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Metropolitan Division Weekly Roundup: Wild Card Race Heats Up

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Three teams are separated by just two points for the two wild card positions in the Metropolitan Division.

Carolina Hurricanes v Washington Capitals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

1. Washington Capitals: 67 Points (31-11-5)

The Capitals re-signed Nicklas Backstrom to a five-year, $46 million contract, averaging out to a $9.2 million AAV and equating to 11.29% of the salary cap. The percentage of the cap is the exact same as his expiring contract, $6.7 million, when he signed it in 2010. This is a great contract for Backstrom, who negotiated his own contract this time around. 2025 will be a tough off season for the Caps as the contracts for Evgeny Kuznetsov, Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie all expire at the end of the 2024-2025 season.

This is the first domino to fall for a couple of different moves. First, Alex Ovechkin’s contract expires after next year. It has been discussed that they would time up his contract with Backstrom’s so that they would expire at the same time and retire after. The other is that the Caps will likely be moving on from Braden Holtby. They have an estimated $10 million in cap space tied up with four other players due for new contracts at the end of the season. While the only player that could carry a big hit is Radko Gudas, they also need to save space to re-sign Jakub Vrana and Ovechkin in the following off season, so locking up too much space would mean trading a significant piece.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins: 63 Points (29-12-5)

Since Sidney Crosby was injured on November 9th, the Penguins have the best record in the league of 20-6-4. This equates to 44 points in the standings, four more than the Caps and seven more than the Hurricanes over that span. Prior to that span Evgeni Malkin had recorded just four points and struggled to produce, but during Crosby’s absence he recorded 43 points including 13 goals. Malkin’s 43 points was the 6th most of the league during that span.

Crosby returned to action on Tuesday night and had a four-point game, including an incredible assist from below the net across the crease for a goal. His four points account for over a quarter of his season points and now has 21 points in 18 games. Now everyone is waiting to see if Crosby and Malkin can both perform at high-levels, or if one of them drops back off and perform as they did at the beginning of the season.

3. New York Islanders: 60 Points (28-13-4)

The Islanders have struggled in January and had just a 2-3-1 record heading into their game against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday, which was JUST what they needed. The Islanders scored eight goals against the league’s worst team. One of those goals was the first NHL career goal for rookie Noah Dobson off an bizarre deflection from a Red Wings defenseman. This brings his career point total up to four points in 18 games played. The rookie now hopes that the monkey is off his back and he will be able to produce in a more consistent fashion moving forward.

The Islanders’ last two games, which were both high scoring games, came without center Casey Cizikas. Cizikas missed the last two games after getting hit in the family jewels by a David Pastrnak power play rip. The injury is not expected to be long term, but the Islanders did call up Otto Koivula to fill in. Cizikas normally plays on the fourth line but has been a great bottom six player for them. He has nine goals and four assists in 38 games played. For a fourth line player you will take it. They will need him when they try to avenge their earlier 6-2 loss to the Rangers tonight.

4. Carolina Hurricanes: 56 Points (27-17-2)

The Hurricanes continued their dominant record against the Western Conference with back-to-back shutouts against Pacific Division opponents last week with shutouts from each goaltender. They have still struggled against the Metro Division but will end their season series with the Caps with a 2-2-0 record. After winning their first two games against Braden Holtby early in the season, they lost their last two against Ilya Samsonov. They have only scored three goals against Samsonov compared to nine against Holtby. With the Canes in the first wild card position, they could be seeing a potential matchup with the Caps again in the first round.

Rod Brind’Amour said that there is no reason to rush forward Justin Williams back into the lineup while the team is playing well. I would think the inability to generate chances against the Caps on Monday could force that timeline up. The Canes played with lines in practice on Wednesday, including moving Aho to the wing with Erik Haula to help his scoring. The top center has yet to score in 2020 but has four assists in his last six games. While the Canes do need to get Aho back up to speed, moving him to the wing would reduce his impact on the ice.

The Canes now sit four points out of third place in the division and at the playoff line. If they cannot win against the charging Blue Jackets tonight, you would think that Williams would be coming in no matter what against the Ducks on Friday. Any game against a Metro opponent is now a must win and with a five-game home stand coming up, it’s a perfect time to inject energy and skill into the lineup with Williams.

