All of a sudden, welcome to the last full week of the 2021-22 NHL regular season. That’s a bit of a stretch since next week still has five days left to play after this one, but that should fall into place as the NHL playoffs are right around the corner.
With most teams still having six or seven games to play, here’s what the Eastern Conference looks like on this beautiful Easter morning.
Probably the most interesting thing that happens — aside from Florida refusing to lose — is that we could see two runs in the Metropolitan Division in stride. The Carolina and New York State Rangers are tied after 76 games apiece — and that’s even with the Hurricanes picking up a 4-2 win on the road this week. The Canes having a 2-1-0 record against NYR right now stand out, with another absolutely massive game between the two on April 26.
The Pittsburgh/Washington race is set to resume now that Tristan Jarry has a broken bone in his foot, according to the Post Gazette. Replacement Casey DeSmith has won just eight of his 20 starts this season, which will put victory at a premium in Pittsburgh these days.
Pittsburgh wasn’t the only place with goalie issues, Boston and Carolina also suffered injuries to their starting goalies this week.
Let’s see the week that was for playoff-bound teams:
#1 Carolina (2-2-0): The Hurricanes haven’t inspired much confidence over the past month and are continuing on a rocky end to the season. Beating NYR on Tuesday, as mentioned above, was monumental in scale. But they followed that up with a 3-0 loss to Detroit, then got slammed 7-4 by Colorado last night. The good news is that the Hurricanes’ schedule isn’t daunting at all (AZ, WPG, NJD, NYI, NYR, NJD) but the bad news is that they’re just 2-3-0 in their last five games. against non – playoff teams. For much of the season, it seemed inevitable that the Division Championship banner would go to Raleigh, but no longer seems so inevitable. Starting goaltender Frederik Andersen left the game against Colorado last night with an injury, as did Jordan Staal.
#2 New York Rangers (2-1-0): Unlike their rivals, Rangers win the games they are supposed to win – and do so quite easily. NYR knocked out Philadelphia and Detroit this week by matching scores 4-0 after falling at home to Carolina 4-2 on Tuesday. Rangers’ schedule is tougher than Carolina’s (NYR still has Boston and Washington to come), but at this point they’re in a great position to qualify for the top seed in the Metropolitan Division.
#3 Pittsburgh (2-1-1): Busy week for the Pens, who saw Evgeni Malkin pull out of the equation for four games, Jarry get injured, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel essentially dragged them back to winning ways before clinching a 2-1 loss to Boston. Pittsburgh has played the most games at this point of any Eastern contender, which means their reward is a long four-day layoff this week. They can use the rest.
Wildcard #2 Washington (3-1-0): The Caps went 1-1 against playoff teams (beating Boston last Sunday, losing to Toronto Thursday) and then handled things by going 2-0 against poor teams (throwing Philly 9-2 on Tuesday and lighting up Montreal for an 8-4 win last night). That’s many, many, many goals all week. The goalkeeper has become shaky, allowing 11 goals in total over the last two games. That included Ilya Samsonov who fumbled the reins of the number one position for about the 1,034th time when he allowed four goals on just 19 shots and was retired in Toronto. Vitek Vanecek hasn’t been much better, conceding seven goals in 82 minutes since that point, leaving the net as problematic and weak as ever in Washington.
#1 Florida (2-0-0): An easy week in Florida, which won 2-1 (OT) against Anaheim then activated the post-boosters to leave the Jets in the dust 6-1. The Panthers haven’t lost in a month (3/17) and while they have to run a TOR-TB-BOS gauntlet that starts Saturday, their other four games remaining this season are all non-playoff contenders. FLA is up eight points on NYR/CAR, the top spot in the East is all but assured at this point.
#2Toronto (2-1-0): The pesky Sabers got up and beat Toronto 5-2 on Tuesday, but the Leafs responded with a dominating 7-3 win over Washington on Thursday, then held on for a 5-4 overtime win over Ottawa last night. . The schedule tightens up next week, with a swing in Florida taking Toronto @TB and @FLA from Thursday. For now though, the Leafs are well enough grounded for a future of finding themselves in the Atlantic 2v3 first round game.
#3 Tampa Bay (3-1-0): The only change in the standings from last week was Tampa jumping over Boston and coming out of the wild card. The Lightning accomplished that with a great week that saw them beat three inferior teams (BUF, ANA, WPG) and get stumbled in a 1-0 loss to Dallas. Victor Hedman tied his career high in single-season points with 72 (19G+53A) in 75 games and is very much in control on the ice, giving Tampa a big boost.
Wildcard #1 Boston (1-3-0): Scoring goals has been a huge challenge lately for Boston without David Pastrnak, who has missed the last six games through injury. They’ve scored exactly two goals in all of their games this week and lost three. That included a 2-0 lead against Ottawa on Thursday, and the Bruins didn’t even go to overtime to get a point from it. Add to that an injury to starting goaltender Linus Ullmark and the Bs are suddenly in shaky territory and three points off third place now, having been such a hot team in March and early April. The stretch race will also be tough, with five of their last seven games coming against playoff-caliber opponents. It now looks like Boston is on track for a Wild Card spot, and possibly playing the winner Metropolitan in the first round of the playoffs.
Key games of the week
Monday: Washington @ Colorado
Thursday: Boston @ Pittsburgh, Toronto @ Tampa
Saturday: NY Rangers @ Boston, Toronto @ Florida
Sunday: Tampa @ Florida, Toronto @ Washington
The Maple Leafs will be the team to watch this week, with three huge games in four days starting Thursday. By Saturday, a Panthers win over Toronto could be the key to the division, if they can get it.
Penguin Match Prospects
Here’s what the models are saying this morning about how the playoff landing spot tracks Pittsburgh:
The Athletic: Likelihood of a playoff opponent before yesterday’s loss was: 54% chance for Rangers, 23% for Panthers, 22% for Hurricanes (also sees 61% chance for FLA/ WASH)
Moneypuck: 3% chance for second place Metro, 66% chance for third place Metro, 30% Wild Card
With Rangers and Hurricanes far ahead, the best reasonable spot the Pens could be right now is third in the subway. To do that, they’ll need to stay one step ahead of the Capitals. Pittsburgh is three points up, but the Caps have two games in hand.
These ongoing games will be tough for Washington. They’re on the road this week @COL, @VGK, @AZ with tough first two games. Next week, the Caps close the schedule with Toronto (who just destroyed them), two games against the Islanders (who, we have seen, are far from having given up) then the Rangers.
The Pens, for their part, have two tough games left (BOS, EDM) and then what should be three easier games in Philly, Detroit and at home for Columbus.
If Pittsburgh gets three wins, that would be 103 points on the season. To reach 104 points, the Caps would need to win five of the above seven games, which seems like a daunting task.