The NHL’s Metropolitan Division is a madhouse. The Blue Jackets traded their future for a potential playoff run, but sit two points out of a wild-card spot as of Friday night. Ahead of them, the Pittsburgh Penguins are fighting not to miss the playoffs for the first time in the Crosby–Malkin era. And, yes, that John Tavares-less Islanders team is capable of claiming the Metro for themselves.
Five separate teams have at least a 8:1 odds of winning the division, according to odds makers, and none of those teams are a sure bet to claim the Metro’s No. 1 seed. With 15 games to go, there’s no crystal puck that can predict what’s going to happen. The Flyers are out and teams have shuffled among the top three spots since the All-Star break, almost on a nightly basis. But anyway, here’s a look at the five teams competing for the Metro’s playoff spots:
The Capitals played inconsistently through February, blighted by defensive play that surrendered an alarming amount of high-danger scoring chances. No, that’s not only this year’s Capitals. They suffered similar defensive woes in 2017–18 but they regrouped, won 12 of their last 15 games and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Now, the Capitals have won eight of their last nine games while scoring 3.9 goals and allowing 2.4 goals per game in that span. Retooled since the trade deadline, last year’s Stanley Cup winners should claim the Metro’s top spot, although a regular-season finale against the Islanders could have a little extra drama if the race remains close.
New York Islanders
Robin Lehner’s Vezina campaign is on hold after Ottawa winger Brady Tkachuk bulldozed through him and put his availability in question. The Islanders strength is goaltending, and luckily Thomas Greiss has been the NHL’s best backup this season (Greiss’s .928 save percentage ranks fourth in the league). New York’s best hockey team this year has slipped, going 3–4–1 in their last eight games, losing to the Oilers in overtime and squandering a two-goal lead in an overtime win against the Senators. Of all the teams on this list, the Islanders have the easiest remaining schedule, but they need to take care of those teams to keep pace with the Capitals.
The league’s most lovable “Bunch of Jerks” isn’t a fluke. The Hurricanes have put together a 21–7–2 record in their last 30—that’s a 120-point pace played out over 82 games. Led by the young duo of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen and veteran Justin Williams, the Hurricanes transitioned from celebration-centric sideshow to a true playoff threat. Carolina holds the distinction of averaging the most shots per game while also allowing the fewest shots per game.
But their schedule won’t do them any favors. The Hurricanes, who lost big to the Jets Friday night, will play the Predators, Avalanche and Blue Jackets in their next three games and still have a pair of games against the Penguins and Capitals before season’s end. Spring might be coming but March and April will be proving grounds for the Hurricanes.
The Penguins have never missed the playoffs or placed worse than fourth in the Eastern Conference since Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have played as Pittsburgh’s two-headed monster. It’s likely at least one of those two things will happen this year. Injuries to Kris Letang and Olli Maatta have decimated an already subpar defense. Still, the Penguins rebounded from a four-game losing streak by going 8–2–2 in their last 12 games, good enough to keep them in wild-card contention. Better yet, Crosby has played at an MVP level and has tallied 25 points in that span, while Malkin is averaging a point per game since the cold snap. If anybody is going to keep the Penguins in the playoffs, it’s those guys.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Post-trade-deadline life hasn’t been great for the Blue Jackets: they’re 2–4–0 in their last six games, were blanked by the Oilers and find themselves out of a wild-card spot. That’s almost as bad as it can get for a team that made every deadline acquisition possible to gear up for the playoffs. Matt Duchene has only one point since coming to Columbus, and coach John Tortorella is still trying to figure out how to best position the team’s deadline acquisitions.
The Blue Jackets dropped the first game of a home-and-home series against the Penguins on Thursday—and they desperately need a win in Saturday night’s rematch. They have the toughest remaining schedule of any of these teams, but they have the talent necessary to usurp the Canadiens and earn a playoff bid.