Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Metropolitan Division traffic jam

Mats Zuccarello scored two goals to lead the New York Rangers past the New Jersey Devils.

(Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.)

Opening faceoff: Metropolitan traffic jam

As we get settled into the season and the day-to-day ups and downs start to give way to a longer view, it can help to take a step back and look at the bigger picture every now and then. One way to do that is to pick one division and go top to bottom in an attempt to figure out what’s going on.

So today, let’s do just that, as we ask the question: What’s going on with the Metro Division?

Checks standings.

Yeah, I have no idea.

Roughly 30 games into the season, there’s barely anything to separate the top six in the division. There’s just five points between first place Columbus and the sixth-place Rangers – and New York has a game in hand. The Capitals, Devils, Islanders and Penguins are all nestled within two points of each other in between. And right now, all six of those Metro teams are holding down spots in the East’s top eight.

That presents a problem, since the NHL wild-card format only allows for five teams from any one division to make the post-season. With the Atlantic struggling to find a third playoff-worthy team, it’s possible that we could be headed towards a sixth-place Metro team getting ripped off.

Of course, there’s a way to avoid that scenario: Win enough games that you don’t get stuck in that sixth spot. The Rangers took a big step in that direction on Saturday with a 5-2 win over the Devils that continued an extended hot streak at MSG, where they’ve won 10 of 11. It was a fun revival of a rivalry that’s been low on big games in recent years, and moved the Rangers to within two points of a Devils team they’d trailed by as many as eight at the end of October.

That was the Devils second divisional defeat of the weekend, combining with Friday’s 5-3 loss to the Blue Jackets. It’s possible that the Devils are finally looking like the team we expected to see after a hot start; they haven’t won more than two straight since Nov. 1. Their goal differential is now in the red too, so there’s some real reason for concern in New Jersey.

If the Devils keep slipping, that opens the door for not only the Rangers, but an Islanders team that’s been quietly putting together a solid season. The Isles just dropped three straight on a tough road trip, but the good news is that they’ll spend seven of the next eight at home, where they’ve only lost in regulation once all year.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets earned a 1-0 win over the Coyotes that nicely symbolizes a team that seems to specialize in doing just enough to stay in first place. The Penguins lost to the Maple Leafs and continue to spin their wheels, even though everyone assumes they’re just biding their time. And then there’s the seventh-place Hurricanes, who are still lurking six points back despite losing five of six.

That covers six of the division’s eight teams; we’ll hit on the other two in a little more depth down below.


Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (20-10-1, +17 true goals differential*) – They keep finding ways to win even when they’re missing Auston Matthews, playing their backup goalie and getting skated into the ground by Connor McDavid.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (19-10-1, +11) – This was weird: A struggling Cam Atkinson was a healthy scratch for Columbus on Saturday, just three weeks after signing a $41-million extension.
3. Los Angeles Kings (20-8-3, +27) – Make it eight straight for the league’s hottest team. They begin a four-game road swing through the Metro tomorrow.
2. St. Louis Blues (21-8-2, +24) – They’ve won four straight to reclaim the Central, but that Jayden Schwartz injury has the potential to seriously disrupt what’s been shaping up as a dream season.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (21-6-2, +36) – They face the Blues tomorrow in what may be the week’s best matchup.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” – Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, describing his life as a Capitals fan.

I’m pretty sure that’s the context for the quote. If not, it should be because man, here we go again with these guys.

Heading into the season, it was painfully easy to be out on the Capitals. Coming off a crushing second-round playoff loss to the Penguins for the second straight year, the Caps looked like a broken franchise. When the combination of salary cap pressure and a gotta-change-something mentality led to several key pieces heading out the door, it seemed clear that the Presidents’ Trophy days were over. When a team whose best was never good enough gets worse, you give them a condescending pat on the head and move on.

And through the season’s first month, that was the right call. Washington stumbled through October with a 5-6-1 start, which was neither good enough to pay attention to nor bad enough to really worry about. The Metro buzz was all about the surprising Devils, disappointing Rangers and confusing Penguins, with maybe a little left over for the Blue Jackets.

But since then, the Capitals have been slowly heating up, and now they’re on a full-fledged hot streak, winning four straight and seven of eight. And it’s not like they’re picking their spots to do it, earning wins over the Lightning, Leafs and Blue Jackets over that stretch, plus a weekend win over a Rangers team that had been riding a hot stretch of their own. That win moved the Caps into a temporary tie for top spot in the impossibly tight Metro; the Jackets have since regained the lead. Alexander Ovechkin is leading the league in goals, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom are racking up points, and Braden Holtby is looking all Vezina-y again.

Huh. It’s almost as if this is essentially the same core that averaged 119 points a season over the last two years. They might be pretty good.

The caveat, of course, is that nothing this team does in the regular season actually matters. It’s Cup-or-bust in Washington, and will be for the rest of the Ovechkin era. The Caps could stay red hot all year long, but if they get knocked out by the Penguins again the season is still a failure.

But the thing about Cup-or-bust is that you at least have to actually look like a team that can win one. The Capitals didn’t early on. They do right now. Not quite enough to crack our top five, but they’re not far off. And while the schedule gets busy now, with ten games in 20 nights, it’s packed with beatable teams.

