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Metropolitan Division Weekly Roundup: Traffic Jam at the Top

Three teams are within six points of the division lead, and potential playoff series are far from set.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

1. Washington Capitals: 89 Points (41-22-7) 70 GP

The Capitals had their seven-game winning streak snapped on Tuesday, but Alex Ovechkin recorded his 1,200th career point in the 5-3 loss. He is now just the 49th player to record 1,200 points and joined rival Sidney Crosby who did it on March 5th. Ovi now ranks 48th of all time and tied on the all-time list with fellow Capital Dino Ciccarelli. Ovi also has 653 goals which is only behind Brett Hull who had 656 when crossing the 1,200-point mark. This is the second year in a row that he has hit a milestone at game 69, last year he hit the 600-goal mark at the same point in the season.

Despite winning seven in a row before losing to the Penguins, the Caps only have a two-point lead over the Islanders and a four-point lead over the Penguins for first in the division. The Caps are now about to go on the road for a three-game road trip and play the Lightning twice in four games. They will have to avoid a possible trap-game against the tanking Devils in between their bouts with Tampa. This game is tricky since they will most likely rest starting goaltender Braden Holtby so he doesn’t have to play back-to-back games. What does work in Washington’s favor is that the Devils are, uh, hilariously bad.

2. New York Islanders: 87 Points (40-22-7) 69 GP

The Islanders have struggled a bit lately with a 5-4-1 record in their last 10 games, which is the worst of the top four teams in the Metro. Despite this, they are still only two points out of first place behind the Capitals. With the much easier schedule down the stretch, the Islanders are more likely to take the division over Washington. They play five games against teams in a playoff position, where the Caps play seven. The final game of the season will be a showdown between the top two teams which could very well determine the division title.

Robin Lehner, who has missed the last three games with an upper-body injury, may be able to return to play tonight against the Canadiens. Lehner expressed his frustration with Brady Tkachuk and the NHL over the hit that he took that knocked him out of the game against the Senators last Turesday. Thomas Greiss has been able to hold down the fort with a 2-1-0 record including a shutout against the Blue Jackets on Monday.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins: 85 Points (38-23-9) 70 GP

The Penguins have now won four out of their last five games, making it extremely hard for the Hurricanes to pull away in the standings. Tuesday night’s game against the Capitals was also a milestone game for the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin recorded his 1,000th point and is only the 88th player of all time and fifth active player to reach that mark. This was the cherry on top of also ending the Caps’ seven game win-streak, putting the rest of the playoff teams in striking distance.

The bigger piece for the success of the Penguins was Phil Kessel snapping his goal drought Thursday night. Kessel scored his first goal in 17 games when he scored on the power play just two minutes into the first period. Kessel has yet to score an even strength goal since the drought began, but he scored another power play goal on Tuesday against the Caps. If Kessel can fully get back into the groove, it will be a tough issue for the rest of the division heading into the playoffs.

4. Carolina Hurricanes: 83 Points (38-24-7) 69 GP

The Carolina Hurricanes had quite the roller coaster weekend, they got blown out at home 8-1 but then won two straight on the road against the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche. One of the big questions going into the weekend is how the Canes would respond without Micheal Ferland in the top six. Finally, Rod Brind’Amour gave the second line nod to rookie Andrei Svechnikov over Warren Foegele.

The plan was always to get Svechnikov a larger role, but the fear was that he was not ready for an expanded role. This season he has looked strong with the puck out performing his normal line mates but struggled with penalties taking 56 PIMS. On Monday he proved that he is ready for a full-time role on the second line. He scored two goals and had the assist on the game winning goal. The game winning goal and his first goal of the game were on plays that started in the Canes own defensive zone.

This shows that Brind’Amour has full trust in him. Throughout the season Svechnikov has been mainly deployed in offensive scenarios with a 58.89% Offensive zone starts. On Monday, he had zero offensive zone starts, nine neutral zone starts, and three defensive zone starts. All three-defensive zone starts led to a goal. The final goal he was out with the Avs’ sixth attacker on the ice. He was not only out when they needed a big defensive stop, he also earned the empty net goal showing that Brind’Amour is not concerned to play him when they need defense.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets: 81 Points (39-28-3) 70 GP

The Blue Jackets followed up a disappointing 2-0 shutout loss to the Islanders with a massive 7-4 win against the Boston Bruins. The Blue Jackets are just 3-4-0 in the month of March and looked to slump their way out of the playoff race until they turned it around and throttled a previously hot Bruins team. The Blue Jackets now play a crucial game against the Hurricanes which could see them get to the first wild card position. More importantly the Blue Jackets are about to go on the road for four straight games including a lengthy Western Canada road trip for three games.

Columbus will be needing to get more out of their deadline acquisitions if they expect to make the playoffs. When they traded for Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel they were hoping that they would have top line production out of a second line, but that hasn’t been the case. The two former Senators have been able to drive possession with 53.28% and 52.53% Corsi respectively, but the issue is their production on the scoresheet. They combined for just three goals and eight assists with 20 games played between them (11 for Duchene and 9 for Dzingel).

6. Philadelphia Flyers: 76 Points (34-27-8) 69 GP

The Flyers sit just five-points out of a playoff position and everyone in Philadelphia is still holding out hope that they will be able to sneak into a playoff game. However, they will have to do this without Jakub Voracek for two games. Voracek was suspended on a counter hit on Johnny Boychuk. The suspension is controversial since Boychuk appeared to be the one making a run on Voracek and not the other way around, but the NHL upheld the suspension after an appeal. Voracek already served one game, but now he will have to miss a crucial game against the Washington Capitals tonight.

The Flyers are also kicking off a stretch of four straight games against playoff teams and eight of their next nine opponents currently sit in a playoff position. When they are already trying to make up points against the rest of the division this looks like a herculean task. Only two of these games are against teams they are not competing with in the standings for a playoff position. This has the ability to rocket them up the standings — or end their playoff dreams just as quickly.

7. New York Rangers: 69 Points (28-29-13) 70 GP

The Rangers goaltending refuses to let the team go into a full tank. In their past eight games they have had five overtime losses. These five points have proven critical for the Rangers. Without them they would be in sixth to last, one point ahead of the Anaheim Ducks for the fifth pick. As they stand now they are six points out of the top five draft odds. That amounts to about a 6% change in odds for a top three pick and is as far as they are going to be able to fall in the standings before the end of the year.

In other Rangers news, their top pick in last year’s draft, Vitaly Kravtsov, will be unable to sign with the Rangers for the end of the season. His KHL contract runs through April and his current team, Traktor, will not release him from his deal despite their season being over. This isn’t the end of the world for the Rangers, he will just have to come over after their season is over if he wants a head start on training and learning English. The good news is that he will now be ineligible for the Seattle expansion draft.

8. New Jersey Devils: 61 Points (26-37-9) 71 GP

There’s not too much to be excited about when it comes to the Devils and the last month of the season. They have now lost seven straight games and haven’t won consecutive games since February 15-17. From now until the second week in April the only thing that fans can really do is just check Tankathon for draft lottery simulations.

With 10 players out with injuries, New Jersey has had to cycle young players into the NHL lineup. This isn’t all bad as it also allows the team to evaluate their talent. Their most recent callup is defenseman Colton White. White was a fourth-round selection in the 2015 NHL draft. This year he has six goals and 19 assists in 61 games in the AHL. He joins Kevin Rooney, Michael McLeod, and Joseph Anderson as players on entry-level deals on the Devils active roster.