched a playoff spot for both sides, but the extra point would be huge for the East Division first place position. Guentzel was the hero again with an overtime winner to prevail 5-4. Last night, the Penguins had no time for drama. Bryan Rust put up a pair, Jeff Carter made it 3-0, and Tristan Jarry stopped all of the shots for the victory. The win moved the Pens up into first place one more time. That they did it in D.C. showed that they can indeed win games away from the Paintcan. Their 3-1-0 week may go a long way to help ensure that they could play their first two playoff games there instead of elsewhere.
The Penguins’ final week of the season is soft on paper. For them it is all about taking care of business and avoiding the traps. It will be trickier in reality. On Monday and Tuesday, the Penguins will play a back-to-back set in Philadelphia - their hated rivals. The Flyers enter this week with a three-game losing streak and nothing to play for. I am sure getting one or two over on the Penguins would provide a nice feeling amid their pain. The Penguins will close out their season at The Paintcan against the worst team in the division: the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres have even less to play for and are heavy favorites to lock up 31st in the league standings. With no pressure, the Sabres have shown they can spoil a team’s night. But if the Penguins are smart, they will look at the standings for the motivation needed to prepare for those two games. They will also be looking at the out-of-town scoreboard to see what Washington, the Islanders, and Boston are doing.
The Washington Capitals split their week of results at an inopportune time. They were without Alex Ovechkin for the week, which certainly did not help. Perhaps it is to ensure he is fully ready for the postseason. Perhaps he is hurt and cannot really play. Whatever the reason, the Caps went 1-1-1 at a time when they really needed to do a bit better to keep their hold on first. Instead, they lost it. The Capitals won a nail-biter at home to the Islanders with a 1-0 victory thanks to Vitek Vanecek for the shutout and Daniel Sprong for the first period goal that was enough for the points. The Capitals then had a big pair at home against Pittsburgh. They picked up a point due to the late equalizing heroics of Tom Wilson on Thursday, but lost 5-4 in OT. They got nothing last night. No goals or points in a 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh. The results sent the Pens up to first and the Caps down to second place - and only two points ahead of the third place Islanders. Good thing the Caps beat the Isles last Tuesday and they have a substantial edge in regulation wins (RW) and regulation & overtime wins (ROW). Not a good thing if they fall behind in the last week of the season.
Like the Penguins, the Capitals will have four games to play against non-playoff teams coming up. It is a bit tougher than the teams the Pens will face. The Capitals will go to Manhattan to play the New York Rangers on Monday and Wednesday night. The Rangers have proven to be the most difficult opponent among the four non-playoff teams in this division. The Capitals can officially eliminate them on Monday night, but it will not be easy. Especially as the Rangers are 4-2-0 against the Capitals so far this season. The Capitals will close out their week with a home back-to-back set against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers’ season is done and after two games against their rivals in Pittsburgh, they may just want to play out the string. But be careful Washington, complacency is a great way to lose to a lesser team. And look at the standings - that is not something wise to do even though the Capitals will have one more game to play after Saturday.
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders have the best home record in the NHL, rivaled closely by Pittsburgh, Colorado, and Las Vegas. Their road record is poor and second only to Buffalo as the worst in the East. If there is a team that should be aiming high for home-ice for at least one round in the playoffs, then the Islanders should be that them. Their cause needs points and help to move up from third to get into a top two position. This past week kept them in the running. Losing 1-0 to Washington was a disappointment as that could have put the Isles up in second where they should want to be. It did not help they only put 18 shots on net either. But the Isles surely thrilled the fans in their two games at Fort Neverlose 2.0 against their hated rivals, the New York Rangers. Two games, two wins, and a combined 7-0 in both games. Yes, the Isles allowed nothing to the Rangers. The 4-0 win last Thursday featured a shutout from Seymon Varlamov, a goal from Leo Komarov, and more points for Anthony Beauvillier, Oliver Wahlstrom, Scott Mayfield, Mat Barzal, and Brock Nelson. Last night’s 3-0 win featured another shutout by Varlamov, a brace for Beauvillier, a goal for Barzal, and a clinched playoff spot. All while nearly burying the Rangers’ playoff hopes for good. Nassau must have been chanting ‘YES!’ like it was Wrestlemania 30. That’s great, but the Isles still need help should they want to jump past Washington or Pittsburgh into the top two spots in the division. And Boston is right on their tails so they cannot relax all that much either.
