Door Open for Penguins in Metro

Midway through February, it was an afterthought that the Washington Capitals would win the Metropolitan Division. On March 1, the hockey world anointed them the Eastern Conference champions when they traded for defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk.

But in the span of one week, Washington has seen its seven-point lead in the division evaporate to one. In fact, by the end of Tuesday, the Capitals could be in danger of falling into third place.

The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t really need to worry about seeds. They have the most playoff experience of any team in the East and showed last spring the ability to beat a quality team without home ice. But it would also definitely be to their benefit to take advantage of this opportunity and win the Metropolitan Division.

Struggling Capitals

Alex Ovechkin, Flyers vs Capitals, Dec. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Due to a snow storm coupled with the All-Star break last season, Washington had a seven-day layoff at the end of January. Heading into that break, the Capitals had won seven of eight, but they lost their first two games upon coming back.

Could history be repeating itself? Upon returning from their bye week in the middle of February, the Capitals lost two games. They found their footing again, winning five of the next six, to extend the division lead, but Washington has lost four straight since then. It’s the first time since Oct. 2015 that the Capitals haven’t even earned a point in four consecutive contests.

Last season, Washington quickly rebounded from it’s little slump and won nine of 10 in February. But the team peaked that month and wasn’t the same in March and the postseason. Time will tell whether this version of the Capitals peaked too early too, but they are struggling right now.

Washington hasn’t scored more than two goals in six straight games. Since returning from the bye week, the Capitals have averaged just 2.3 goals per contest. Washington is 5-6-1 during that stretch.

Captain Alex Ovechkin’s slump is a big reason why those scoring numbers are low. Ovechkin hasn’t tallied a goal in 10 straight games. Even more incredibly, he hasn’t scored at even strength since Jan. 31.


Surging Penguins

Evgeni Malkin (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s been the exact opposite for Pittsburgh. They have won five straight and crawled within a point of the division lead with a game now in-hand. Clearly, the Penguins’ road trip to Western Canada has been much kinder to them than the Capitals’ trip to California.

Pittsburgh keeps on winning despite missing three defensemen from the lineup and multiple forwards. The Penguins played the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday without seven regulars and dominated, winning 3-0.

There’s been a little bit of everything during the winning stretch. Pittsburgh’s power play has reawaken and gone 6-for-17 (35.3 percent) during the streak. Marc-Andre Fleury has been fantastic in his two appearances during this streak, stopping 68 of 70 shots (.971 save percentage) in two victories.

Maybe most incredibly, the Penguins have won five straight without Sidney Crosby scoring a goal. He’s been heavily involved, tallying nine shots on two different occasions during the streak and five assists, but he hasn’t found the twine this month. Yet, Pittsburgh has begun March 5-1-0.

Evgeni Malkin is healthy and has led the way with six goals during the winning streak. Nick Bonino is also surging and has tallied four. Six other Penguins have scored too for a total of eight during the streak.

Advantages to Winning Metro

Artem Anisimov
Artem Anisimov on Marc-Andre Fleury (Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports)

As I’ve stated on Steel City Hockey multiple times, the Penguins don’t need to win the Metro to win the Stanley Cup. Being regular season champions is not essential to winning it all. It’s more important for Pittsburgh to get healthy. If that means holding out some players to ensure they are healthy for the playoffs and losing games that results in a lower seed, then so be it.

However, that was the general feeling when the Penguins were seven points back. Their recent surge and the Capitals struggles changes things a bit. Not that Pittsburgh should rush anybody back from injury too soon – health is still the No. 1 goal. But winning the Metro is now an objective Pittsburgh should want.

Winning the division would give the Penguins several good things. For one, they would avoid the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. Columbus always plays Pittsburgh very tough, and it could be a very emotional, long series. Should the Penguins win the division, though, they would draw the worst record team in the East. As of right now, that would be the young and inexperienced Toronto Maple Leafs (no guaranteed victory, but easier matchup on paper).

Should that happen, the Penguins would still play either the Blue Jackets or Capitals in the second round, but now they would only have to defeat one of the two instead of both to get to the conference finals. And in the first round, they would beat up on each other.

Moreover, if the Penguins win the Metropolitan, they would have home ice throughout the playoffs. Pittsburgh owns a 27-4-3 home record this season, which is the best in the league. Playing four games in every series at PPG Paints Arena will be a huge advantage to Pittsburgh.

If the Penguins don’t win the division, then by no means is all lost. The road back to the Finals will be tougher but not insurmountable. However, with 15 games left, the division is there for the taking. Should their March push be anything like last season’s, and it’s already looking like it could be, the Penguins will win the Metro and be the favorite to come out of the East – not the Capitals.