1.Columbus Blue Jackets: 58 Points (27-5-4)
What is there even left to say about Columbus at this point? The Jackets have now won 16 games in a row and is only one win away from tying the 1992-1993 Pittsburgh Penguins’ record 17 game win streak.
So what has powered Columbus to 16 straight wins? Interestingly enough it's not possession; the Jackets only possess the puck 50.1% of the time which is just 14th in the league. However, their .943 Sv% is tied with the Blackhawks for highest in the league and their 9.4% five on five shooting percentage is second, behind only the New York Rangers.
And when the Blue Jackets are a man up, forget it. Columbus succeeds on over 28% of their power play chances, which is more than 4% higher than the second-place Ducks. The only “weakness” with the team is the penalty kill unit which is successful only 81.5% of the time, still middle of the road for the league. However, they have only been shorthanded 103 times, which is the third-fewest amount of times in the league. So you can't even count on that.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: 55 Points (25-8-5)
The Penguins have yet to play a game in 2017 and will not until January 8th. Under this year’s NHL scheduling system, each team gets a “bye week” and the Penguins have the earliest bye week in the NHL along with the New York Islanders. The Penguins also have the longest bye week, a full seven days; every other team will have five days off in a row to give players some time to recover from the grind of the 82-game season. The bye comes at a perfect time after goaltender Matt Murray suffered a lower body injury against the Hurricanes on December 28th.
Before the bye week, the Pens won four straight games, three of which were over division opponents, and the last came against the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens. Going into their bye, and the second half of the season, Evgeni Malkin leads the league with 43 points, and Sidney Crosby holds the goal-scoring lead with 26 and is third in points with 42. Their four-game win streak has been powered by improved play by Marc-Andre Fleury, who played in all four games and earned a .943 sv% up from his .909 season total.
3. New York Rangers: 53 Points (26-13-1)
The New York Rangers’ three-game win streak came to an end Tuesday with a 4-1 loss to the Sabres on Tuesday. The Rangers have been a pretty banged up team, so a record of 6-4-0 is impressive over their last ten games. Mika Zibanejad has almost fully recovered from a broken leg and has returned to practice. He’s not the only one, as both forwards Rick Nash and Pavel Buchnevich are poised to make returns as well. With all three on their way back the Rangers are set to make a run to solidify their position in the Metro.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Rangers’ play this year is their penalty kill. Though it is only ranked ninth at 83.9%, the Rangers are finding individual success on the PK. Derek Stepan, Michael Grabner, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller, and Kevin Hayes rank in the top 12 in Corsi when down a man. So despite only being successful 83.9% of the time, the Rangers are actually driving possession while down a man. It is likely in the second half of the season that their overall PK number will improve given their possession numbers.
4. Washington Capitals: 51 Points (23-9-5)
The Capitals are officially streaking after a third straight win, a 6-5 victory over the Maple Leafs on Tuesday. Despite another streak, the Caps still sit at fourth place in the Metro and in the top wild-card spot in the East. What is crazy about this is that in any other division the Caps would be leading any other division in the NHL. Even more ridiculous, due to the absolutely insane playoff format of the NHL, at least one of those top teams will be bounced in the first round.
The Caps struggled in the first half of December and fell from third to fifth in the standings. During this time frame, the Caps had a 4.9% shooting percentage, the worst in the league. Since the 16th of December, though, the Caps have completely turned this around and have been scoring in bunches. Their shooting percentage increased to a 10.2% which is fourth best in the league. Now that the Caps are healthy and have T.J. Oshie and their full forward platoon back, they will look to maintain these numbers and compete with the Rangers for the third seed.
(Although, given that the top wild card team will almost certainly cross over to the weaker Atlantic, will there be a rush on that spot to avoid the meat grinder of the Metro first round? Stay tuned.)
5. Philadelphia Flyers: 45 Points (20-14-5)
After winning 10 games in a row in November/December, the Flyers have gone only 1-4-2 in their last seven games, losing fourth place to the Caps and opening the door to the rest of the division for the second wild card position. The Flyers are now just three points ahead of the Lightning and six points ahead of the Canes for that spot. Throughout the Flyers’ success, their shooting percentage was well over 10% which covered up their goaltending deficiencies. However, over their last seven games, they have a 4.7% shooting percentage, dead last in the league.
Just how bad has the goaltending been for the Flyers? Three goaltenders have played for the Flyers this year: Steve Mason (29 starts), Michal Neuvirth (8 starts), and Anthony Stolarz (2 starts). Mason’s .904 sv% is 50th in the league and Neuvirth’s .859 sv% ranks 70th. Stolarz has a .938 sv% which is sixth in the league but since the 17th he has only come in as relief for two games and has a .917 sv%. These numbers have been consistent over the season, thus when the shooting percentage dropped through the floor, the Flyers were unable to keep winning.
6. Carolina Hurricanes: 39 Points (16-13-7)
The Carolina Hurricanes had a successful December with a record of 7-4-3 and earned 17 points. However, where the Canes have faltered is in their ability to grab opportunities to move up the standings. In their last four games, the Canes lost a game to the Penguins despite outshooting them 46-26, lost an overall uninspiring game to the Lightning where special teams just didn’t show up, and finally lost a game to a Devils team who is last in the East in goal differential.
Though all three of these games aren’t must win, taken together they are a prime example of why the Canes are in 6th place and not in a playoff position. The Canes need to be able to finish good teams when they have them on the ropes and put away teams that are below them in the standings, specifically those like the Devils who have a -23 goal differential.
It’s not fair to lay it all on the Canes without mentioning that they are dealing with injuries to Justin Faulk, Elias Lindholm, and Eddie Lack. Faulk and Lindholm were playing their best hockey of the year just before going down with injuries. The good news is that both skaters have returned to practice and are poised to join the team for the road trip starting on Thursday.
7. New Jersey Devils: 39 Points (16-16-7)
With a win over the Canes, last night the Devils are now tied with points in the standings with Carolina, but lose the tiebreaker by having three more games played. The Devils have been all over the place this season, but lately, they have posted back to back wins against the Bruins and the Canes with a combined 6-1 score.
The Devils’ inconsistent play can be boiled down to their goaltenders. Since the start of December, the Devils have only gotten a save percentage of over .900 in eight games and a 6-1-1 record in those games. However, they have nine games with under a .900 sv%, three of which were under .850, and unsurprisingly posted an 0-8-1 record in those games.
8. New York Islanders: 36 Points (15-15-6)
The Islanders are the other team in the Metro that is currently on their bye week. They haven’t played a game since New Year’s Eve, and won’t be playing until Friday when they face the Avalanche in Denver. The biggest news with the Islanders has been their backup goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, who was waived and subsequently sent to play with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL. Halak was the odd man out in a three-headed goaltender rotation with Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube.
The interesting thing about the move is that Halak makes $3.5 million the next two seasons, and most of that will count against the cap regardless of where he plays. Halak has a season record of 6-8-5 and a .904 sv% and a 3.23 GAA which are all better than Berube, who has only played in four games (starting only two) and has a record of 0-2-1 with a .901 Sv% and a 3.27 GAA. The move is likely one that aims to the future replacing a 31-year-old goaltender with a 25-year-old. Berube is also younger than Greiss who is 30 and is likely to take a larger role with the team in the coming seasons. Halak will be an interesting case around the trade deadline, for teams looking to acquire a quality goalie.