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Sunday Standings: Division title is there for the Penguins to take

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the driver’s seat to win the Eastern division

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NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As Sunday begins, here’s our weekly look at the standings in the Eastern division as of this morning before the final week of the regular season (for the Penguins, anyways):

This week saw three teams (PIT, WSH, NYI) officially clinch a playoff spot. The final spot is also just a formality at this point for the Bruins.

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.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh takes over first place after a 3-1-0 week against BOS+WSH. Two of the games were shutout wins, as the Pens look in pretty tight playoff form to keep chances against down. It’s smooth sailing from here for Pittsburgh, who finish out with four games against Philadelphia and Buffalo, the two worst teams in the division this week (1-7-0 combined record this week for those two). The Pens are definitely a threat to win out and take first place, if they stay focused and take care of business.

Washington Capitals

A 1-1-1 week for the Capitals, who did well to shutout the Islanders before dropping two games to the Pens. Alex Ovechkin has now missed four straight games, his first time missing this many due to injury since 2009. Washington has also been without number one defenseman John Carlson. Neither injury is expected to be major or last much longer, but the Caps aren’t exactly carrying a lot of momentum as we get close to playoff time.

New York Islanders

After being beaten by Washington early in the week, it looked like the Islanders were at a cross-roads for their season. They responded with two shutout victories over their local rivals in NYR to really stabilize their efforts. Semyon Varlamov has recorded shutouts in all of his last three games, quietly setting NYI up to be closer to where they want to be as a defensive-minded team for the playoffs.

Boston Bruins

After being shutout by the Pens last Sunday, the Bruins offense has come to life. They scored three against Pittsburgh and then rocked the hapless Sabres for 11 goals over two games. Boston has been a bit of an uneven team all year, fueled by a great top line, but now secondary options are emerging. The Taylor Hall, David Krejci, Craig Smith line all was at a point per game or more this week, with Krejci lighting up for seven points in the last four games. That extra line playing well adds a whole new dimension for Boston and makes them incredibly dangerous heading into the playoffs.

New York Rangers

The Rangers beat Buffalo twice to stay on the very fringe of the playoff conversation, but they’ve run out of track by losing to the Islanders twice to end the week. The Rangers can help out the Pens, hopefully they won’t pack it in as they play the Capitals and Bruins two times a piece this week.

Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers pulled out a dramatic third period comeback last Sunday, with Claude Giroux scoring two goals in the last two minutes to turn a 3-1 loss into a 3-3 game that Philadelphia took in a shootout. They followed that up by....losing the next three games to that Devils team who suffered a 10th straight loss to Philly on Sunday. Ouch. The Flyers’ might best be remembered this season for ignominious mark of allowing two opponents on double digit losing streaks to break those streaks against them. This season can’t end quickly enough for them.

New Jersey Devils

Gotta give New Jersey some credit, they did break that 10 game losing streak this week, and turned it into a modest three game winning streak by taking the rest of the games against Philadelphia. Buffalo got within striking distance of getting out of last place, but NJ’s wins this week likely set them up for a 7th place finish in the division for the season.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres were playing pretty competitive hockey for a few weeks there, until this week happened. They lost all four of their games by more than a goal, and three losses were by 3 goals or more. I guess the bright side would be that will help their odds to get a better draft pick, but it would have been something of a minor moral victory if interim coach Don Granato could have taken them out of the basement of the division by the end of the season. Now that he won’t, will he get the opportunity to come back next season?

Magic number

Well, this feature is done. Just two Sunday Standings ago the Pens’ magic number was 16. They officially clinched a playoff spot on Thursday and now will comfortably look to get into playoff mode in the next week.

Looking ahead

There are no games between playoff teams in the East this week. This week will be about which teams can “hold serve” and take care of the business that they should. The Flyers look pretty hapless, but PIT/PHI games are always intense and never easy. Washington goes to Manhattan to play the Rangers twice in what could be their toughest challenge and the Bruins have two games early in the week against what could be a confident Devils team riding a winning streak.

Race for first

The Athletic’s forecasting model has the following percentages as of today for winning the division:

Pittsburgh: 42%
Boston: 31%
Washington: 18%
NY Islanders: 9%

The Pens are pretty much in the driver seat — no team is going to finish above Pittsburgh if they win out, and they have the easiest schedule on paper. (Technically the Caps and Pens would tie on points and Washington would have a tiebreaker over Pittsburgh if both teams win all their games, but the likelihood of that is statistically very low).

Boston is three points behind Washington today, but the Bruins have one game in hand. The model thinks Boston will win a lot of their remaining games, thus why their outlook is better. The week after this there are two crucial COVID-postponed games of BOS/WSH and BOS/NYI that the outcomes will determine playoff seeding. The Bruins control their destiny more than most, since conceivably they can directly prevent both the Caps and Isles from getting points.

Washington and NYI have a chance to win the division still, but they likely will need help in the form of Pittsburgh dropping a bit down the stretch and a strong finish on their end. It’s possible, but given the outlook on paper, not likely.

Any playoff possibility is still potentially on the table, but as of right now the highest probability matchups are shaping like Pens/NYI and Washington/Boston in the first round. However, as of the moment this is very much written in sand and could easily be shaken up into any other combination depending on how the next 7-10 days of the end of the regular season goes.