American Thanksgiving has passed, which means hockey fans are free to look at the standings.
The holiday serves as a benchmark that signals the unofficial start of playoff races. With two months of play complete and teams hitting the 20-game mark, we have an idea of team identities, strengths and areas that will be targeted as we approach the March 21 trade deadline.
We can start to determine which teams have chances and which teams do not.
But that isn't easy in the Metropolitan Division. The last-place team, the New York Islanders, was a game away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season. Metro teams hold the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, and two others are within four points. The Washington Capitals lead the NHL with 33 points, and the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers sit right behind them. It is an incredibly tight division.
No offense to the Atlantic Division, but if the Boston Bruins have any shot of making the playoffs, they will likely need to bump the Florida Panthers, the Toronto Maple Leafs or the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning out of a playoff spot in their division. The Bruins could still bring back free-agent goalie Tuukka Rask and make a run, but with so many good teams in the Metro Division, it's an uphill battle for everyone in the Eastern Conference.
Each team in this division started the season with playoff hopes, except for maybe the Columbus Blue Jackets. But Columbus has improved quickly, which has made for a crowded division. It's difficult to handicap this race because so much of the season is left and things like injuries will factor into performances, so we'll look at each team and determine whether its playoff hopes are legitimate or not.
The teams at the top
Let's start with the three best. Carolina, Washington and the Rangers are pulling away from the rest of the division.
Alexander Ovechkin looks ageless with 19 goals. The captain netted a hat trick Friday against the Panthers, and while that might be standard for Ovi, it's not every day you see a 36-year-old score at that pace.
He's putting up 1.68 points per game, which ranks third in the NHL, and has recaptured some magic with Evgeny Kuznetsov. A reinvigorated Kuznetsov is important—for himself, considering the Caps looked into offloading him over the summer, but especially for the depleted lineup.
T.J. Oshie is out with a foot injury, Anthony Mantha is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, Lars Eller has been in COVID-19 protocol since Nov. 16, Nicklas Backstrom started the season on injured reserve after offseason hip surgery, and Conor Sheary and Justin Schultz are both day-to-day.
The subplot is Ovechkin's chase to match Wayne Gretzky's all-time scoring record. He needs 145 to match the Great One's record of 894 goals, and with the way he's playing, he could knock off 30 more this season.
Carolina is one of the best possession teams in the league in 5-on-5. This has been the Hurricanes' calling card for a few years. It's a straightforward approach: Shoot the puck. A lot. The best defense in today's NHL is offense.
Buoyed by elite shooters like Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho, Carolina started the season winning nine straight. A plus-23 goal differential suggests these numbers are sustainable, and this has been an elite team for years.
Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta might not be an elite goaltending tandem, but Andersen is having a bounce-back season. Until he slips, the doubters can remain quiet.
The Rangers have been among the worst teams in the league at 5-on-5. Per NaturalStatTrick.com, their 45.19 Corsi percentage is the lowest in the NHL. The bulk of their offense has come from Chris Kreider (15 goals). Only 37 of the team's 59 goals have been scored at even strength. But they're defending well and have had elite goaltending from Igor Shesterkin.
The Rangers have made it known they would like to take the next step in their rebuild and make the playoffs. This could be the year, and it should with the high-end talent they possess, but they might be on the bubble with other teams on their heels.
The teams in the middle
A cluster of teams is within a few points of one another. The Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins each have 24 points. The New Jersey Devils have 22, and the Philadelphia Flyers have 20. The Blue Jackets and Devils are on the upswing, and the Flyers and Penguins appear to be hanging on, trying to stave off rebuilds.
The Penguins are sticking around in the standings because of goalie Tristan Jarry. Last year, some blamed Jarry for Pittsburgh's lack of success. The club cleared the path for Jarry by parting ways with Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray, and many wondered if that was the right move, especially as Fleury played Vezina-caliber hockey in Las Vegas.
Some of the criticism was valid, but Jarry is proving to be the No. 1 goalie the club envisioned he would be.
After shutting out the Islanders on Friday, Jarry's .936 save percentage is tied for third in the league, and his mark of 9.63 goals saved above average is the third-best. His performance has been crucial considering the Penguins went without Sidney Crosby to start the season and Evgeni Malkin is still on IR.
The Devils and the Blue Jackets have a road map in place. They know where they want to go, and they're attempting to get there through talent development. New Jersey is seeing good results as players like Dawson Mercer and Yegor Sharangovich play big roles. When the Devils finally get Jack Hughes healthy again, they could be dangerous.
But the Flyers are in a tough spot. They have lost six straight, and the season appears to be falling apart. The lack of roster depth has been exposed as injuries to key players like Ryan Ellis have piled up. Philadelphia is in a precarious spot and may need to blow it up and start trying to retain assets. It's right up against the salary cap, so it's tough for general manager Chuck Fletcher to make any moves that might improve the team in the short term.
The one good thing the Flyers have going for them is their draft capital. They have all but one pick each of the next two years. It's time for them to get younger, and they can do that with high picks and prospects. It might not be a palatable move, but Claude Giroux is in the final year of his contract, so trading the captain at the deadline might be a painful but necessary move.
What to make of the Islanders? Many (myself included) picked them to win the division. The team seemed poised for another long playoff run. A new arena. A top coach. This was supposed to be the year it came together.
It still could be. We know the Islanders are capable of reeling off five, six, seven or even eight wins at a time. Instead, they've lost eight straight. They're 5-10-2 with only 12 points.
How can a Stanley Cup contender be this bad?
You could start with COVID-19. The Isles have eight players in COVID protocol, and their next two games are postponed. The league was late on postponing games, forcing them to play with as many as seven players in protocol.
Plus, they're without defenseman Ryan Pulock because of injury, and Brock Nelson is hurt too.
It's still early, but is it getting late early for the Islanders? This team has proved doubters wrong many times in the past. Barry Trotz and his system are never really out of the game. But with the division this competitive, one of the Eastern Conference favorites could be left out this spring.