With the Pens and Flyers both winning again tonight, one thing has become abundantly clear about the ’16-17 season. The Metro Division is the best division in hockey. Boasting four teams with 40 points or more and a top five within four total points of each other, it’s win or lose valuable ground in the division.
When you have Ranger players already thinking playoffs, it’s due to the division they play in. The Penguins won their seventh in a row taking the Wednesday Night Rivalry Game over the Bruins 3-2 in overtime on Bryan Rust’s goal from Evgeni Malkin. I actually called Rust too. The Flyers followed suit by holding off the Avalanche 4-3 in Colorado to win for the 10th time in a row. They scored three straight goals highlighted by Brayden Schenn’s shorthanded game-winner. Then held on for dear life following Matt Duchene’s second with Steve Mason flat out exhausted after making 26 saves.
You have a division so good that unless one of the Pens, Rangers, Flyers, Blue Jackets or Caps cool off, all five teams could wind up with over 100 points. What’s worse is that due to the division playoff format, at least three teams are guaranteed to start on the road with the potential for both wildcards to come from the Metro again.
Is it fair? Absolutely not. When you’ll probably have at least two good teams eliminated after the first round, you have to start questioning NHL logic. Shouldn’t it be just the top eight teams seeded 1-8 like it used to be? There’s also the possibility of a team getting screwed by the current system. Divisional match-ups guarantee rivalries. But do fans want to see the same first round series over and over again? Not if it means a first round exit.
While it’s true the two division winners are rewarded by drawing the two wildcards, they might want up playing a better opponent. Especially if the two come from the Metro. If you’re say the Canadiens and you finish first in the Atlantic, is the potential to face the Caps or Flyers easier than say the Senators, Bruins or Lightning? The Pens could wind up with the Blue Jackets, Caps, Flyers or even Rangers.
At this point, the way these teams are playing, they’re putting some distance between themselves and the rest of the Metro which includes the slumping Devils, rebuilding Canes both at 30 points while the Islanders are last with 27. Unless these teams turn it around soon, they’ll likely be out of contention by February.
As for the Atlantic, Montreal is clearly the best team with their 42 points seven better than Ottawa, who lost at home to San Jose 3-2 in a shootout on Staten Island native Kevin Labanc’s forehand deke. An ugly game marred by a major and game misconduct to Mike Hoffman for a vicious crosscheck to the back of Logan Couture, injuring the Sharks’ center who didn’t return. That’ll be up for review and should be a suspension.
The Bruins were competitive against the Pens thanks to goals from Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak (19th) and strong goaltending from Tuukka Rask (33 saves). They outshot the Pens 44-33 but rookie Matt Murray made 41 stops and Rust won it with a nice backhand top shelf on a great Malkin feed. Boston is tied for second in points (35) with Ottawa. Neither are great teams. But good ones who should be fighting till the final weekend for the playoffs with the Lightning, who I figure will turn it around even without Steven Stamkos. They finally won doubling up the Flames 6-3 to cool them off. Old friend Brian Boyle tallied twice along with Ranger killer Alex Killorn.
The Bolts have 32 points. So, they have to play better but are right there in a mediocre division. The Red Wings remain at 30 points with their playoff streak in jeopardy. Now that their offense isn’t scoring regularly and the defense isn’t good, that’s left it up to Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek. It’s unlikely that they’ll make it unless they make a trade for a defenseman.
As for the Panthers, they’re a mess. They’re 13-13-4 with 30 points. Since Tom Rowe took over for Gerard Gallant, they’re not exactly light it up. They’re 2-3-3 and were just blown out at Minnesota 5-1. Starter Roberto Luongo was chased and broke his goalie stick before heading for the locker room. They’re not playing like a contender. Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr each have six goals in 30 games. Barkov with 20 points tied for the team lead in scoring with Jonathan Marchessault. Jagr with 15 tied for third with Vincent Trocheck.
Putting it in perspective, Reilly Smith is 4-7-11 and Nick Bjugstad has no points and is minus-7 in 11 games since returning from injury. Although Keith Yandle leads the blue line with 13 points including 12 assists, he only has one goal which was scored fittingly on the power play in a shootout win over the Rangers in his MSG return. His numbers are eerily similar to what they were here. Jason Demers has been okay. But Aaron Ekblad has busted despite seven goals with a minus-13. There just isn’t much there. Michael Matheson could turn out to be good. The Erik Gudbranson for Jared McCann swap with the Canucks has been a bust. Dylan McIlrath has played three games and scored the lone goal in the 5-1 loss and fought twice.
Looking for rebuilding teams who could rise? I would bet more on the Sabres than the Maple Leafs. Now that Jack Eichel is back and already has five goals and three assists in seven games, Buffalo is back to being dangerous offensively. A strong puck possession team with a top two down the middle of Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly, they’re on the rise. Evander Kane has suddenly woken up with four goals all since Eichel returned. They play together with Sam Reinhart. Kyle Okposo continues to fit in leading with 21 points. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen leads Buffalo with 18 assists and has 19 points. He and Jake McCabe have formed a good tandem minus Zach Bogosian.
Even Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson have chipped in with seven goals apiece. Buffalo has gotten decent goaltending from Swedish tandem Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson. Both must continue to be good for the Sabres to win. They are tied with the Leafs in points (28). Toronto isn’t quite ready yet. But the potential of first overall pick Auston Matthews along with rookies Mitch Marner and William Nylander will make them a strong contender for years. They can score with Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk mixed in and Morgan Rielly anchoring the back end with Jake Gardiner. But keeping goals out is an issue with Frederik Andersen facing an onslaught (32 shots per game) while Toronto has an unproven backup.
So, what does it all mean? There’s still a lot of time left. We’re 10 days away from Christmas. But the Metro looks like a runaway division full of contenders. Some won’t even see the second round. A prospect that doesn’t seem fair.