5. Philadelphia Flyers: 56 Points (25-16-6)

The Flyers earned just their 10th road win last night to improve their road record to 10-13-2. They are a much better team at home, where they have a record of 15-3-4 at the Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers have been two separate teams at home and away from home. At home they score 1.04 more goals per game than they do on the road. They also have the second-best goals against at home with just 2.05 per game. On the road they are the second worst, giving up 3.80 goals per game. It is remarkable the difference of play based on where they are.

Before the game the Flyers had to waive Chris Stewart due to an injury to their goalie Carter Hart. Hart is expected to miss two to three weeks with a lower abdominal strain that he suffered in practice this week. With the $7 million deal to James van Riemsdyk, the team is up against the cap and will have to shuffle some cap hits around to save as much space as they can for the trade deadline assuming that they will be buyers. Let’s not forget they fired their last GM in the middle of the season for being too passive.

6. Columbus Blue Jackets: 54 Points (23-15-8)

It has been a tale of two seasons for Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins this year. Before the injury to starter Joonas Korpisalo, Merzlikins hadn’t won a game. In fact, from the start of the season until December 29th, he had a .889 save percentage with a 3.41 GAA and an 0-4-4 record. Since then he has been the hottest goalie in the league. His .950 save percentage is the best in the league in that time, with a 1.64 goals against average and a record of 6-2-0. He’s giving up almost two few goals per game than he was as a backup and — oh yeah — he has recorded back-to-back shutouts.

His performance is a huge reason why the Blue Jackets are climbing the standings and are just two points behind the Flyers for the second wild card position in the Eastern Conference. Heading into Korpisalo’s injury the team had recorded points in nine straight games with a 6-0-3 record. Between the two goaltenders the team had a 12-game point streak with a 8-0-4 record. The team is on fire since December 9th: they have a 12-4-2 record after losing three straight to start December.

7. New York Rangers: 48 Points (22-19-4)

The Rangers are in the middle of a three headed monster of goaltenders. The Canes have experience in this, and we know that it didn’t end well and ultimately led to the departure of Scott Darling. The weird thing about this for the Rangers is that they waited until Alexandar Georgiev was no longer waiver eligible before calling up Igor Shesterkin which makes it harder to navigate, unless they are willing to shuffle Shesterkin up and down depending on performance. What this could point to is a more immediate trade of Georgiev, but again any team that acquires him will have to keep him in the NHL or else risk losing him on waivers.

This could point to a trade with the Maple Leafs who have terrible backup goaltending. Recently GM Jeff Gorton also mentioned that he would be willing to eat 50% of Chris Kreider’s salary if the offer was right, so maybe they are just really posturing up for the trade deadline.

The Rangers are in a unique cap spot because next year they have $7.5 million in dead cap with buyouts, so they can’t make too big of a run on players in the offseason and could suspend the rebuild for an additional season. However, after next season they have $46 million in projected cap space without the cap increases, so it will be an interesting 24 months at Penn Plaza.

8. New Jersey Devils: 41 Points (17-22-7)

The firing of GM Ray Shero may be justified by the team’s performance but comes at an awkward time. They allowed him to fire the head coach and trade the team’s biggest asset in Taylor Hall before deciding to move on. That normally seems like a deal that you would have a new general manager make but could come down to the fact that management was not happy with the return.

They will now move forward with Tom Fitzgerald taking over as interim general manager with Martin Brodeur as an advisor. Fitzgerald, you may remember, served behind the bench as an assistant coach earlier in the season, so he is having quite the roller coaster ride. Shero tried to make big moves this offseason to help the Devils chances of making the playoffs and keeping Hall.

However, not addressing goaltending eventually did him in. The Devils have the second worst goals against per game and fourth worst even strength save percentage. The problem with the move is that much like the Flyers move last season, Devils ownership mentioned not wanting to wait for a rebuild and they want to get to the playoffs soon. The problem is they just don’t have the pieces in play to do that. Forcing trades and more high-dollar signings won’t help the Devils rocket up the standings, and now it’s even harder without a Hart caliber player in Hall.