The Islanders will be cheering on the opponents of Washington, Pittsburgh, and Boston as they have their own games to play. On paper, it is a very favorable schedule. The Isles will travel to Buffalo to play a Sabres team that is on a losing streak and has nothing to play for. The Sabres have had some surprising results since their season was effectively done months ago. New York will need to be careful. After that, the Islanders will return home to host the New Jersey Devils. The Devils may be reeling after their first two games this week and they have not come close to winning at Nassau this season. On paper, this should be two more home wins for the Isles. For the Isles to secure Fort Neverlose 2.0 for their first two playoff games, they will to avoid slipping to Buffalo or New Jersey. If they take care of business, there may be more pressure on their opponents to perform as the Isles will have one more game after Saturday. They have come this far. Will they be able to do it? We shall see.
Taylor Hall has been a real revelation for the B’s. With David Krejci and Craig Smith, the Bruins now have two terrifyingly effective forward lines. The Bruins have been playing really well since the trade deadline and their ambitions are set to be higher than settling for fourth place. Their 3-1-0 week all but clinched a playoff spot. Their only loss in the week was the 1-0 close loss to Pittsburgh that opened this past week. Since then, they ran up three in a row: 3-1 over Pittsburgh, a 5-2 beating of Buffalo (that the Rangers certainly did not like seeing), and a 6-2 second beating of Buffalo (that the Rangers also did not like seeing either). The Bruins are on the cusp of clinching. Now they need to get help and get more to move on up from a potential first round match up with first place. Three points back of Washington with a game in hand on them will not be easy but it is possible.
The Bruins will have a schedule of non-playoff teams to try to make that happen. It will not be an easy one, though. Perhaps it is the hardest of the four playoff squads in the East. The Bruins will go to Newark for a back-to-back set on Monday and Tuesday. The Devils have been a bogey team for the Bruins this season somehow and someway. The Bruins have the reason to succeed, but the Devils could certainly spoil it. Speaking of spoiling, the Rangers may be a bit salty about their impending elimination this week. That may be their motivation when the Bruins host them on Thursday and Saturday. If they cannot get in, hurting Boston’s cause may be the next big thing. Easier said than done as the B’s have been revitalized since the deadline and have been winning weeks left and right. And, again, they have two more games to play after Saturday. They have an opportunity even if they drop a game or two in this week. Not a big one, but something. Still, the B’s have a lot to gain by continuing their run of success.
New York Rangers
Oh, New York Rangers. You have this high goal differential and a decent point percentage. The problem is that all of those poorer weeks caught up to you and you did not keep up with getting results. The help from Boston and the Islanders failing never really happened either. The Rangers learned the hard way that catching up in this division and in this league is a hard thing to do. Case in point, their last week that all but secured a playoff-less season. Last week, they faced Buffalo twice. They needed to win those games. They did so by decisive margins: 6-3 on Sunday and 3-1 on Tuesday. Problem is that they needed buffalo to get wins over Boston in April and they only got the one. While the B’s were getting W’s over Buffalo, the Rangers had two huge rivalry games against the Islanders in Nassau. As of last Wednesday, two wins from the Rangers could have sent the Isles into a dangerous spot. They did not get any wins. They did not even get any goals. The Rangers were shutout by Varlamov in both games. The Rangers’ playoff hopes were low to begin with but these two shutout losses effectively shut them out of playing beyond Saturday. At the end of the day, they have no one to blame but themselves for their past losses catching up to them. They needed to go 4-0-0 to keep faint hopes alive and they went 2-2-0.
The Rangers will play out their season against two teams that have something to play for. The Rangers will get Washington on Monday and Wednesday. The Caps may be aiming for first place so the Rangers would need to play for plenty of pride to deny them that glory. On Thursday night, the Rangers will head up to Boston - the team they needed to fall but never did. The Rangers will have their season closer on Saturday in Boston as well. The B’s have been rather hot since the deadline and the Rangers may want to take their frustrations out on them for being one of the teams blocking them out of the playoffs. Easier said than done, as the games are in Boston and the B’s could still be playing for home ice by then. That Saturday game will be their last and then we shall see what the Rangers will do from there. Are they good enough to push on further? If they need more help, what do they need? They will have a lot more time to think about it than the four teams ahead of them in the East. At least they have fifth locked up short of a massive collapse this week and a huge week from the sixth-place team.
