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Metropolitan Division Weekly Roundup: Shakeup at the Top and More COVID Postponements

The Carolina Hurricanes drop the top spot to the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders games are postponed due to COVID.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

1. Washington Capitals: 33 Points (14-4-5)

The Washington Capitals had an epic collapse Tuesday night, letting up four goals in the third period to lose a 5-4 game to the Florida Panthers. The Caps were outshot 27-2 in the third period as the Panthers were able to seize the momentum and pour on the goals while at home. This has been the first time that the Caps have looked the part of an injured team. They came into the season as a thing team and are currently without Anthony Mantha, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Justin Schultz, and Conor Sheary.

The Caps' fourth line is completely made up of Hershey Bears and they have players who started the year in Hershey sprinkled throughout the lineup. Aliaksei Protas is playing on the top line, Connor McMichael is playing on a second line that is centered by Lars Eller, and the third line is Carl Hagelin, Nic Dowd, and Garnet Hathaway. There aren’t many goals when you are looking at the Caps roster, but they are still getting it done including wins over the Panthers and the Hurricanes last weekend that has propelled them into first place.

2. Carolina Hurricanes: 31 Points (15-5-1)

The Carolina Hurricanes have struggled in their last five games with a 1-3-1 record, doing their best to undermine their fast start to the season. The Canes played their most recent game without three of their starting defensemen, with Ethan Bear, Tony DeAngelo and Brett Pesce out in COVID protocol. Bear is eligible to return as early as Thursday. The good news for the Canes is the advanced analytics said the new call-ups were the best defensemen on the team and led the defense in Corsi, relative Corsi, and goals for.

The Canes do have two of the bottom three teams in the league in the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres in their next two games, both at home. They desperately need to win both of these games before they head out for another five-game road trip to Western Canada. They need to get their forwards going and they need to get their power playback in action. The Canes have not scored a goal with a man advantage in their last five games, which is a huge reason they have been unable to win close games or grab momentum in their games.

A shining light for the Canes in the last week has been Jesperi Kotakaniemi, who has registered four points in his last three games. His six goals are now tied for third on the team with Jesper fast and he is only behind Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho. It’s also not shocking that Kotkaniemi’s assists lag behind his goal total because he is playing on the fourth line. He has done an incredible job of both creating his own goals and finishing them, he isn’t playing with talent that is going to make him look good.

3. New York Rangers: 29 Points (13-4-3)

In just over a week’s span, the New York Rangers have had two of their games postponed due to other teams’ COVID outbreaks. The Rangers already have 11 back-to-back sets, but the two re-scheduled games could add more to their calendar. This is already a big deal for most teams, but when you look at the Ranger's goaltending situation it could be magnified. Backup Alexandar Georgiev has started just five games with a 2-1-1 record this season. He was pulled in his most recent start against Buffalo on Nov. 21, letting in four goals on 18 shots. More back-to-backs mean more starts for the backup goaltender.

The Montreal Canadiens hired the former Rangers GM, Jeff Gorton, to an Executive Vice President role. While it isn’t a major impact for the Rangers it will be interesting to see if he has any interest in his former draft picks/prospects. Just think of Ron Francis taking and signing multiple former draft picks while setting up shop in Seattle. The most interesting piece could be Vitali Kravtsov who wants a change of scenery and has five goals in eight games with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL. The 21-year-old winger was originally a ninth overall pick by the Gorton-led Rangers in 2108. While it is unlikely, it is something fun to watch.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins: 25 Points (10-7-5)

With a win on Monday, the Pittsburgh Penguins moved to 6-1-0 in their last seven games. Jake Guentzel also scored a goal in their win over the Calgary Flames which was his team-leading ninth of the season. This also extended his current point streak to 10 games, the longest streak of his career. The Penguins knew that they were going to have to make up for lost time with their COVID outbreaks and injuries and they are doing just that and are hitting their stride. They are a team that no one wants to face right now.

