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Metropolitan Division Weekly Roundup: Clear Top Four Have Emerged

The Carolina Hurricanes are sitting pretty tied for first place in the division with games in hand over the next three teams in the standings.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

1. Carolina Hurricanes: 50 Points (24-7-2)

It’s been an eventful couple of days for the Carolina Hurricanes. After a slew of goaltender injuries throughout the organization, the Canes signed University of Minnesota goaltender, Jack LaFontaine, to an entry-level contract. LaFontaine was drafted in the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft. He took a couple of seasons to hit his stride in college but he won the award for being the top NCAA goaltender and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker award.

He was eligible to sign after last season but decided to return for his senior season. This had many people nervous because he would have been able to sign anywhere like Adam Fox. However, now that he has signed with the Canes, he will become a restricted free agent at the end of the year, meaning the Canes will have normal team control over him moving forward.

LaFontaine has been added to the taxi squad and could end up serving as the backup this week either against the Blue Jackets on Thursday or the Canucks on Saturday. GM Don Waddell has mentioned that they want to see what they have in him as soon as possible and with Antti Raanta sidelined with an injury, we could see him get NHL game time.

2. New York Rangers: 50 Points (23-10-4)

The Rangers season is very much a tale of two goaltenders. Igor Shesterkin has proven to be one of the best goalies in the league while Alexandar Georgiev has probably played himself out of a starting role with another team. Shesterkin has only played three games since returning from a groin injury but was added to COVID protocol just before the Rangers game against the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday. He is eligible to return as early as Thursday for the Rangers game against the San Jose Sharks. The Rangers lost two of their last three games.

The Rangers also got Artemi Panarin back from COVID protocol on Monday but did lose head coach, Gerard Gallant, to protocol on the same day. AHL coach Kris Knoblauch is filling in while Gallant is out. This is the second time that Knoblauch has filled in for a coach due to protocol, when he filled in for David Quinn last season. Gallant will miss Thursday’s game against San Jose and will likely also miss Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

3. Washington Capitals: 49 Points (20-8-9)

The Caps have now lost four games in a row with an 0-2-2 record. Over the last week, the Caps have given a small audition to Zach Fucale in the net. Fucale played in three games and made three total appearances. He set the NHL Record for the longest shutout streak to start a career at 138:17. His two games were the first NHL action that he has seen since mid-November. He ended up getting pulled in Monday’s game when he let up four goals on 16 shots. The Caps returned the goaltender to the AHL.

It seems to be a weird time for the Caps to be giving a rookie goalie a mid-season audition, but the Caps could be looking at adding a goaltender to the roster. Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have had just average results this year. They rank 39th and 46th respectively in the league for save percentage for goalies who have played at least seven games. Fucale being pulled in their last game doesn’t inspire confidence and could lead the Caps to look at adding through a deadline deal.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins: 47 Points (21-9-5)

Evgeni Malkin made his season debut Tuesday night against the Anaheim Ducks. He had been practicing with the team for the past few weeks, but this was his first game action since having knee surgery in June. The Penguins had no issues with putting him back in his familiar second center position in the lineup. His return to the second line pushed Jeff Carter over to the wing from center but still on the second line with Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen. Malkin also returned to the top power-play unit. The unit needs a shot in the arm, they are currently bottom 10 in the league with a 17.5% success rate with the man advantage.

Despite Malkin’s return, the Penguins were still down more players heading into last night’s game. They lost Zach Aston-Reese and Danton Heinen to COVID protocol. They join Bryan Rust, Brock McGinn, and Casey DeSmith. The Penguins have yet to play a game with their entire roster. While their roster has been hit hard by COVID, they have only had five games postponed so far this season and no planned games for Canada for the next month. This means they should only have to play during what was the Olympic break to catch up on the season. They won’t have to worry about having a condensed schedule in the spring.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets: 33 Points (16-17-1)

The Blue Jackets have suspended winger Gregory Hoffman indefinitely. Hoffman returned to Switzerland for the birth of his first child but has decided to remain in Switzerland and not return to the NHL. If he wants to play in Switzerland, he will need to have his current contract terminated. Hoffman may sound familiar, he was a long-term prospect for the Canes, but they were never successful in convincing him to make the jump to North America and he only wanted a one-way contract.

The Blue Jackets offered a seventh-round pick for his rights this offseason and gave him the one-way contract he desired. Hoffman struggled to fit in the NHL. In 24 games he has just two goals and five assists. While the deal didn’t end up working out the low-risk deal allows the Blue Jackets to cut bait without much pain.

6. Philadelphia Flyers: 33 Points (13-15-7)

Many in the team have complained about COVID protocols and having to play games without key pieces over the last week. They did not have any relief from the league, but the NHL did decide to cancel Tuesday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes despite the Flyers having players return from protocol. The Flyers also received good news on both Monday and Tuesday that no new players would enter protocol so they would only have three players out for a possible game against the Hurricanes. The Flyers also did not have to suspend any team activities and practiced yesterday morning.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to postpone a game with a team only missing three players. The Hurricanes have plenty of reasons to be upset as this affects them in multiple ways. They already had to play in games where they were shorthanded the entire game and had multiple games without some of their best players. Now this game will have to be re-scheduled which will also cause a more condensed schedule down the line. There is a complete lack of consistency in decision-making from the league, which is nothing new at this point.

7. New Jersey Devils: 33 Points (14-17-5)

The New Jersey Devils had their most recent game against the Tampa Bay Lightning postponed due to having too many players in protocol. The Devils had eight players in protocol last weekend, but are starting to get some players back before the scheduled game against the New York Islanders tomorrow. Pavel Zacha, Andreas Johnsson, and Yegor Sharangovich all returned to practice yesterday and are hoping to get more players back today. At the same time, the Devils are still adding players and staff to protocol, so they are not out of the woods yet.

Even if they can play their game tomorrow against the Islanders, the Devils already have their two following games postponed due to being in Canada. This should allow the Devils to get their full lineup back for their next scheduled game against the Arizona Coyotes which is set for next Wednesday.

8. New York Islanders: 26 Points (10-12-6)

The Islanders are in a really tough spot, they have played just two games since Dec. 20 and aren’t set to play another game until tomorrow against the New Jersey Devils. However, that game is no longer guaranteed to happen. Both teams added players and staff to COVID protocols with the Isles adding Ryan Pulock and Barry Trotz yesterday. With the devils having more locker room staff and another goalie added there is a case for the NHL to postpone.

After seeing the NHL postpone the Canes/Flyers game for four players, are they going to make these two teams play? There are more outside circumstances for this game. The NHL will end up pushing to get the game played since the Isles have the most heavily impacted schedule. The two teams are two of the closest teams geographically so the NHL could use the logistical ease as a reason to postpone the game. The biggest issue is the fact that there is no consistency in the decision making so teams will have no idea what to prepare for moving forward.