Monday, December 11, 2017

Weekend wrap: Metro 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.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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