Capitals in Tight Division Race Down the Stretch

The MassMutual East Division is as tight at the top as a closing five-hole. With 17 games remaining, the Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, and Pittsburgh Penguins will be jostling for playoff seeding down the stretch. One will emerge with the regular-season crown, while the two others must be mindful of a sleeper in the standings.

Capitals in Three-team Race for Division Crown

Tuesday night’s games provided little clarity for which team has an edge in winning the East. In the month of March, the Capitals, Islanders, and Penguins separated themselves from the rest of the teams in the division with impressive win streaks and overall records. The Boston Bruins also helped the aforementioned three with a sub-standard 9-7-4 record over their last 20 games.

Washington, New York, and Pittsburgh have been brilliant over the same span. Their respective runs have been bolstered by long win streaks and winning games in overtime instead of settling for just one point. It’s no wonder the top of the East standings is so tight. The Capitals must play five more games against the other two squads while the Islanders and Penguins have already completed their regular-season series.

Here’s a look at how each team can claim the one-seed in the postseason.

Washington Capitals: 25-10-4 (T-1st, 54 points)

The Capitals may have the toughest route to end the season on top of the division. They still have three games remaining against the Islanders and two against the Penguins—all five being in a row. Even more troubling is they only have two games left against the Buffalo Sabres and have completed their regular-season sweep of the New Jersey Devils. In other words, they have no gimmies remaining.

Luckily, they only play the New York Rangers twice more this year, but the series is toward the end of the season. The Rangers have dominated the Capitals so far. As for their other head-to-head records, Washington has fared well against the better teams in the East. The Capitals have winning records against the Islanders, Boston, and Philadelphia Flyers and have earned points in five of their six matchups with the Penguins.

The main opponent for the Capitals to watch is Boston. They play them four more times but have struggled to score against the Bruins. With as many offensive stars on the ice during these contests, the teams have combined for just 24 goals in four games, the Bruins outscoring the Capitals 14-10. These physical defensive battles could take a toll down the stretch.

Next Game: Thursday, April 8 versus Boston (speak of the Devil—not New Jersey).

New York Islanders 25-10-4 (T-1st, 54 points)

The Islanders had a fantastic March. New York earned a bulk of their nine-game win streak the first half of the month, and their overall March record was 11-4. Even though the Islanders have taken the last two from Washington, including last night’s 1-0 victory, they still post losing records against both the Capitals and Penguins.

However, New York’s full divisional performance could help them down the stretch. Of their 17 games left, they play Boston and Buffalo a total of five times—two teams they are undefeated against this year (11-0). Also, as mentioned, their season series with the Penguins is already over.

The red-hot Rangers may be the Islanders’ biggest obstacle. They skate against their city rivals five more times. Like the Boston and Washington season series, the battle for New York has been low-scoring. In the three contents thus far, The Islanders have outscored the Rangers 6-5. As is the case with the Capitals, the Islanders should be wary of becoming weary late in the season.

Nest Game: Thursday, April 8 versus Philadelphia.  

Pittsburgh Penguins: 24-13-2 (2nd, 50 points)

The Penguins are an enigma, especially on the road where they are 8-10-1. They play to the level of their opponents. Pittsburgh is 10-4 against Washington and the Islanders. Yet, they are 5-7-2 against Boston, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

If Pittsburgh is capable of playing well against teams they should be beating, then they could jump both the Capitals and Islanders. The Penguins have more control of this race than many believe because of their remaining schedule. On paper, they realistically only have four tough matchups remaining: back-to-back series with the Bruins and Capitals April 25-May 1. That week may decide the division.

Next Game: Thursday, April 8 at New York Rangers.   

Division Sleeper

No one should discount the Bruins; it’s probably benefiting Boston to get their poor play out of their system mid-season. However, all teams should keep an eye on the Rangers. They currently sit at fifth in the standings, but New York is 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. The Rangers have eight head-to-head matchups left against the top three teams in the division, and their overall record against those three teams is 6-5-0.

The Rangers are young and defensively stingy. New York has the youngest roster in the league at an average of 25-years-old and receives high production from their stars. Artemi Panarin has 11 points in his last four games and leads the team with 40 overall—including his four-point performance last night against the Penguins—and he’s played only 27 games due to his little issue back home.

One important stat to consider is goal differential. For being fifth in the division with 41 points, the Rangers still post a plus-22 goal differential which implies they are staying in games they lose. Close games in the postseason are much different than close games in the regular season. Anything can happen in the playoffs—if the Rangers can leapfrog over the Bruins.

Division Prediction

Due to the realignment of the division this season, it’s easier to track and analyze a team’s remaining strength of schedule. In the East’s case, how many more times will a top-tier squad face the Devils and Sabres? Because the Penguins have nine games remaining against the bottom dwellers of the division, look for Crosby and the gang to have the upper hand. Their last two games of the regular season are against Buffalo. If they can survive their four-game stretch with Boston and Washington, they will be in a good position to win the East.

Their reward: A possible series with the sleepers, who they’ve dominated this year (save last night, of course) or a collision with the Bruins, who may be finally hitting their stride by that point.

Vitek Vanecek Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

For the Capitals, perhaps a first-round matchup with the Islanders wouldn’t be the worst scenario. It’s the New York squad they actually play well against this season. Even though Pittsburgh has the easier remaining schedule, Washington can still very well win the East. The Capitals need to continue to be efficient on offense and avoid giving up a flurry of goals that let opponents back into a game. Perhaps having a stronger schedule down the stretch will help them better prepare for a long playoff run.

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