Nobody can figure out the Metro these days, but it’s at least possible that the answer has been right in front of our eyes all along, and that it’s the same team that’s been dominating for the last few (regular) seasons. The way things are going right now, the Caps could even run away with this thing.

And then the playoffs arrive, and we find out if any of it even mattered. Until then, we’re getting pulled back in.

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Road to the lottery

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft lottery simulations.

5. Ottawa Senators (9-12-7, -18) – The Senators make their debut on our list thanks to a four-game losing streak punctuated by a 5-0 embarrassment in San Jose. With Matt Duchene still struggling and Erik Karlsson rumors swirling, this is a team that desperately needs some good news. (Luckily, they get to play Buffalo next.)
4. Florida Panthers (11-14-4, -16) – With Roberto Luongo out long-term, we’ve apparently moved into the “giving up seven goals to the Avalanche” phase of the implosion.
3. Detroit Red Wings (11-13-5, -18) – After snapping a seven-game losing streak with a surprise win over the Jets, it was another blowout loss on Saturday, this time to the Blues.
2. Arizona Coyotes (7-21-5, -39) – Uh, sure.
1. Buffalo Sabres (7-17-6, -37) – Big news in Buffalo this week: a defenceman scored. That might not sound like much, but it was the first time since April.

Let’s finish off our Metro focus with a look at the team that’s bringing up the rear … for now.

The Flyers were absent from the weekend’s action, thanks to a rare gap in the schedule that saw them get four days off. Not long ago, that sort of break would have been welcome, with the Flyers struggling through a brutal ten-game losing streak that had torpedoed their season. But these days, thanks to three straight wins, they probably would have preferred to keep the momentum going.

That three-game streak, achieved on their Western Canada road swing, came on the heels of GM Ron Hextall’s emphatic vote of confidence in coach Dave Hakstol. You could be forgiven for rolling your eyes at Hextall’s comments, since every GM says something like that when things are bad – it’s not like he could have acknowledged that yeah, one or two more losses and we’re going to have to start firing people. But for a team that seemed to be sitting around waiting for something to happen, hearing that message delivered as strongly as it was may have felt like a burden lifting.

Or maybe it’s just coincidence – not everything has to be a narrative. Either way, the Flyers have pulled out of their streak and thanks to the crunch of teams at the top of the division (and a bunch of loser points sprinkled in during their winless stretch), they’re still not totally out of this thing. Right now they’re sitting six points back of the wild card, which is a fair amount of ground to cover, and they’d need to pass at least three Metro teams to snag a wild-card spot. But with those six teams up top all grouped together, it would only take a couple of cold streaks to open an opportunity for the Flyers.

Another element worth watching: goaltending. Brian Elliott is the new guy looking to solidify the position, and his numbers through the first two months have been average at best. But based on the shots he’s facing he ranks among the best in the league. It’s not hard to imagine some skepticism on that point, even among Flyers fans, but it could be a good sign for the team, especially if they can make even minor gains defensively.

They’re still a long shot, but there’s hope, slim as it may be. A week ago, we probably couldn’t have even said that. The Flyers are at home for their next five, starting with a visit from the Maple Leafs tomorrow night. Time will tell whether we look back on Hextall’s decision to take a stand on staying the course as a turning point, and whether the Flyers can make the Metro picture even more complicated than it already is.

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Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league

• The latest from Ottawa: Elliotte Friedman reports that they’ve asked their players with no-trade clauses for lists of teams they’d accept deals to. Yes, that includes Erik Karlsson. No, that’s probably not a good sign.

• There may also be trouble in Toronto, where Matthews missed last night’s game after colliding with a teammate late in Saturday’s win over Pittsburgh. It’s hard to tell whether he was hit in the head or maybe hurt this hand or wrist, and the Leafs certainly aren’t going to tell us but Leafs fans will be watching this one closely.

• The Oilers pick up a much-needed win over the Canadiens on a night where Carey Price didn’t look sharp, dropping Montreal out of a playoff spot. But Edmonton couldn’t make it 2-for-2 on the weekend, dropping a 1-0 decision to the Leafs last night despite firing 41 shots at Curtis McElhinney and hitting a ton of posts.

• A DeBrusk dropping the gloves? Wherever would he learn such a thing?

• The Sabres showed some character to fight back from two goals down to earn a point in St. Louis, then had a total breakdown on Vladimir Tarasenko’s winner.

• Artemi Panarin had a big night on Friday, racking up five assists in a win over the Devils.

• The Knights keep chugging along, winning four straight to keep pace with the Kings. They’ll also get Marc-Andre Fleury back from injury after nearly two months.

• Speaking of Vegas goalies, we had a fun scene in Nashville, as P.K. and Malcolm Subban faced off for the first time. It marked the tenth time in NHL history that two brothers met in a goalie vs. skater matchup.

Sam Bennett’s late winner sent the Canucks home empty handed on Saturday night. The Canucks have fallen out of a playoff spot, while the Flames now hold one of the wild cards.

• Finally, so much for MLSE corporate synergy. The highlight of the entire weekend may have been MLS star Jozy Altidore snubbing Leo Komarov at last night’s ceremonial faceoff so he could check his phone.

• Epilogue: Here’s Altidore’s apology and Komarov’s acceptance.

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