1. Columbus Blue Jackets: 64 Points (30-9-4)
The Blue Jackets’ strategy of giving their guys morning skates off appears to be working. In both games against the Canes this year, they have come out with more energy than any other team they have faced. The Blue Jackets fell to the Canes last week solely due to weak goaltending by Anton Forsberg. Last night was much different; the Jackets dominated in every zone and in all manpower situations.
Columbus is going through a similar situation as the Canes when it comes to their backup goaltender. They had something good with Curtis McElhinney but waived him after the Rangers game, he was claimed by the Leafs and now they are using a combination of Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo to back up Sergei Bobrovsky. This goaltending situation will be interesting to watch for the remainder of the year and may be the only area of weakness for Columbus.
2. Washington Capitals: 64 Points (29-9-6)
The Washington Capitals’ nine-game win streak came to an end on Monday with an 8-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The game, one of the craziest of the season so far, featured a nine-goal second period, six of which came from the Penguins. What makes this outcome even more surprising is that entering the game the Caps had four shutouts in their last five games, including back to back shutouts coming into the game.
The Caps +44 goal differential is now third in the league behind only the Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild. Since December 20th, the Caps have had a league-best .950 Sv% when at even strength and have the highest PDO with a 108.9. This shows just how dominant the Caps have been since before the new year, but also shows that they are due for a regression (however minimal) at some point.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins: 59 Points (27-11-5)
The only bad news the Penguins have received lately is that their top defenseman, Kris Letang, has been placed on IR. Letang is currently week to week with a lower-body injury and is not eligible to return until their game against the St. Louis Blues on January 24th. The Pens have already proven they can beat the best without him by just overpowering other teams.
The Pens came out on top of the wild 8-7 overtime win against the Caps. The game sums up what makes the Penguins so dangerous. If you go to sleep against them for just a second they won’t just score once; they will open the floodgates. The Pens don’t have to worry about playing tight defense because they can make up any goals against easily with Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin.
4. New York Rangers: 57 Points (28-16-1)
The Rangers’ defense and goaltending just aren’t getting it done. In previous years the goaltending what the only thing that would keep the Rangers in games. It was almost a flat out race to three goals, but this season is drastically different. Over the past week, this has become more apparent than ever. In their last four games, they have let up more than four goals in each game, including a 7-6 loss to the Dallas Stars last night.
The Rangers are without Marc Staal who is out with a concussion and lost their captain Ryan McDonagh last night against the Stars. The Rangers are still eight points ahead of the ninth-place Hurricanes and aren’t in danger of dropping out of the playoffs anytime soon. However, they have now lost three straight and are trending in the wrong direction. It will be interesting to see how the teams in wild card contention play in the coming weeks to see if the Rangers will be in any danger of dropping out of the playoffs this season.
5. Philadelphia Flyers: 50 Points (22-18-6)
Currently on their bye week, the Flyers are just limping along near the playoff cut line, currently out of a wild card spot on a tiebreaker with the Senators. Despite a 10 game win-streak which opened up a gap earlier, the Flyers are now very much in the thick of the playoff race due to their 3-8-3 record since the streak ended. Since December 14th, the Flyers have only earned nine points in the standings which is Avalanche-esque.
The main reason for this is that the Flyers live by scoring and die by scoring. Their defense and goaltending play is less than stellar. In this time period, the Flyers are just one of three teams that have a sub .900 Sv% at even strength. When they are shooting over 10% like they were on their win-streak it covers up their mistakes. However, when their shooting percentage comes back down to Earth those mistakes can’t be covered up and they lose.
6. Carolina Hurricanes: 49 Points (21-16-7)
The Carolina Hurricanes finally had the chance to move into a playoff position on Tuesday but failed to convert on the opportunity. The Canes, powered by a four-game win streak, were able to climb to the ninth position in the East, but face a tough challenge to get into a playoff spot. The Canes fell to the division-leading Blue Jackets last night and face the Penguins, Caps, and Blue Jackets again in their next three games with the last two being on the road.
It's hard to say that a team that is 4-1-0 in their last five games is struggling but the Hurricanes are. The struggles have come in two main areas, the power play and goaltending. Luckily for the Canes, even strength scoring has been able to cover up for these problems. The power play has looked dreadful over the last six games and earned one of the worst too many men on the ice penalties I’ve seen in a long time last night. Since mid-December, the Canes are successful only 5.4% of the time with the extra man, and that’s not good enough to get the job done.
The goaltending struggles this year are not typical. Cam Ward has had a successful season so far but has played 37 of the Canes 44 games. Eddie Lack has been battling concussion symptoms for much of this season and has missed a majority of the season. The Canes have struggled to find a replacement goalie. His fatigue has started to show over the past three games as he has been giving up a larger number of goals. This came to a head last night when he was pulled for rookie Alex Nedeljkovic in the second period.
7. New Jersey Devils: 47 Points (19-18-9)
Though the Devils are seventh in the division they are only three points out of a playoff position. New Jersey has had a successful week stringing together a four-game point streak and a three game win streak on a four-game road trip this week. Despite this resurgence the Devils -27 goal differential is still the worst in the Eastern Conference.
The Devils will end up being one of the most intriguing teams at the deadline. They have been struggling the last few years but have some solid pieces to move if they choose. P.A. Parenteau, Kyle Palmieri, and Beau Bennett could be moved for some significant returns with Travis Zajac and Michael Cammalleri set up to be rent a star type trades on top of that. With GM Ray Shero things could get interesting in just over a month.
8. New York Islanders: 42 Points (17-17-8)
The New York Islanders fired head coach Jack Capuano yesterday, and have announced that former Carolina Hurricane and current assistant coach Doug Weight will take over as interim head coach. The move came at a strange time for the Islanders, who have earned points in seven of their last 10 games and just defeated the Boston Bruins 4-0 on Monday.
Though the Isles have struggled this year and have a -8 goal differential, a majority of the problem has come from GM Garth Snow and not Capuano. Snow let forward Kyle Okposo walk without any serious contract talks and let Frans Nielsen walk. Snow decided instead to spend $5.5 million per year on Andrew Ladd for the next seven years who has underperformed. This season Nielsen is cheaper and Okposo is just $500k more per year and are both all-stars. The move was likely the last ditch effort on Snow’s part to save his job.