Here’s how the standings look this morning. Assuming the Penguins are on the upswing now that Tristan Jarry and Jeff Petry have returned (with Kris Letang and a few others soon to be on the way) Pittsburgh might have weathered their most trying storm this season.
That’s the good news, with absorbing those tough times and keeping their winning percentage in striking distance of being at the .600% mark. The bad news is a couple of teams have completely separated themselves from the Pens now.
The Penguins trail the Capitals today by three points in the standings, but Pittsburgh has four games and hand and should easily be sailing past Washington once that balances out. Behind them, the Islanders have slowed down mightily in recent weeks and are becoming less and less of a threat for the playoffs. (NYI’s .531% points% has them on a pace for 87 points, they need to pick it up in a major way to get to the likely 95+ it will take to be a true contender for a wildcard spot).
With a game in hand, the Pens are potentially as few as two points behind the Rangers. Pittsburgh and NYR play three times in the same week coming up in March, so either team could put a stamp on third place at that point (or they could split games and have an OT game or two and muddle the waters even further, which is what usually happens in the NHL regular season).
Point being, the Pens do have some upward mobility, but right now with very little pressure coming from the Islanders, and the Caps giving up a ton of games, the Penguins look like they’re going to be a fourth place team. That could be reasonably be considered good, average or disappointing depending on context.
Finishing in fourth place in the division would also almost certainly mean a first round series against Carolina (with the fifth place team drawing the No. 1 team in the East, Boston). Just something to keep in mind.
And some blurbs about the week that was for the teams in the division
Carolina (2-0-1): Another very impressive week on the ice for the Hurricanes, who continue to stay comfortably out front in the division by consistently taking care of business like they did this week. At this point, we now have to mention the terrible and gut-wrenching scene when Max Pacioretty crumpled to the ice in just his fifth game back, re-injuring the same Achilles tendon that he tore over the summer. Have to feel just awful for him personally. This also means Carolina has a big hole up front and some space to fill it in the trade market. Whether it’s Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Vladimir Tarasenko or Patrick Kane, you have to think they will be trying to bring in a top player to help them make a run.
New Jersey (1-0-1): The Devils are back home after a fairly lengthy Western swing over the last two weeks that included playing all three of the California teams and Seattle. That doesn’t seem to be as tricky for Eastern teams as the other common Western road trip (EDM-CGY-VAN, often in four total days) and NJ did well on their trip. New Jersey is also 6-1-1 since I wondered out-loud three weeks ago if their December swoon (2-7-1 in previous 10 games) would carry on long enough to put them in jeopardy of falling out of the playoffs, so that answers that, I suppose.
NY Rangers (1-2-0): It was a “meh” week for the Rangers. Somehow they lost to Montreal to start it out, then won a game they should have won (Columbus) and followed it up by also losing a game that they also should have lost (Boston). A bit of a boring lull for them to get through the All-Star break, the Rangers have only scored seven total goals in their last four games. Then again, they’ve also only given up seven total goals as well. Overall, NYR is not usually a boring team, but this is a pretty boring stretch for them. Surely by the trade deadline it will heat up as they look to bring in Kane themselves or whatever moves they make to spice things up. But for now, kinda meh.
Washington (2-2-0): Trouble in DC? Alex Ovechkin was out last night (with what’s been termed a day-to-day injury) and the Capitals were dreadful, losing 6-2 to Vegas. With 30 goals so far this season, Ovechkin is responsible for almost 20% of Washington’s total goal production. Their next leading scorer only has 12. Ovechkin has put the team on his back and masked over a lot of defensive deficiencies and injury issues, with the All-Star break coming up it’s not the worst time for him to be dealing with something right now, but it’s always notable when a guy who almost never misses time is missing some time. Especially since the Pens and Caps play on Thursday. Decent chance he could be back by then, but something to keep an eye on.
Pittsburgh (2-0-1): Will the Anaheim OT end up being a major turning point in the Pens’ season? There’s probably a lot of turning points, but that one could be a sneaky important one where the Pens kept the puck out of the net on an early rush, only for Sidney Crosby to feed Jake Guentzel for a winner going back the other way. Pittsburgh came into that game having lost their previous two games (and would go onto lose in OT the following game). That’s a near miss for a four-game losing streak for what we’ve seen is a very streaky team. Instead, the week looks a lot better by taking 5/6 possible points. Wasn’t the toughest schedule, but when missing so much on the blue line that doesn’t matter. Only the results do.
NY Islanders (0-2-2): All season long in this space, I’ve been trying to determine whether or not I think the Islanders are actually good or not. They achieved some results perhaps above their ability under Barry Trotz over the years (last season’s dud notwithstanding) but are always sort of a mystery. Will they beat a really good team only to follow it up and lose to a bad one? Anything is possible. Anyways, these days the Islanders aren’t beating anyone. The verdict is coming in, and it’s looking like that NYI is in fact not a playoff quality team. Not going to close the book on them entirely at this point, but it’s not looking good for them (which is really good for Pittsburgh’s playoff chances if NYI ends up only being an 87-90ish point team, and not a 95-99 point team).
Philadelphia (2-2-0): Unlike the Rangers, one team that is never boring is the Flyers. They, ahem, had yet another notable week and took center stage in the never-ending culture war for the predictable backlash, outrage, backlash against the outrage endless cycle that defines and consumes the social media/24-7 cable news world that we live in. Anyways, on the ice the Flyers alternated losses and wins. The got beaten like a drum 6-0 by Boston, only to shake it off and beat Anaheim 5-2. Their momentum never seems to carry too far this season, dropping a 4-1 game to Chicago of all teams, only to rebound from that with a 2-1 win over Detroit last night. The other excellent news is these wins (.500% winning%, on track for 82 points) means that Philadelphia is too good for a high chance in the lottery, but also still way too bad to be anywhere close to the playoffs. Perfect spot for them to be in.
Columbus (1-3-0): Every week seems like a 1-3 week for CBJ. This week they opened it up with three losses (NYR, NSH, ANA) but were able to get something positive out of this week with a 5-3 win over San Jose last night. With only 30 total points in the standings, Columbus is currently dead last in the NHL. Remember when they were considered a dark horse playoff possibility in the pre-season? That hope has long since been extinguished, but the good news for them is Connor Bedard is the new hope, and short of him, they should be getting a premiere young talent out of the 2023 NHL draft no matter who it is.