The number of Metro Division teams struggling or unhappy with their play outnumber those who celebrated the holiday break with a smile. There are surprise teams, rebounding teams, a couple of strong teams, and … there are the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In the words of Marshall Mathers, would the real Penguins please stand up? Please stand up.
The Penguins played a solid, patient, if less than perfect, game and beat the Carolina Hurricanes for the first time in a couple of seasons. It was a significant win, a vital two points, and should have been a boost.
Instead, the Penguins used the win to essentially snooze through the next two periods against the Ottawa Senators before an intense two-goal third period rally forced overtime.
In overtime, the Penguins did their best slapstick routine and lost on the first shot of OT.
It was yet another mindboggling performance from a team that more often chides than praises itself after games. Since all Metro teams have played more than 30 games, we’re removing the Cinderella tags from the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. They will enter the new year in a playoff position and have earned their keep with significant wins despite significant lineup shortages or slumps.
Eastern Conference Power Rankings
We just like the Bruins’ ability to play defense a little more than we like the New York Rangers. Despite the standings flip, Boston has a tougher schedule with the Atlantic Division, and they’re just always tough to score on. Charlie Coyle has filled the role no one thought likely, becoming a capable top-six center.
2. New York Rangers
The most points in the conference and most regulation wins. The Rangers are formidable. Mika Zbinejad is solid at both ends of the rink. Blake Wheeler is starting to fill the net with seven points (3-4-7) in his last six games. The total represents more than half of his season total to date. The impressive re-emergence of Jonathan Quick, who looked more like an EBUG than an NHL goalie last season, behind Igor Shesterkin, combined with a solid defense, means the Rangers are legit.
We’re veering off the map just a bit. The Panthers have the fifth most points in the conference but the fourth-best goal differential. We like Florida’s mix of grittiness with Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett and pure talent with Sasha Barkov and Sam Reinhart. Penguins fans might cringe to know Evan Rodrigues is riding on the Panthers’ top line, too. The Panthers aren’t perfect, but their playoff experience and the fire they showed in the brawl with Vegas (who beat them in the Stanley Cup Final last June) demonstrates their commitment to winning,
4. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are in the gaggle of teams fighting for a playoff spot, so how can they be in the top four in our power rankings? Easy, they’re one of two teams in the Eastern Conference with seven wins in their last 10 games. They have the best goalie in the game, a dump truck full of experience, and we’re not holding their disinterest in the early part of the regular season against them.
From Nikita Kucherov, who is submitting a Hart Trophy-worthy season to the rest of the veteran crew who are warming up, Tampa Bay will own a playoff spot before long.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
You love their talent. You love the drama. You shouldn’t love their inability to protect leads, the growing questions about goaltending, and the soon-to-explode distractions about pending free agents, such as William Nylander. Austin Matthews might score 65 or more goals, and Toronto needs every one of them to overcome atrocious goaltending.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing this season and the Islanders are looking for a little scoring help. Their minus-4 goal differential tells us a lot about their season. They have an astounding nine overtime losses because holding third period leads has looked like an impossible task. The loser points are propping up the Islanders, and even sixth seems generous.
Their unexpected charge in the Metro Division is both shocking and, in many ways, enjoyable if you can get over a hatred for the Broad Street Bullies. The Flyers might be the most honest team in hockey. They have some lineup questions–coach John Tortorella is still fighting with Morgan Frost to get the best out of him. The defense looks like a problem on paper but has come through with far more effectiveness than expected. Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson, like duck fat, make all the difference.
Alex Ovechkin looks waterlogged. He’s scored just six goals this season, and a pair of those are empty netters. At this pace, he won’t pass Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record until Jaromir Jagr retires at age 65 in 2038. Evgeny Kuznetsov is also struggling. However, the Capitals are finding other ways to win.
Eastern Conference Playoff Hopefulls
They’re starting to figure it out, though their goaltending has been predictably weak. They have lots of money to spend because of Dougie Hamilton’s near-season-ending injury.
10. Carolina Hurricanes
Their experience and recent successes put them ahead of the Detroit Red Wings. Carolina waived goalie Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen is injured. Their backup goalie was called up from the ECHL. They’ve already had one recent closed-door meeting, and they did the unthinkable–lost to the Penguins.
They’re close but not yet better than the top four teams in the Atlantic Division. Like most of the other teams fighting for a playoff spot, the Red Wings are getting by with a mass of bodies in net, but not necessarily anything resembling a No. 1 goalie. Detroit is still a bit soft, though fast. They’re not quite deep enough, either, but they are almost here.
12. Pittsburgh Penguins
We think they’re 12. They could snap to and rocket to fifth. They could also just as easily fall apart and plummet to the bottom of the East with the Ottawa Senators. Unlike the teams ahead of them, the Penguins are getting sparkling goaltending from Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic. Their top line with Sidney Crosby is a wagon. Yet, everything else is in flux. Coach Mike Sullivan predicted more changes on defense before the Penguins lost 5-4 in OT to Ottawa Saturday. He’ll probably make a few more changes in the lineup, as the middle six has gone ice cold for weeks, and the power play went from barren tundra to red hot back to incompetent in the span of a week.
A team with at least four Hall of Famers should be better. It should be far more consistent and a lot hungrier.
Eastern Conference Bottom Dwellers
13.) Montreal Canadiens: A scrappy young team exceeding expectations.
14.) Buffalo Sabres: A young team that is a huge disappointment this season.
15.) Ottawa Senators: The other wildly disappointing team that should be in the playoff hunt.
16.) Columbus Blue Jackets: Nothing has worked for several years. Patrik Laine has been a scratch and Johnny Gaudreau a wall flower. No hope.