1. Pittsburgh Penguins: 82 Points (39-25-4)
With their 5-2 win over the Flyers on Wednesday, the Penguins moved into first place in the division. This was the first time in 2018 that a team other than the Capitals are on top of the division. For the Penguins, it is business as usual, peaking again at just the right time and heading into the playoffs red hot. They have done this despite losing Matt Murray again, this time to a concussion. The injury happened during practice on 2/27, but he is still listed as day to day.
Deadline acquisition Derick Brassard has registered his first points as a Penguin with a goal and an assist in his first four games with the team. (Aside: I am a little disappointed that when you look him up on NHL.com that he is only listed as playing for Ottawa and Pittsburgh. They should have to call out Vegas with that so since they’re playing such a significant part of his salary.) The scary thing about Brassard is that his line will only get better and better as they have time to gel on the ice.
2. Washington Capitals: 81 Points (37-21-7)
Caps starting goaltender Braden Holtby has now been pulled in three of his last six starts, prompting head coach Barry Trotz to turn to backup Philipp Grubauer. The plan is to give Holtby a few games off to rest and get his head back in the right place. I think this is huge for the Caps; Holtby has been a workhorse for the Caps, playing 160 games since the 2014-2015 season. That is the most by any goaltender in that stretch, 18 more games than second-place Pekka Rinne.
This reminds me of Cam Ward and his struggles after being the Hurricanes’ workhorse for so many years. If he is unable to recover fully between games and is playing night after night, injuries and fatigue will add up. When you know you’re not 100% it will get in your head, and for a goalie that’s deadly. But the timing couldn’t be worse for the Caps, with only 14 games left in the season. They have to hope Holtby can turn things around quickly before the playoffs start.
3. Philadelphia Flyers: 79 Points (34-23-11)
Despite being down their two top goalies, the Philadelphia Flyers still sit in the final Metropolitan Division playoff spot. Recent acquisition Petr Mrazek has been carrying the load during their absences of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. Mrazek has a 3-2-1 record in six games started, but he is barely treading water with a .895 sv%. Rookie Alex Lyon has been playing much better in his first three games with a 3-0-0 record and a GAA under 2.00.
The Flyers also got good news on Tuesday when they were able to reactivate forward Wayne Simmonds from IR. Simmonds adds a ton of depth to Philly at the third line with Valtteri Filppula and Jori Lehtera. The third line has combined for 32 goals this season and gives the Flyers three legitimate scoring lines.
4. New Jersey Devils: 76 Points (34-26-8)
There are 20 teams left in the playoff hunt, and out of those teams, the New Jersey Devils have the toughest schedule out of all of them. The Devils will face a below average opponent just four times in their last 15 games remaining. In addition, the Devils will only be rested in four games, whereas they will have five remaining back-to-back sets. The Devils also have eight away games remaining and seven home games.
Though these seem like trivial differences in the schedule, other teams in the hunt fall on the opposite side of the spectrum, and the differences add up. These races are likely to be decided by a single point, so a single additional game off of a back-to-back remaining than another team could be the difference between the playoffs and April golf.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets: 75 Points (35-28-5)
The Blue Jackets had a little bit of a scare last night. Despite being up 4-2 on the Avalanche going into the third period, it took overtime to determine the game. Seth Jones was able to bury a cross-ice pass to win the game and get two full points and get back into a playoff position. The Jackets have a tough fight ahead of them to earn the final wild-card spot. The Florida Panthers have been surging as of late with a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games.
Deadline acquisition, Thomas Vanek, recorded his first points with the team, and he did it in spectacular fashion last night, scoring two goals in the second period. The first came just a minute into the period, and he backed that up with another goal with under five minutes remaining in the second. Vanek is now up to 19 goals on the season and proves why he is a perennial name around the trade deadline.
6. Carolina Hurricanes: 71 Points (30-27-11)
The big news out of the Carolina Hurricanes camp is that Ron Francis was “promoted to President of Hockey Operations.” The new GM will not report to Ron Francis, he will report directly to Tom Dundon. The movement is likely that of an owner trying to bring in his own guys around the team. However, I don’t particularly agree with the move.
Francis has done the best with what he was dealt. He was able to restock the AHL team with young talent and put together one of the best young defensive corps in the league. In addition, he was doing what he could with an owner that was trying to sell and was cash-strapped. Why did he have to take gambles on goaltenders? Because he couldn’t offer a free agent a big and competitive contract.
When you look at the trade deadline this year, he simply didn’t want to make a transaction that would negatively impact the team in the future for a marginal return. Tweaks are done at the deadline, organization changing moves are made at the draft. I would have thought that Bill Peters would have been the one that got the ax first over Ron Francis. Peters has refused to use the most skilled player on the team, Jeff Skinner, on the top six. Instead, he puts Brock McGinn on the second line. He has also done a terrible job with goaltenders not named Cam Ward in his tenure.
7. New York Islanders: 67 Points (29-29-9)
Though just four points out of a playoff position, the organization feels like they are much further back than that. With fans buying billboards that read “Snow must go” across the street from Barclays Center, no one is happy with their current position. The Islanders now have to deal with a totally uncertain future and are floundering down the stretch. This is a team that reminds me of a situation similar to that of the Hurricanes.
They now have to deal with eight UFA’s and six RFA’s (five are arbitration eligible) to re-sign this offseason. Honestly, they haven’t given their free agents many reasons to re-sign. Between splitting time between multiple stadiums and no real direction of the team on the ice, it could be interesting to see what direction the team goes in the offseason. I believe they will struggle to keep the core of this team together, and much like a dam, if one player decides to leave, you could see everyone leave.
8. New York Rangers: 66 Points (30-31-6)
As much as everyone talks about how far the Rangers are out of the playoffs, they are only five points behind the Hurricanes (!). The Rangers are trying to tank for the best pick possible, but are struggling to do that as well, winning three of their last four games. The Rangers need to look forward to the draft to see what pieces they are able to add.
The Rangers have seven RFA’s going into the 2018-2019 season. I would expect at least one of these to get dealt to get prospects and picks in return. I would expect Ryan Spooner’s rights to get dealt as an RFA for high return, and UFA David Desharnais to be dealt at the deadline. Both can play center and in are high demand. The Rangers are looking to go with a full rebuild, meaning they aren’t necessarily targeting next year, but rather are looking two and three years down the line. These are the best pieces they have to make a splash to acquire more picks and more prospects heading into the 2018 draft.