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Sunday Standings: Race for the top spot heats up in the Eastern Division

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Can the Penguins win the division outright? It’s a wild four team battle for the top

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As Sunday begins, here’s our weekly look at the standings in the Eastern division as of this morning:

Unfortunately for the NHL, it looks like there will be very little drama in the final weeks of the season as far as which teams will make the playoffs in the Eastern division. But, there still will be intrigue and a fun finish because just look at how close teams 1-3 are in the standings! (And Boston is right there if they win their games in hand). The real drama and fun will be how the teams shake out from 1-4 in the East.

The last week saw the following results. Green is a win of any sort, a yellow is an OT/SO loss that results in one point in the standings, the dreaded red is a regulation loss

Let’s take a quick trip around the division to talk about the important points of what is going on, with a mind to how it affects the Penguins.

Washington Capitals

The Caps beat two bad teams (by only a goal a piece) and lost the two games against the playoff teams they faced this week. Washington has been towards the top of the standings for most of this season, because they have totally feasted on the poor teams and have racked up a ton of points against them. That’s all well and good, but they’re not going to be playing poor competition for much longer.

New York Islanders

Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Caps was a statement win for the Isles, who tighten back up towards first place. A slip with a regulation loss on Friday against the Rangers prevented NYI from ending the week in sole possession of first place in the division, but they’re right there tied for the lead as we turn into the stretch run for the season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

A 2-1-0 week on the road is a positive one, even against lesser competition. The Pens lost 8-4 to NYR in a game that wasn’t that close, but the good thing is they could have lost 80-4 and it doesn’t really make a difference as long as they took care of business in the other games. After earlier in the season fighting just for a playoff spot, Pittsburgh finds themselves just two points back of both NYI/WSH for first place in the division, with a legit chance to push for home ice advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins have played three games less than all the top teams in the division, and those games in hand will prove to be very critical. If Boston captures all of the points still out there, they’re right in the mix for first place as well. The Bruins picking up four points in three games against the Flyers this week much of drama of the fourth spot in the division for the time being, and possibly for the rest of the season. The bad news for Boston is right now they’re down their top two defensemen (Charlie MacAvoy and Brandon Carlo) and their top two goaltenders (Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak), will they be able to keep up with the top teams, or fall back and give Philly a chance?

Philadelphia Flyers

We billed this week as the Flyers’ last best chance to get in the playoff rate, and it turned out to be a bust when they went 1-1-1 against the Bruins and 1-1-2 overall. It’s nice they didn’t lose much in regulation, but they needed to rack up wins against playoff teams and they failed to do that. The Flyers came into this week 4 points back of the Bruins (who had 2 games in hand on PHI) and the Flyers leave this week 4 points back of the Bruins (who still have 2 games on hand) and the season is that much closer to running out. As a result, Philly’s playoff hopes are on life support with 15 games left.

New York Rangers

The Rangers are a fun team and the best spoiler team to watch down the stretch. New York put up 4+ goals in wins against against the Caps and Pens and Islanders in recent weeks, including a pretty impressive 2-1-0 record this week against just PIT/NYI as stiff competition. They’re too far behind the eight ball to really catch up or make a playoff race out of things, but the Rangers are doubtlessly the most dangerous “weak” team that can and is beating the future playoff teams with regularity.

New Jersey Devils

It was just a 1-3-0 week for New Jersey, who also weakened their team strength for the rest of the year big time with the trade of Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri for future assets. The upcoming weeks will be a big challenge, with NJ’s next eight games coming against either Pittsburgh or New York Rangers, two of the best offenses in the division at the moment.

Buffalo Sabres

Buffalo won a game this week! And they mounted some serious threats in both the other games, though they lost them both in regulation. There pretty much was no where to go from up as far as where the Sabres were a few weeks ago, and they have gone up a modest amount, but they remain a team that’s not going to win many games.

Playoff picture

This is Micah’s model — from Saturday morning, will update once he does for Saturday’s games.

Penguin playoff chances in other models (as of Sunday morning):

The Athletic: 98%:
Moneypuck: 97.4%

Magic number

It’s magic number szn. Any points gained by the Penguins, or lost by the Flyers will chip away at this number. When it hits 0, the Pens will have clinched a playoff spot.

This week it’s the Flyers as the magic number factor, the Rangers can gain a maximum of 75 points if they were to win all the rest of their games. The Flyers can gain a max of 76.

So we will be very safe and conservative and say that the Penguins currently need to get to 77 points as of now to avoid a tiebreaker and ensure a playoff berth. Pittsburgh has 54 points as of this morning, so the magic number is...23

Looking ahead

Key games: WSH @ BOS on Sunday, NYI @ BOS on Thursday and Friday.

It’s a big week for the Boston Bruins, who face playoff competitors in three games. If the Bruins are to make waves and get in the race for first place, they’re going to need to win these type of games.

The Flyers will be interesting to watch with their last three games of the weeks. Already on single digit playoff hopes, those could be all but extinguished without a serious winning streak getting going.

Pittsburgh is in good shape playing only three games, all against lesser competition. Two are on the road, which isn’t ideal, but add in a three day break and this should be a nice stretch for the Pens to use.