Since the NHL realigned in 2013-14, there is always talk every year about which division is the best in the NHL at any given point in time. Sometimes it’s a very subjective debate, and at other times, it’s pretty crystal clear which one rules the roost. This year, we’ve seen a major shift, as the Central is slightly down, the Atlantic is really down, the Pacific is rising, and the Metropolitan Division is absolutely scorching hot right now. We’ll take a deeper look at that debate, more change in Sunrise with the Florida Panthers, a pair of expected contenders in the Atlantic that have been struggling, and an unexpected surprise in the crease in the Big Apple in this week’s edition of Around The NHL.
THE METROPOLITAN DIVISION RULES THE ROOST AND IT’S NOT CLOSE
Ever since realignment three years ago, the Central Division has been widely lauded as the toughest in the NHL, and it’s tough to argue that logic when they’ve been the only division since the new playoff format was devised to send the maximum of five teams to the postseason each year. While they could keep that streak going this season, there’s another division that has leapfrogged them in terms of teams that are absolutely steamrolling the competition right now, and that’s the Metropolitan Division. Right now, Metro teams own five of the top seven positions in the overall NHL standings: the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Washington Capitals. Four of those teams currently have winning streaks of at least five games, with Washington owning a five-game winning streak, Columbus and Pittsburgh on seven-game runs, and Philly, the hottest team of them all, on a 10-game winning streak, their longest since 1985. All of those teams are in the top nine in the league in goal differential right now, with the Rangers and Blue Jackets on top of the NHL with an absurd plus-36 and plus-33, respectively. Can you guess who the top four teams are in the entire league in goals-per-game? Yep, you guessed it, four Metropolitan teams, with the Penguins averaging 3.53 goals a night, followed by the Rangers at 3.38, the Blue Jackets at 3.30, and the Flyers at 3.19. The Jackets and Capitals own the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference, as Washington owns a seven-point edge on Tampa Bay for that final playoff spot. At this rate, if you’re the Lightning or any of the other struggling Atlantic Division teams, your best bet at making the postseason is probably going to be finishing in the top three in the Atlantic, because the Metro doesn’t appear to be giving up those wild card spots.
ANTTI RAANTA’S PLAY LEFT HENRIK LUNDQVIST ON THE BENCH
Over the last decade, Henrik Lundqvist has been one of the top netminders in the world and arguably the main reason the New York Rangers are a playoff team year in and year out. A model of consistency, Lundqvist has never gone more than three games in a row without starting when healthy. This season, however, he hasn’t been the Lundqvist we’ve grown accustomed to seeing over the course of his career, but he’s been helped out by the Rangers ability to score goals in bunches. Following a 4-2 loss to the Islanders in Brooklyn on December 6, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault went with backup Antti Raanta in net for the final two games of that road trip, and Raanta responded by stopping 17 of 18 shots in a 2-1 victory in Winnipeg and all 26 shots in a 1-0 overtime win in Chicago. He then got the starting nod in a game against New Jersey at home, turning aside 19 shots in a 5-0 blanking of the Devils. For the first time in his career, Lundqvist would be on the bench for a fourth straight game, as Raanta started the Rangers’ rematch against Chicago, stopping 24 of 26 shots in a 2-1 loss in which the Blackhawks’ Scott Darling made 33 saves.
“Hank is all about the team and he’s with Antti right now and how he’s playing,” Vigneault said after that game. “He’s been in this game a long time. My first year this sort of happened in December; he went three games without playing. When we were making that playoff push to the finals, I don’t remember anybody bringing up the fact that Hank had missed three games in December.”
Lundqvist started Thursday’s 2-0 shutout win in Dallas in which he had to leave the game during the first period after being run over by the Stars’ Cody Eakin. Eakin was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct for charging but returned, finishing with 27 saves in the win.
THE PANTHERS RESTRUCTURE THEIR FRONT OFFICE…..AGAIN
We talked in this piece before about the Florida Panthers’ firing of former head coach Gerard Gallant and what a bad look it was for the franchise. This was due to pictures of Gallant literally being kicked to the curb and hailing a cab in Raleigh to get to the airport after being canned by management following a loss to Carolina appearing on social media. Well, you can add the latest restructuring of their front office to the list of insanity happening down in Sunrise. Former GM Dale Tallon, who was bumped upstairs into an upper management role and replaced by Tom Rowe (who replaced Gallant behind the bench), has now been moved back into his old position of being the one to have final say in hockey decisions. So after a franchise-record 103 points and a division title last season, the Panthers replaced their old head coach with their GM, then put their old GM in the spot that was occupied by the new GM. What’s even more interesting is how Panthers majority owner Vinnie Viola told Elliott Friedman of Sportsnet in Canada that Tallon, “has always had final say over hockey decisions.” So Tallon had final say in making multiple changes in personnel this summer after painstakingly rebuilding a struggling team into a contender and undoing all of his work? I don’t buy that for a second. As a result, the Panthers have come crashing back to Earth after the best regular season in franchise history, as they are 2-3-4 with Rowe as their coach and are four points behind Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division. Perhaps Viola realized his original move of replacing Tallon was a major mistake and is now trying to cover himself. At this point, might as well just suck it up and admit you made a mistake and you need Tallon to clean it up….again.
LIGHTNING ALSO STRUGGLING TO TREAD WATER IN THE STANDINGS
Speaking of struggling Sunshine State teams, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were predicted by many (including yours truly) to be the favorite to win the Stanley Cup this year, have been very average so far, sitting three points behind Boston for fourth place in the Atlantic. While that’s not a huge hill to climb, that’s realistically the only hill they have a shot at climbing at the moment, as the Washington Capitals have a seven-point cushion over them for the last wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Since winning four in a row on a five-game road trip in the middle of November, the Lightning have gone 3-7-1 in their last 11 games, including a stretch where they won only once in eight contests. Their 6-3 win in Calgary on Wednesday was their first regulation win since November 23rd against Philadelphia. It was also just the third time in nine games they had scored more than once in regulation and only the third time in nine games they had allowed fewer than four goals. There are plenty of reasons why the Lightning have struggled this year; their inability to score the first goal of the game, falling behind by multiple goals early in games, lackluster play in their own zone, goaltending that has been good at times and average at others, and a recent inability to kill penalties effectively. During their last 11 games, their penalty killing is operating at a ghastly percentage of 70.7%, allowing the opposition to score 12 goals with the man advantage on 41 opportunities. The Bolts have missed Steven Stamkos more than I thought they would, as they’d proven their ability to win without him in the past, but the offense has largely dried up without him, Wednesday’s game being an obvious exception. This team is too talented to continue to struggle putting pucks in the net, but they’ll have to tighten things up in their own zone if they’re going to stay in the playoff hunt as the season continues on.