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Sunday Standings: The middle is completely jammed

Second place to sixth place is separated by only a few points now as the teams bunch up in the middle

NHL: DEC 30 Devils at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Happy New Year! The Metropolitan Division enters 2023 in quite the jam. Take a look below and second place to sixth is separated by just four points. Considering that it is impossible for the sixth place team to make the playoffs, this presents the obvious challenge that no team is safe right now (well besides Carolina, anyways) and also that one team and fanbase is going to be setup for a big disappointment by April.

Other than New Jersey, in the pre-season all of these teams would have expected to make the playoffs. Even the Devils completely reset their expectations due to how strongly they started in the first ~25ish games of the season, which would make it maybe even more disappointing if they fell all the way out.

Looking at the above can hammer home the importance of just how much damage the four point swings of divisional games can do. The Penguins losing to NJD and NYI this week cost them what would have been second place had they won both games. The Islanders’ positioning now looks a lot better for that win over Pittsburgh, compared to the sixth place spot they would be holding now had NYI lost that game in regulation. It’s the little details but will make such big differences.

Here is the holiday rundown for all the teams in the division.

Carolina (2-0-0): It doesn’t get any better than how it is right now for the Hurricanes. They’re rolling in all facets on a 10-game winning streak and both of their games this week came by way of the shutout, in 3-0 and 4-0 victories over Chicago and Florida, respectively. It was only two games, and not exactly against elite competition, but any time you can keep the opposition from recording a goal in a whole week, that’s been a pretty damn good week. Everything is going their way and life couldn’t be much more charmed for Carolina.

New Jersey (1-1-0): After losing 3-1 to Boston, the Devils bounced back with an important 4-2 road win over the Penguins. That stabilized what had been a fairly poor December and at least gives them some positive momentum going into the new year. I don’t know why, but I can’t shake the feeling this team might have peaked in November and is going to be the one to slide out of the playoffs as the second half of the season goes on. There’s no reasoning on that just besides feeling and perhaps bias, so I guess we’ll see. Someone is going to end up unhappy and a bit stunned to have missed the playoffs, and while there are some other good candidates (like the Rangers!), for some reason I can’t stay away from the thought that it could be the Devils who might end up being the one in danger of taking a fall.

Washington (2-0-1): The Capitals have hit their stride lately. Unexpected huge performances from value-adds like Erik Gustafsson (23 points on the season from the blue line), Sonny Milano (16 points in 26 games) and backup goalie Charlie Lindgren (carried the load in the injury absence of starter Darcy Kuemper) have not only just kept Washington on track, it’s helped them thrive lately. Also helps when goal scoring machine Alex Ovechkin keeps popping off (four goals in the three games this week, including a hat trick in the 9-2 easy win over Montreal last night).

Pittsburgh (0-2-1): For a team looking so good prior to Christmas, the Pens have lost their way in recent games. Their stretches have been fluctuating this season in about 5-6 game stretches going back to the start of the season it went: good, terrible, great, great, great, decent, bad again. Not much in the middle, the Pens have either had their stuff together and looked really good, or not had it together at all and looking like a hot mess. Based on the three post-Christmas games, the hot mess phase is back.

NY Islanders (2-0-0): A nice week for the Islanders, who beat the Pens 5-1 and then took care of business with a 2-1 win over the lowly Blue Jackets. The start of 2023 is going to be a big challenge, though: NYI is on the west coast and has to make a SEA-VAN-EDM-CGY swing of four games in just six days. That doesn’t have to necessarily guarantee a bad week is incoming, but thanks to scheduling the odds are not in their favor for the near future.

NY Rangers (0-1-1): Tough week for the Rangers, who got shutout 4-0 by Washington and then fell 2-1 in a shootout to Tampa. One total goal in the two games is indicative of their current scoring troubles, as is the healthy scratch of 2020-first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere. Is that just a wake up call that may soon be forgotten? Or will it be the first salvo in what might cause the player to eventually depart the organization?

Philadelphia (2-0-0): The Flyers are out west right now too, and they earned a 4-3 OT win over San Jose and followed it up by a 4-2 win in Los Angeles last night. Just what we love to see, pick up a few points here to hurt the draft status. Doin’ great guys!

Columbus (1-1-0): Columbus competed but came up a little short against the Islanders in the 2-1 loss, but then were able to revenge a loss to Chicago last week by returning the favor and beating them this week to end the year.

Playoff mayhem

Micah’s model here is showing an absolute madhouse in the middle of the Metropolitan, with five teams projected and tracking for 96-98 points.

The good news is that Florida continues to struggle, increasing the odds almost every game that the top five from the Metropolitan will make the playoffs. But that still means one team in the thick of it right now will not.

There’s still a lot of hockey left at this point in the season, but examples like this are why the NHL likes and keeps its current point structure in the standings. They help keep the pack lumped together and are going to lead to excitement at the end of the year.