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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Playoff predictions for the Metropolitan Division

     At nearly half way through the 2016-17 season it is time to start thinking about which teams we expect to see in the playoffs this spring.  The Metropolitan division has been one of the hardest divisions to make the playoffs in as it has been comprised of many of the league's strongest teams in the last several years.  As it stands in this first half of the season I predict that the Mertopolitan Division will send the Penguins, the Rangers, the Capitals, and shockingly the Blue Jackets to the playoffs.  If they hold onto the Eastern Conference's second wild card spot as well the Flyers may make the cut too.  Right now the division holds the top five slots not just in their conference but in the entire league, so competition is fierce and standings can change rapidly.
     Not surprisingly the Pittsburgh Penguins are holding strong to the top spot in the division.  With tonight's overwhelming 7-2 win over the New York Rangers  the Penguins are 21-7-5 with 33 games played.  They have been having an incredible season despite having several injuries to some of their top performing players.  Sidney Crosby missed the first 6 games due to concussion.  There are currently 4 Penguins who are out on injury, Kris Letang  is day to day with a lower body injury, Tom Kuhnhackl is out week to week with a lower body injury,  Trevor Daley is out week to week with an upper body injury, and  Thomas Di Pauli is out until sometime in February 2017 with a back injury.  Despite these rather notable team mates missing the Penguins have gone 8-0-2 in their last 10 games.  The depth and scoring capabilities of all 4 of the Penguins lines is one of their strengths and has allowed them to succeed even when key players are out.   This season the Penguins are going for back to back Stanley Cup wins, which they have not done since 1992 and 1993.  The last team to achieve back to back cups was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.  If they can manage the very difficult task of staying on top of the Metropolitan Division and winning the Eastern Conference Championship again this season I think they have a very good chance of repeating their Championship again in the playoffs this season.
     Second in the division, again not surprisingly, is the New York Rangers.  Currently they have a record of  23-11-1 with 35 games played so far in the season.  The Rangers are easily the Penguins strongest competition not only within the division but in their efforts to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions for second time in recent memory.  They have played the Penguins 3 times so far this season and have won one of those 3 match-ups.  The win they got was a decisive one too, it was one of the Penguins worst losses of the season so far.  The other two matches have resulted in equally decisive Penguins wins, including tonight's game where the Rangers suffered a 7-2 loss.  Despite their difficulties with the Penguins the Rangers have still gone a respectable 7-3-0 in their last ten games.  The Rangers hold on second in the division is most precarious, if for no other reason than that they have played more games already than any other team in the division.  As such the rest of the division has a little bit of room to try to catch up over the second half of the season.  The Rangers have made the Playoffs every season since 2009-10.  Despite their stellar record for making the playoffs, the Rangers have not manages a Stanley Cup win since the 1993-94 season.
     The big surprise of the Metropolitan division is the third place seed as of tonight, the Columbus Blue Jackets.  The Blue Jackets have had an amazing season so far.  Tonight's win against the Kings in a shoot out marked a franchise record ten wins in a row.  That's right the Blue Jackets are 10-0-0 in their last ten games.  In addition to this impressive accomplishment, they also managed the highest scoring of a single team in a game this season when they shut the Canadiens out 10-0 earlier in the season.  The Key players thus far for Colombus have been Cam Atkinson with 14 goals and 19 assists so far, Alexander Wenberg with 6 goals and 20 assists, Nick Foligno with 10 goals 13 assists and 33 penalty minutes, and of course Sergei Bobrovsky who has a record of 19-5-2 over 26 games played with a goals against average of 1.94 and a save percentage of .932.  If they can keep their key players healthy, and continue to play consistently well as a team they have a good chance of making the playoffs.  I don't see them making a deep run if for no other reason than they lack the stamina.  Their team is simply not used to playing that extra month or six weeks and each successive game the toll on the stamina and energy is higher, and the chances of injuries due to fatigue are also greater.  Despite my fears I would love to see the Blue Jackets make the effort and at least make it through the first round.  They have only made the playoffs twice in the last ten years, and have been eliminated in either the first of second round on both of those occasions.  That being said however, they are doing great this season and stranger things have been known to happen, so they can not be counted out.  The one thing I can say with certainty is that the Blue Jackets will not get the first round draft pick for 2017-18.
    Holding the fourth spot in the division and the first wild card slot for the eastern conference as of today are the Philadelphia Flyers.  The Flyers are 19-11-4 with 34 games played so far this season.  In their last ten games they have a record of 8-1-1.  This may be one of their best stretches of the season.  Even with as well as they have been playing in the last two weeks I do not think they can sustain this level of play long enough to hold onto the 4th spot in the division or to finish above where they are now.  Their history is against them and they do not have a large group of high performing players.  Really they only have two key goal scorers this season, Jakub Voracek with 11 goal and 23 assists so far, and Wayne Simmonds with 16 goals and 13 assists so far.  The other great weakness that the Flyers have over their Metropolitan playoff contenders is that they do not have a strong goal tender.  Their lead goalie is Steve Mason who has played 27 game with a record of 13-9-4, he has a 2.68 goals against average and only a .908 save percentage.  His first back up is Michal Neuvirth who has played 9 games and has a record of 4-2-0 with a dismal 3.54 goals against average and a save percentage of .859.  Their third string goalie Anthony Stolarz has only played two games but has a record of 2-0-0 with a 1.47 goals against average and a .950 save percentage.  With only 2 games played though these stats are not an accurate representation of skills, it is unlikely that his stats could be maintained with the work load expected of a first or even second line net minder.   The Flyers have missed the playoffs entirely in 3 of the last 10 years.  In the seven years that they made it in they have lost the final round twice, and lost the semi final round twice, the other 3 years they were eliminated early.  They have not won a Stanley cup since 1975.  So despite their strong history of making it into the post season, even deep into the playoffs they have an equally long history of disappointment at the end of their run.  Given their relatively weak goal tending and the fact that they only have 2 consistently effective scorers I do not think that this is going to be their year either. 
      In fifth right now in the division are the Washington Capitals.  That is a bit of a surprise as I expected them to be in the top three.  As it stands today the Capitals would be in the second wild card spot in the eastern conference, and make the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.   With still half a season to go they could easily move up, especially if one of the top three teams right now has a bad couple of weeks.  They have a record of  19-8-3 in 30 games played.  In their last ten games the Capitals are 6-3-1.  I expect to at least see the Capitols pull ahead of the Flyers in the next few weeks, and possibly the Blue Jackets as well, to put them back in the top three before the end of the regular season.  The Capitols are another one of the teams in the NHL who have never won a Stanley Cup.  They have a very strong history of making it into the playoffs and even making deep runs, but have always fallen short of that most coveted of prizes.  The key players so far this season for the Capitals are Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and Braden Holtby.  Back-up goaltender Philipp Grubauer has also been performing exceedingly well, his stats are actually better than Holtby for goals against and win loss record, but he has only played 7 games to Holtby's 23 so far in the season.  If any of these guys was injured and out for any significant length of time it could shatter the Capital's post season hopes for this season, yet again.
     The remaining three teams in the division are the Carolina Hurricanes in 6th right now, the New Jersey Devils in 7th  and at the bottom of the division are the New York Islanders.  I think it very unlikely that any of these teams will make the playoffs this season.  Sadly for them they might have a chance in any other division, but the competition is just too strong in the Metropolitan for a team that is already 6 to 8 wins behind playoff position at the halfway point in the season to recover enough to make the post season.  If there are any major injuries that take one or more of the top teams out of the running there is a possibility that one of these teams could squeak by into a wild card slot but I believe this to be highly improbable.

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