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Sunday Standings: The muddy middle

The Penguins find themselves in a position they’d rather not be in this late in the season

NHL: FEB 17 Penguins at Islanders Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As we move into the second half of February, the NHL season is in high gear. Our standings view also shifts from simply the Metropolitan Division to more of a focus on the Wild Card, given the Penguins’ positioning and some of the bottom teams dropping out of focus this deep into the season.

Given how the season has unfolded, several tiers are developing in the East. Up top, there is Boston — who have been on cruise control and are on pace for what would be a record setting 133 point season. Carolina isn’t too far behind them and leads the second pack of teams that includes New Jersey, Toronto, Tampa and the New York Rangers as very solid, upper-end teams. All of these teams are on a direct path to the post-season and already starting to gear up. Toronto made waves acquiring St. Louis’s captain Ryan O’Reilly in a trade. The Rangers also dipped into STL a little earlier to take Vladimir Tarasenko for the stretch run.

And then we get to the messy middle, and where there are two Wild Card playoff spots available. None of these teams are particularly making moves in their games or gaining much progress — or when they do it is just as quickly given back with a couple of off games. This is describing the Penguins to a tee, followed up with the Islanders, Washington, and Florida. Chasing these teams down are some upstarts in Buffalo and Detroit, to varying levels of success so far. Given games played, BUF and DET have advantages over several teams above them and will have the opportunity to start moving up. But that comes with the caveat that the games in hand are only valuable with results, and inconsistency has plagued them as well.

Pittsburgh hasn’t put it together yet — blowing a multi-goal lead on the road against NYI serves as all too painful of a reminder — but the good news for the Pens is that no one else in this pack is playing particularly well at the moment either. And the Pens still have more games and opportunities to add points that the others don’t have.

That comes with simultaneous good and bad news. The good news is that Pittsburgh has a very clear and likely path to the post-season. The downside is that once they get there, their path will be playing a division winner that is better than them. Upsets can happen, but right now the Pens don’t look like a team capable of punching up and defeating strong opponents.

Now we take a trip around the East to see the week and storylines for each team and their record over the past week.

Carolina (M1: 3-0-0): It was a banner week for the Hurricanes, who beat the Capitals twice — including in an outdoor game last night. Maybe it was the night game, or being on a college campus, or simply being a first time venue for a market eager to have such a moment, but the atmosphere and energy of that Stadium Series game was a lot better than the Winter Classic. And the Canes made it look easy too, jumping out and having no problems in a tone-setting win over Washington.

New Jersey (M2: 2-1-0): The Devils were on the road all week, and given their exceptional away record the only surprising result might be the 4-2 loss to the Blues on Thursday. Jack Hughes returned last night from injury, and NJ was clicking on all cylinders in an emphatic and clear victory over the Pens. They’re a fast, young team that is growing in confidence and building a special season.

NY Rangers (M3: 2-0-1): Do you know who has the best record in the NHL in calendar year 2023? It’s the Rangers at 14-2-3. Ironically enough given their market, it feels like they aren’t getting a ton of attention right now, but just continue to get results. That continued this week on a Western Canadian road trip with wins over Vancouver and Edmonton before falling in overtime to Calgary last night.

Boston (A1: 3-0-0): It was another dominant week for the NHL’s best team over the course of the whole season. The Bruins out-scored their opponents this week (DAL, NSH, NYI) by a combined 14-4 score. Last night’s 6-2 win against the Islanders was especially impressive. That game was 3-0 in the first period and 6-1 by the end of the second, with Boston easily taking care of business, just as they’ve done for much of the year so far.

Toronto: (A2: 2-0-0): No troubles to be found for the Leafs this week with easy wins over two bad teams (CHI, MTL) by a 10-3 combined score. The much more important development was getting O’Reilly and stocking up for the playoffs. GM Kyle Dubas has thrown caution to the wind and is going all in to give the players as much as possible to finally make a playoff run.

Tampa: (A3: 1-1-1): It wasn’t a very impressive week for Tampa, who beat Colorado in a shootout, then dropped a 1-0 shootout decision to Arizona and then got tripped up 5-4 by Vegas last night. As an experienced and successful playoff team, the Lightning are very secure with where they’re at and have time to gear up and peak as the season ends.

Pittsburgh (WC1: 1-2-0): The Pens got a win in San Jose, but then struggled the rest of the week. The goaltending situation is proving untenable and for a flawed team, they can’t and aren’t surviving with mediocre performances. Mike Sullivan continues to say encouraging things about Tristan Jarry, but also has allowed the goalie has met with multiple doctors and consultants recently. That doesn’t present a lot of confidence that his starting goalie is or will remain at 100% for very long..

NY Islanders (WC2: 1-1-1): The Islanders did just enough in Friday’s comeback win to salvage a decent week. Given their games played situation, they need to get on a winning streak to make some headway before some of the teams below catch up and pass them. As they found out against Boston, there’s still a long ways to go before they can do that by measuring up against the top teams.

Washington (0-4-0): This might have just been the week to doom the Caps’ eight-year post-season streak. Sadly and unfortunately, Alex Ovechkin left the team to return home and grieve the loss of his father and Washington has been unable to get results without him. The Capitals will see Detroit and Buffalo in the coming days and badly need to start getting some wins if they are to stabilize hopes of making it further than Game 82.

Florida (2-2-0): When it goes bad for the Panthers, it goes really bad. They gave up six goals in a loss this week to STL and seven last night in a losing effort to Nashville. Neither of those teams are expected to make the playoffs. Florida’s 6-3 win in Washington on Thursday was a big statement and keeps them in the hunt, but this team has been quick to let down as soon as it looks like they might be making progress.

Buffalo (2-1-0): The Sabres were in California this week, and got predictable results losing to the good team (LA) and beating the two bad teams (ANA, SJ). This upcoming week is huge for Buffalo, they’re looking at three games in four days against the likes of Toronto, Tampa, Florida. If they’re a contender to get a playoff spot, they’re going to need to make a move sooner than later. The scheduling doesn’t make it easy, but the opportunity and potential for them is right there for the taking.

Detroit (3-1-0): It’s hard to not be impressed by the Red Wings right now. They were on the Western Canadian road swing that so many Eastern teams have struggled on this year, and yet Detroit beat Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary in a four-day stretch before tripping up and losing 4-2 last night in Seattle. All in all, great work for them lately. Based on games in hand, Detroit has a great shot to pass teams like NYI, WSH and FLA in the near future, if they can take advantage of it. Can they sneak into the playoffs? That would be a tall task, but the door is ever so cracked for them to at least have a shot at it.

Playoff picture

This doesn’t capture last night’s results, but most critically for the Penguins, last night didn’t mean too much for their direct chances with with Islanders, Capitals and Panthers all joining Pittsburgh with regulation losses.