The Philadelphia Flyers had a whole week of games against a reeling New Jersey Devils team. Not only were the Devils effectively done for the season, they lost their last nine games - all in regulation. The Flyers could have seen the Devils a pick-me-up as their own disappointing season was to come to a close. The opposite happened. Last Sunday, the Flyers needed some bad 5-on-6 defending in the final two minutes to tie up the game agaisnt the Devils and six rounds of a shootout to win 4-3. On Tuesday, the Flyers went from 1-3 to 3-3 early in the third before the teams traded scores off bad goaltending plays. They quickly allowed the Devils to score, they got one bad shot from the halfwall back, and then Yegor Sharangovich wrapped in a puck into a near-empty net because Brian Elliott was too far to the other side. An empty netter sealed the 6-4 loss. On Thursday, the Flyers got within one goal in the second period and poured on the pressure. Only for the Devils to score a third period goal to relieve the pressure, tack on an empty netter, and allow a consolation power play goal for the 5-3 loss to Philly. Last night, the Devils went into Philly, scored early, survived a lot of pressure from 5:01 in the first to 15:00 or so left in the third, scored a goal in between that time, scored a shorthanded goal that all but broke the Flyers’ will, and added another insurance goal late. Joel Farabee broke the shutout for Mackenzie Blackwood, but the Flyers were broken by the end of the 4-1 loss to the Devils. Two bad teams and the Flyers ended up 1-3-0 from it. Few in Philly are happy at all of this, meaningless as it will be in nine days.
The Flyers will play their final full week of the season against their hated rivals in Pittsburgh and a set with Washington. Both are back-to-back sets. The Monday-Tuesday set against the Pens is the best chance for the Flyers to please their home fans. Both games are in Philly and the Flyers would love nothing more than to take down their cross-state rivals just a little bit. The Caps will like that - until the end of the week when they play each other. The Flyers will visit Washington D.C. on Friday and Saturday in games that, oddly, the Penguins may want their rivals to win. The Capitals are aiming for the same prize as the Penguins. Can the Flyers break their now three-game losing streak and spoil the current top-two teams in the divison? It is possible. Will it happen? Who knows.
New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils all but secured seventh place in the division. They entered last week just a handful of points ahead of Buffalo with a nine-game losing streak. Against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Devils ended their run of failure and pulled ahead of Buffalo. Last Sunday was an exercise in frustration as the Devils went up 3-1 on Philly but proceeded to throw away the win in the final two minutes by not covering Claude Giroux in a 5-on-6 situation. The Devils lost their fifth shootout of the season for the 4-3 loss. But the losing streak ended on Tuesday in Newark as the Devils went up 3-1 on Philly again, saw that lead disappear in the third, restored it, lost it, restored it again, and tacked on an empty netter for a badly-needed 6-4 victory. On Thursday, the Devils went into the third just up 3-2 but they managed to get the insurance goal and an empty netter before Philly could answer back for a 5-3 win. Last night, the Flyers applied the pressure as the Devils put up the goals: an early one from Jesper Bratt in the first, an early one from Janne Kuokkanen in the second, a shorthanded goal from Nico Hischier in the third, and an insurance goal from Yegor Sharangovich in the third. All for a 4-1 win to end the week at 3-0-1. It may not mean much in nine days but it is better to win than not win.
The New Jersey Devils are in a position to spoil the two teams chasing down home ice in the playoffs. They will host Boston on Monday and Tuesday night. It has been some time since the Devils last played Boston, but they have a very good record against them this season for reasons I could not figure out. Still, Boston has something to play for and they have been hot, so I would not expect much. On Thursday and Saturday, the Devils will head to Long Island. The Devils have yet to get anything out of Nassau this season and the Isles will have all the motivation to win those games. The chances for spoiling are pretty low. But with nothing else to lose, perhaps they can provide a surprise or two in their final full week of the season.
Last week’s snapshot pointed out how the Sabres were in range of the Devils and could overtake them in the standings. The Devils were on a long losing streak and the Sabres picked up a few wins. Unfortunately for the Sabres fans hoping the team could pull themselves out from last, the Devils ended that losing streak while the Sabres embarked on one. In two games against the Rangers, they lost 6-3 and 3-1. In two more games against Boston, they were bodied 5-2 and 6-2. Buffalo is done with both of those teams and probably not a moment sooner as they racked up just two wins and one post-regulation loss between the two of them. The Sabres will enter their final full week of the season with eighth place just about secured and a four-game losing streak. It is almost over.
The final week of the season for Buffalo will be against the Islanders and the Penguins. Both of those teams have something to play for while Buffalo’s season was effectively done by the end of February. The two games against the Islanders are on Monday and Tuesday and in Buffalo. Road games have been a sore spot for the Isles this season. On paper, that is the best chance for the Sabres to upset a superior team’s season. Buffalo will end their disaster of a 2021 campaign in Pittsburgh. Like the Isles, Pittsburgh has been amazing at home this season. With a potential East Division crown on the line, it would be a huge upset for Buffalo to get a win of any kind there. It would be hard to end the season with an eight-game losing streak, but the Sabres are capable of it.
That was the sixteenth Weekly East Division Snapshot of the 2021 season. The Penguins, Rangers, and Sabres are done after this week. As there will be five other teams active, there will be one more snapshot next Sunday. What do you expect to happen in the final week of the season? Where will the top four teams end up by next Sunday? Can the non-playoff teams spoil any of those four? 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.