Happy weekend, let’s check out the Eastern Conference in what was a busy week that saw the calendar flip over to April, the final month of the 2021-22 NHL regular season.
The Atlantic Division is where all the fun and drama is. Florida is above the fray, but the 2-3-4 battles between Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston has been the best thing going in the East for some time now. This last week was definitely the Maple Leafs’ week, winning all of their games including some huge matchups (FLA, BOS). Those three teams fighting for positioning are jockeying around and seemingly exchanging positions almost every day.
For as pleased as Penguin fans were that Marc-Andre Fleury was uninterested in joining the Capitals via a trade, Carolina fans should be rejoicing even more. Last night the Hurricanes out-shot the Wild 38-19, but Fleury stopped 37/38 and Minnesota got the win. Carolina will surely be happy that last night will be the final time they see Fleury this season.
One of thing that stood out upon a casual glance for the Penguins is a lack of home ice success. Along with Washington, Pittsburgh is the only Eastern contender to not have 20+ home wins this far into the season. The Pens’ 15 total home losses (regulation + OT/SO) are also very high. This grabs attention because Pittsburgh has been so good at PPG Paints Arena over the years, like going 22-4-2 last season at home and 23-8-4 in 2019-20. The drop in home performance has been a bit jarring this year.
With seven of their remaining 12 games of the season at home, how the Pens fare will be an interesting subplot for their season.
The week that was
#1: Florida (3-1-0): The Panthers lost to Toronto last Sunday and then won three straight games against non-playoff teams by a combined total of 18-10. That includes yesterday where they were down 6-2 going into the third period against NJD and mounted an epic 7-6 (OT) comeback win. Lots and lots of firepower in Florida.
#2: Carolina (2-1-1): Winners of only four of their last 10 games, it looks like Carolina is still trying to find their games, and yet they still are also comfortably in the top spot in the Metropolitan division. This week they thumped Washington 6-1, then lost 4-3 in OT the next night to Tampa, then shutout the hapless Habs 4-0 and then got beaten 3-1 by Minnesota last night. Five of Carolina’s next six games come against non-playoff opponents, so don’t be surprised when they get back in the win column regularly very soon.
#3: Toronto (4-0-0): Talked about Toronto’s impressive week above, so how ‘bout pointing out that Auston Matthews is on another planet right now. With 44 goals in in his 46 games, he is scoring goals at a rate the league has not seen since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96. Matthews is on a 12-game point streak and those 12 games, he has at least one goal in 11 of them. This electric pace is making one heck of a MVP case if it keeps going.
#4: Tampa Bay (3-0-1): It looks like the defending champs are making their move as the regular season gets serious. They were tripped up in a shootout against Montreal last night but otherwise were taking care of business. This week ahead is going to be dynamite with games against TOR, @WSH, BOS in some big time matchups, especially those crucial division games on either side of the week.
#5: NY Rangers (3-1-0): It took OT to beat two non-playoff teams this week (BUF, DET), but the Rangers got the job done. The 3-2 win over the Pens is absolutely massive for the standings as well.
#6: Pittsburgh (2-2-0): There’s no room for moral victories this time of year, but Mike Sullivan has been fairly pleased with his team’s play of late, and as well he should be with three one-goal games this week (NYR, MIN, COL) that Pittsburgh only got one win from. As Sullivan also highlighted, the team needs to find a little extra to get positive results.
#7: Boston (2-1-0): The Bruins throttled two non-playoff teams this week (NJ, CBJ) by a combined 13-3 score and then dropped a 6-4 contest to Toronto. Boston has been probably the conference’s hottest team over the past few weeks and is right in the thick of their race to avoid being a wild card.
#8: Washington (0-1-0): A quirk of the scheduling left a five day break for the Capitals this week, who were inactive all week after suffering a 6-1 loss on Monday to Carolina. They now get back into a sprint with 14 games in the last 27 days of the season. A lot of big challenges too, they catch the Wild on the back-end of a b-2-b tonight before playing Tampa and Pittsburgh later in the week.
Key Games ahead
Monday: Toronto @ Tampa
Tuesday: Toronto @ Florida, Colorado @ Pittsburgh
Wednesday: Tampa @ Washington
Thursday: NY Rangers @ Pittsburgh
Friday: Boston @ Tampa
Saturday: Washington @ Pittsburgh
Huge upcoming week with very meaningful games split up nice and evenly every day. The Pens have a huge upcoming schedule of important games and the Atlantic will continue to be a fun watch with all three teams in the mix at some point.
Penguins Playoff positioning
The Athletic has a current 88% projection for Pittsburgh to end up in either the 2 or 3 seed in the Metro. Similarly, Moneypuck sees it as a 90.1% chance right now. This week will be big to settle in on those fronts, a Pens’ regulation win over Washington next Saturday would virtually ensure Pittsburgh stays on course for a top-3 position, but a regulation loss would start to muddy the waters. Both PIT and NYR are running out of runway to catch Carolina and either team would need to go on a big run, which could perhaps be started for the winner of the PIT/NYR game this week.