The quarter mark in the NHL season has brought more pressure and urgency than any in recent memory. The old lions, such as the Pittsburgh Penguins, that are pressed tight to the salary cap are raging against the dying of the light while rebuilding teams with many players not yet 25 years old are fighting for their place in the NHL playoffs after years of relegated spectatorship.
The Penguins are the great unknown in the Metro Division. Are they the team with five shutouts in the first 20 games, or the 10-10-0 trading sideways team that has already alternated extended losing spells and a winning streak?
Are the rebuilding Philadelphia Flyers for real? The third-place Flyers and their fans braced for a rough year, but the return of Cam Atkinson and a healthy goalie Carter Hart have propelled the orange and black into a playoff spot.
This is the first of the PHN’s weekly Metro Divison power rankings.
1. New York Rangers
At 15-4-1, the Blueshirts already have a seven-point division lead. They’re stout in goal (Igor Shesterkin), have a strong skating defense, and they’re getting depth scoring from players such as Alexis Lafreniere. The Rangers have the best goal differential in the Eastern Conference (+17).
Coming Schedule: Red Wings, @Predators, Sharks
2. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes have struggled to find their footing this season, except when they face the Penguins, of course. The high-intensity man-to-man defense and transition game is the Penguins’ kryptonite. Carolina has traded wins and losses but are 6-3-0 in their last nine games.
None of the three Hurricanes goalies have save percentages above .900. Except when they face the Penguins, of course.
Schedule: @Flyers, Islanders, Sabres, @Jets
3. Washington Capitals
With the Penguins, the Capitals are the “other” old lion in the Metro. They’ve overcome a slow start by Alex Ovechkin, the departure of Nick Backstrom, lesser output from Tom Wilson, and almost no output from T.J. Oshie.
Despite the adversity, the Capitals are 10-6-2 and have the second-best winning percentage in the division.
@Kings, @Ducks, @Golden Knights, @Coyotes
4. Philadelphia Flyers
Because of their emotional engagement, they’re for real until they show otherwise. Coach John Tortorella can work with less talented players who care. The Flyers have an abundance of care even as their blue line is perilously inexperienced and lacks pedigree.
After Travis Sanheim, who leads the team with 16 points (2-14-16) in 21 games, is a much lesser-known cast.
The Flyers are one of three Metro Division teams with a positive goal differential (+6). The Rangers and Penguins are the other two. Getting Atkinson and Sean Couturier back, after Couturier missed all of last season, has bolstered the Flyers lineup. They’re a tough game.
Schedule: Hurricanes, Devils, @Penguins, Penguins
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins trail both the Islanders and Capitals in the standings but have a significantly better goal differential. When the team dials in, they win. When they stray, they lose.
The Penguins are a +11 in goal differential and a top-10 NHL team in scoring chance differential. Captain Sidney Crosby is filling the net with 13 goals and 24 points in 20 games.
The Penguins are supposedly better than their record.
Goalie Tristan Jarry has elevated his save percentage to .918, and a recent surge in bottom-six scoring bodes well. The good Penguins are a top-two team in the division. The bad Penguins are a bottom-two team.
Schedule: @Predators, @Lightning, Flyers, @Flyers
6. New York Islanders
The Islanders are desperate for defense. They plucked Mike Reilly off waivers from Florida. They’re 8-6-6 and have only three regulation wins in their last 10.
If the Islanders win a few of those OT games, they’re 11-6-3, which is a much different outlook than 12 losses against eight wins. However, they’ve squandered opportunities with sloppy play and caved in on themselves in OT. The Islanders are 3-5-3 when tied after the first period and, surprisingly, 1-2-3 when tied after two periods.
No one is comfortable with the Islanders, including the Islanders.
Schedule: @Devils, @Hurricanes, @Panthers,
7. New Jersey Devils
The Devils should be at the top of the division but continue to languish. After 20 games, expectations are replaced by results, and the Devils haven’t produced. They’ve dealt with injuries to top centers Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, but they’re not the first to be missing top players.
Neither Vitek Vanecek nor Akira Schmid has a save percentage above .900, and goaltending appears to be the problem the team feared. New Jersey isn’t quite in Edmonton’s class in terms of desperation, but goaltending can submarine a season. The Devils are shopping the NHL trade market, but nothing has stuck, yet.
However, the Devils are just four points out of a playoff spot.
Schedule: Islanders, @Flyers, Sharks,
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets are a mess. It began before the season when coach Mike Babcock crossed personal lines with his players and was terminated before opening training camp. Patrick Laine was embarrassed as a healthy scratch. With a 7-12-4 record, there doesn’t appear to be much hope.
Laine, an All-Star winger, has been forced to center because the roster is bereft of pivots. Top prospect Kent Johnson was sent to the AHL. This situation hasn’t hit bottom yet.
Schedule: Canadians, Senators, @Bruins