1. Washington Capitals: 51 Points (24-11-3)
Alex Ovechkin is channeling his inner Sidney Crosby and will skip the All-Star Game on January 26. He will face a one game suspension which he will serve in either the game before or after the exhibition. Ovechkin, who is now 33 years old and is coming off of the most hockey he has ever played in a year, cited needing rest so he can focus on the second half of the season. It is a good move for him and the Capitals, and that’s what ultimately makes the most sense.
I know that the NHL says they need all of the stars for the game to help ‘grow the sport,” but Ovechkin has already done his job there. He has re-energized an entire hockey market in Washington, D.C. since he was drafted, generated a ton of interest in Russia, and has countless highlight goals that have still made SportsCenter’s top 10 plays despite their anti-hockey bias. Also if the NHL cared about growing the sport, they would let players in the Olympics, and who knows — this could be Ovi’s way of retaliating against the league’s decision for PyeongChang.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: 50 Points (22-12-6)
The Penguins currently have the league’s longest active win-streak with seven straight wins. They also have a record of 9-1-0 in their last 10 games which is only behind the Lightning for the best record in that timespan. A big part of this success has been the successful play of their goaltending. Since December 13th the Penguins have given up more than two goals just three times. They have conceded up the third-fewest goals in that time, with 19.
Matt Murray has won six straight games with a save percentage of .959 and a 1.38 GAA. This is great news for the Penguins. Murray has had back to back up-and-down seasons and has struggled to stay healthy. This is the first time since Marc-Andre Fleury left where Murray has been able to take over games and shut teams down. And if he isn’t starting well, backup Casey DeSmith also has a .944 save percentage in his last four starts.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets: 49 Points (23-13-3)
The Blue Jackets are currently without their captain Nick Foligno, who is at home with his family while his daughter recovers from surgery. Foligno missed Monday night’s game against the Senators but is planning to come back as soon as possible. Hopefully that means he will be back on the ice when they face the Hurricanes on Friday. The Blue Jackets didn’t miss a beat and were able to beat the Senators 6-3 after scoring five goals in the third period.
On a lighter and more fun note, before Christmas Jackets coach John Tortorella came out in favor of shooting for an empty net from wherever a player is on the ice. The most common strategy is to wait until the red line, so they don’t commit icing, but not for the Blue Jackets. This is surprising because it is entertaining and fun, where as Tortorella normally has, ahem, somewhat more boring policies and strategies. It will be fun to see if this catches on around the league if the Blue Jackets score empty net goals consistently from their own zone.
4. New York Islanders: 46 Points (21-13-4)
The Islanders have injected more youth in their line up with 2014 fourth round pick Devon Toews breaking into the NHL. He joined the team on December 23rd and has played in all four games since joining the team. He also joins Josh Ho-Sang who is getting consistent time ever since cracking the lineup on December 15th. Since getting the two 2014 draft picks together, the Islanders have won four straight games by a combined score of 16-5.
Though only Ho-Sang has found the scoreboard with two goals, they seem to have really injected the team with offense. Since December 23rd, the Islanders rank 9th in shots for with 125 or 31.25 shots per game. Up until this point the Isles ranked second to last with only 948 shots per game or 27.88 shots per game. Four games is a very small sample size, but it appears that the two youngsters are making an immediate impact in the roster and are helping to generate more chances for the offense without sacrificing on the defensive end.
5. New York Rangers: 41 Points (17-15-7)
The Rangers are performing better than nearly everyone expected before the season and find themselves in fifth in the division. Although some are calling for the Rangers to keep their team together or add pieces, this would be a terrible move for the team’s future. While the Rangers are in fifth, they had a record of just 4-5-3 in December, and that includes winning their last two games of the month. They also lost last night 7-2 to the Penguins, which shows what happens when they play skilled teams.
While it may seem tempting to declare a rebuild over early and make another push, it is more important to make sure that the team and organization is fully stocked. The Rangers do have three rookies who have played significant time this year in Brett Howden, Filip Chytil, and Lias Andersson. But they still need to work on their defensive depth and finish plugging the holes. It does them no good to not have a fire sale at the deadline to increase their odds in the draft lottery as much as possible.
6. New Jersey Devils: 37 Points (15-17-7)
The Devils placed Taylor Hall on Injured Reserve retroactive to December 23. Hall had missed three straight games with a lower-body injury before the move was made allowing for an additional roster spot before heading on a four-game road trip to the Southwest. This is the second time that Hall has missed games for this lower-body injury. He initially missed time earlier in December, when he missed two games on December 14th and 15th.
This will likely lead the Devils to keep him out longer until he is fully recovered. He tried to come back after four games last time, but he was unable to continue playing. There is also no rush because the Devils are climbing the standings, winning three games in a row including back-to-back shutouts against the Hurricanes and the Canucks before losing last night to the Stars. It makes more sense to let him fully recover while the team is playing well, which will allow for a better push later in the season rather than continuing to have him miss time here and there for the rest of the season.
7. Carolina Hurricanes: 37 Points (16-17-5)
The Hurricanes now sit in seventh place in the Metro after a 3-6-1 record in their last 10 games and now sit 10 points out of a playoff spot. The big question going into 2019 is how the team and organization will respond to this. Even last year when being a couple of points out of a playoff spot, the Canes sold at the deadline. But how much selling can they do? The organization is already packed with young depth, but lack top skill.
If the Canes were looking to sell, their only pending UFAs are Justin Williams, Jordan Martinook, and Micheal Ferland. Ferland would be the obvious target for most teams, but that would be catastrophic for the Canes. This is a player they swapped a young forward for and is one of the only legitimate top six players on the team. The Canes need to lock him up for years to come to also show the players and fans that they are ready to commit and build the team.
Storm Surge: Bowling for Svech pic.twitter.com/xjssEuZp97— Carolina Hurricanes (@NHLCanes) January 1, 2019
But when looking to buy, things can get dicey. Just look at the moves that Peter Chiarelli is making. He’s under the gun and it’s playoffs or bust for him. Now he is forcing trades and trading picks for marginal players and actually making the Oilers worse. The Canes cannot afford one of these kinds of moves because they don’t have the skill depth to be able to miss on a big trade.
8. Philadelphia Flyers: 35 Points (15-19-5)
The Flyers now find themselves in the basement of the division with four straight losses. They are 3-4-1 since firing Dave Hakstol which maintains almost the exact same pace the team was on when they fired him. Hakstol coached 31 games (just under four times as many games as Scott Gordon) with a 12-15-4 record. This shows that the team is struggling based more on talent level than say coaching. When looking at the Flyers it is easy to see what is going on, they have the league’s worst goaltending.
The Flyers have started five different goalies: Brian Elliott, Carter Hart, Anthony Stolarz, Michal Neuvirth, and Calvin Pickard, all of whom have played at least five games. They respectively rank 31st, 51st, 67th, 68th, and 69th out of 72 goalies who have played five or more games. Elliott is the only goalie with a save percentage of over .900 with a .911. Hart was looked at as the savior after winning his first two games. However, he has since lost his last three games, including getting pulled against the Hurricanes when he let up three goals on seven shots.