1. Washington Capitals: 85 Points (39-23-7)
The Capitals’ plan to rest Braden Holtby has worked out well. Philipp Grubauer has won his last two starts, including a win against the Jets and a shutout against the San Jose Sharks. Barry Trotz needs to ride the hot hand and stay with Grubauer to keep picking up wins and stay in first place. This has also given Holtby time to get his mind right and recover prior to the playoffs.
Alex Ovechkin also hit a career milestone when he scored his 600th career goal against the Winnipeg Jets on Monday. Ovi became only the 20th player to ever score 600 goals, and just the 6th player to do it with a single team. Another fun fact about his 600th goal: he is the fourth player to ever reach the milestone in under 1,000 games. The only other three players to do it in under 1,000 games are Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Brett Hull. Not bad company.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: 85 Points (40-26-5)
The NHL tried something new for the Penguins at Rangers game last night: they invited Susan Sarandon on the broadcast between the benches with Pierre, which is something that literally no one has been asking for. I think, in general, it’s a good idea to try to spice up broadcasts in some form, but not by using someone with no connection to hockey who doesn’t add anything to the broadcast.
There has also been a lot of talk on the playoff format in the past week. Pierre LeBrun reported that GM’s around the league have expressed a desire to increase the playoff field. This is a terrible idea; the playoffs already go into June and half of the league makes the postseason. On top of that, John Shannon from Sportsnet created a twitter poll that showed that only 9% of 4,500 respondents preferred the current format over Conferences seeded 1-8 or the entire league seeded 1-16. (The NHL: always with a finger on the pulse of what the fans want!)
Today's twitter poll: Which Stanley Cup Playoff Format do you favour?— John Shannon (@JSportsnet) March 14, 2018
3. Philadelphia Flyers: 81 Points (35-24-11)
The Flyers are struggling after their second long winning streak this season, now just two points above the Blue Jackets for the final Metro playoff position. The Flyers have fallen to an even goal differential on the season, which highlights their current struggles. Last week I touched on the Flyers trying to lean on rookie goaltender Alex Lyon. At the time he had a 2.00 GAA, but in just one week this has gone up to a 2.91 and his save percentage has dipped to .900.
The Flyers’ even strength save percentage has dropped from a .937, which was second in the league in 2017, to a .916, 24th in the league in 2018. The Flyers don’t have too much to worry about as they still have an 88% chance to make the playoffs; however, they will need to buck that trend to have any chance to beat the Penguins or the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs.
4. New Jersey Devils 80 Points (36-26-8)
The best thing for the Devils is to be locked into a playoff battle. Last week, I laid out how difficult their schedule is, but having motivation is the best thing a team can have at this time of year. You can look at the Hurricanes and how they buckle under pressure, but the Devils are similar to most playoff-bound teams, thriving under the pressure. The Devils were able to pick up a shootout win against the Nashville Predators, then earned a big crucial two points last night in a blowout win over the Golden Knights to climb into the first wild-card position in the East.
This is massive because the first wild-card spot is the difference between playing the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have 100 points already, and playing the Caps or Penguins. These next four games - all on the road against the Kings, Ducks, Sharks and Penguins - are going to determine where the Devils finish in the division. New Jersey is hoping that Taylor Hall can return to the form he was in when he was scoring points in 26 straight games.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets 79 Points (37-28-5)
The Jackets are doing their best to peak at the right time of the year. They were strong at the beginning of the season before falling off in January and February. However, they have now won five straight games and seven of their last 10. The big news for Columbus is that starting goaltender, and reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Sergei Bobrovsky returned in last Friday’s game against the Red Wings.
Bob’s return is huge for the Blue Jackets because they had been relying on Joonas Korpisalo to keep them in the hunt, and that’s exactly what he did. In addition, the Blue Jackets have scored 21 goals since March 4th, which is the second most in the league over the time span. They are going to be a dangerous team to face down the stretch, and with the Flyers’ recent struggles, they could easily make their way into the third playoff spot in the Metro.
6. Carolina Hurricanes: 71 Points (30-29-11)
The last two games show why Bill Peters should have been fired before Ron Francis. Peters has made questionable roster decisions all season, but Francis did himself no favors by keeping him around. General Managers can generally buy themselves more time with a coaching change but Francis decided not to do anything, and that cost him his job.
"It's beyond anger.... It's beyond upsetting. But we've got to look at ourselves and know that we're responsible for what we've done to this point," -Justin Williams after tonight's loss to Boston. pic.twitter.com/iWafz9Izlp— FOX Sports Carolinas (@CanesOnFSCR) March 14, 2018
I’m not going to bring up the lineup decisions because I’ve lamented over them in previous weeks, but what I will bring up is the complete inconsistency of play in the team. Over the past two seasons, the Hurricanes look like two completely different squads. At times they look like a playoff team, and at others, they look like their only hope is to win the lottery. You also have to look at specifics, for instance, Tripp Tracy pointing out during the Rangers broadcast that Darling isn’t comfortable playing the puck.
Instead of simplifying his game to make him more comfortable, Darling is being coached to play the puck as often as possible and that almost led to a goal in that game before it got out of hand. Francis also gets blamed for the Darling signing, but Cam Ward and the Bill Peters-led Hurricanes let up five goals in the third period against the Boston Bruins to lose any realistic chance at a playoff position.
7. New York Rangers: 71 Points (32-32-7)
The Rangers are going to be in an interesting spot when it comes to their blue line for next season. They have been struggling mightily on the defensive side of the game, and have a lot of issues. Right now they have Marc Staal, Kevin Shattenkirk, Neal Pionk, Anthony DeAngelo, Steven Kampfer, and Brendan Smith all under contract next year, as well as Rob O’Gara, Brady Skjei, and John Gilmour as RFA’s. That’s nine defensemen that they need to make a decision on and they need to come into next season with around seven.
Skjei, one of their best young players, has to be re-signed in the offseason. O’Gara was a critical piece in the Nick Holden trade, so he should probably also be re-signed. Staal could be bought out to open up a roster spot, but that’s an expensive buyout and would leave the Rangers on the hook for $1.3 million through 2024.
8. New York Islanders: 70 Points (30-29-10)
I’m not sure where the Islanders go from here, 2-4-4 in their last 10 games and currently in the basement of the division. They have the probable Calder Trophy favorite with Mathew Barzal, but they also have Andrew Ladd signed for $5.5 million per year through 2023. They’re in a weird transition phase where if they don’t re-sign John Tavares, they will have to be in an extremely intense rebuild mode. If they can re-sign him, they still have to improve goaltending and secondary scoring.
It’s also clear that the Islanders don’t quite know what they are going to do. GM Garth Snow has been unsure of his moves in the last offseason and made no real move during the trade deadline. This has prompted a group of Islanders fans to buy billboard space around the NYC metro area with a simple message: “Snow must go.”