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Sunday Standings: Cream rising to the top in the Metropolitan Division

Columbus and New Jersey are slipping back, and there are familiar faces solidly in the playoff hunt now in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Welcome back to Sunday Standings, where we take a snapshot of how the Metropolitan Division is going and talk about which teams are on the rise and fall. As the calendar starts working into December, there are a bunch of familiar faces in the top half of the standings now.

The Capitals put their stamp on first place for this week with a 4-2 win over Carolina. After starting the season and basically not losing, the Hurricanes have endured a tough stretch of late; going 1-4-1 from November 22nd - December 2nd with losses to bad teams such as Chicago and Seattle. Carolina may have had a “get right” game last night with a 6-2 smackdown of Buffalo to get back on track, but it’s more evidence to show no team is without their highs and lows over the course of a long season.

For Washington, that big Carolina win was followed up by blowing a 4-1 lead over Florida (turning it into a 5-4 regulation loss) and a 3-2 lead over Chicago (seeing that eventually become a 4-3 shootout loss). The Caps also rebounded with a win last night over Columbus, but even as the first place team they don’t have it on cruise control right now. Washington just got TJ Oshie and Conor Sheary back into the lineup, and Nicklas Backstrom doesn’t look too far behind them, health might be starting to turn back in their favor a bit (despite two recent COVID listings in Nic Dowd and Trevor van Riemsdyk).

While Washington and Carolina have had their ebbs and flows as of late, one team that has been all gas and no brakes as of lately is the Rangers. They have only lost one game since Nov. 7th! Many of these have been close, one-goal wins, but NYR is finding ways to pair Vezina-level goaltending from Igor Shesterkin with star power from Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox and Chris Kreider and that’s been enough to win. Six straight W’s for the Blueshirts, as they have pushed their season record out to a very impressive level.

The Pens have kinda felt two steps forward, one step back for the most part on their Western road trip, but that’s still enough to show some forward progress. One big help is that almost all the lower-half teams in the division are struggling big time right now.

Columbus and New Jersey were by far the biggest early season pleasant surprises in the division. Hell, you could even throw the Flyers in there with a 6-2-2 start that put them towards the top of the heap for a while.

All three of these teams though have hit the skids lately - the Blue Jackets have lost four straight, the Devils are 1-4-1 since Thanksgiving, Philadelphia is only scoring 1.69 goals since Nov. 4th and talk has begun among fans about firing the coach.

None of these teams have dug too deep of holes that they couldn’t recover from in the next 50-55 games of this season, but all their good will and progress from strong 10 game season starts has more than evaporated. All of these teams have lost ground and will need to have to pass a few teams like Pittsburgh, NYR, Carolina (and Boston out of the division) to make the playoffs. This is probably already unlikely to happen, given true talent levels of all the teams involved, and only has been slipping away further for teams like CBJ and NJD with every game this week.

And then you have the Islanders, who have now lost ten straight (0-8-2). They haven’t won in their brand new arena this season (0-4-1) which feels like some deal with dark forces coming back to collect after a few years of strong results. Barring some super-long winning streak, unlike the other teams in the division, the Islanders might have dug a hole to deep to climb out of right now.

Games of the week:

Pittsburgh @ Washington, Fri Dec 10th: The Caps battered the Pens 6-1 in the first matchup of the season in November, and might have Backstrom back for this game. Can Pittsburgh get a result on the road?

Philadelphia @ New Jersey, Wed Dec 8th: The “somebody’s got to win this” bowl. This is a tricky spot for the Flyers, it’s the third game in four days and then right after this they go to the west coast. If Philly loses this game, is Alain Vigneault going with them on that trip? Jack Hughes is back from injury for New Jersey, who should be a tough out at home.

Carolina @ Calgary Flames, Thurs Dec 9th: Yeah, it’s an out of conference game and not all that critical for the standings. As a styles clash and for two of the top teams in the league right now, this could be one of the best pure hockey games of the week around the NHL circuit.

New Jersey @ New York (I), Sat Dec 11th: If the Islanders get on track, this would be the week to do it with three home games (CHI, NSH, NJD) and a trip to Ottawa making for a pretty favorable setup. Will they start to finally make a move this week?

Penguin Playoff Chances

Here’s what some models say for Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes at this point:

Moneypuck: 75.2%
The Athletic: 82%
Ineffective Math: 93.6 point projection with a 90.9 point playoff cut line (prior to last night’s win)