The biggest news out of Pittsburgh is the purchase agreement with the Fenway Sports Group for $900 million. The deal is pending acceptance from the NHL Board of Governors, which is expected to pass unanimously. Hall of Fame former Pittsburgh Penguin, Mario Lemieux, will stay on as a minority stakeholder and will still be involved with the NHL operations. Fenway Sports Group is a unique organization that owns the Boston Red Sox, Liverpool Football Club, and Roush Fenway Racing.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets: 24 Points (12-8-0)

The Columbus Blue Jackets have now let up six goals in each of their last two games losing by a combined 12-3 score. The most troubling issue for Columbus is that both goalies played in these games. First, the Blues got six by Joonas Korpisalo on 33 shots. Last night Elvis Merzlikins let up three goals on his first nine shots and was benched in the first period for Korpisalo. Last night Korpisalo wasn’t too much better as he let up three shots on 28 shots…struggles all around. Last night the goalies were abused by Filip Forsberg who had four goals in four shots including a natural hat-trick in his second through fourth goals.

A bright spot in the Blue Jackets lineup has been Zach Werenski. He leads the team in time on ice with 26:11 per game this year. That’s up almost two minutes per game over last season when he was playing with Seth Jones. Werenski and the top pairing has been the best possession pair on the team and is the only pair above 50% Corsi. This hasn’t come at the hands of his offense. He is the top-scoring defenseman at .75 points per game which also ranks sixth on the team for points per game.

6. New Jersey Devils: 22 Points (9-7-4)

The New Jersey Devils had two announcements this week regarding center, Jack Hughes. First, he returned to play last night against the San Jose Sharks, his first game since dislocating his shoulder on Oct. 19, against the Seattle Kraken. The bigger news surrounding the young center, his new eight-year, $64 million contract extension that was also announced yesterday. While the Devils see him as their future first-line center, the deal seems like a pretty big overpay. Hughes is only 20-years old and just in his third year meaning they are only buying three UFA years in his contract.

The $8 million AAV also looks like they are paying him for his potential and not his current worth. While he has played on some bad teams, he only has 20 goals and 55 points in 119 games played and hasn’t been a consistent eight-million-dollar player. That’s not to say he won’t be in the future, but it’s tough to construct a long-term core when the team overpays players, just look at the Rangers cap crunch. They now have $15.25 million of their cap tied up in their top two centers for the next five years and $9 million with Dougie Hamilton for the next seven seasons. They will need to find value somewhere in their lineup.

7. Philadelphia Flyers: 20 Points (8-8-4)

The Philadelphia Flyers have now lost their last six games which includes back-to-back games letting up five or more goals. Since this streak began on Nov. 18 the Flyers have been the worst possession team in the league with a 41% Corsi at even strength. This has also translated into a 26.9% goals for which is the second-worst in the league. This mark is only better than the New York Islanders who have also been winless in that time span and have been dealing with a major COVID outbreak. This losing streak is not on the goaltending, it’s on the skaters. The issue is, what can they change?

They have had a ton of injuries through both their NHL and AHL rosters which have limited the injury call-up options. The Flyers are still without two centers in Kevin Hayes and Nate Thompson as well as their top defenseman in Ryan Ellis. They don’t have any cap space to make any changes in the lineup and head coach Alain Vigneault is in the third year of a reported five-year $25 million contract. Firing him now would leave a lot of dead money for the owners to pick up. The team has been incredibly short-sided and impatient in building their team, so their only real move is a splash trade.

8. New York Islanders: 12 Points (5-10-2)

The New York Islanders are just the second team in the NHL to have games postponed due to COVID-19. The Islanders had been asking for the league to postpone games for the last couple of weeks due to their outbreak but the league had refused despite already postponing games for the Ottawa Senators. There has not been a specific number of players or a certain trigger for the NHL to postpone games, they have just said they will when an outbreak “cannot be contained.” This has frustrated some teams including the Pittsburgh Penguins who dealt with a tough outbreak and now the Canes could be looking at a similar situation.

The league may have been more hesitant to postpone Islanders games specifically due to the unique challenges of their schedule. The Islanders' last game was on 11/26 and at that time they had played the fewest games in the league which includes the Senators which missed three of their own games. They were already expected to have a heavy back half of the season to make up for their season-opening road trip, now it will be even more condensed than it was already planned to be. That’s not going to be easy for a team trying to chase down a playoff position.