The State of Every NHL Metropolitan Division Team at the Olympic Break

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterFebruary 9, 2014

The State of Every NHL Metropolitan Division Team at the Olympic Break

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    There was a time when the Metropolitan Division was the laughingstock of the NHL, one that boasted the Stanley Cup-contending Pittsburgh Penguins and seven teams better equipped for the AHL.

    With the Olympic break upon us, as far as points per game go, the Metro actually ranks ahead of the Atlantic. The Western Conference boasts the best teams from top to bottom, but the Metro is no longer the worst division in the NHL.

    The Metro is the tightest division in the league and will be worth watching down the stretch. This is a snapshot of where each team stands now and their outlook over the rest of the season.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins (40-15-3, 83 Points)

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    Current Status: The Penguins are running away with the division, and it's only a matter of time before they clinch it. They enter the break with a 6-3-1 mark in their past 10 games and a 16-point lead in the standings over the second-place New York Rangers.

    The recent news that defenseman Kris Letang suffered a stroke and will be out at least six weeks is a shocking blow. There's no guarantee that Letang, the team's leading scorer on the back end, will play again this season. The one area where the Penguins have a plethora of depth is on defense, so they are well-equipped to handle life without Letang.

    Greatest Strength: This isn't breaking news, but Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have the ability to carry this team down the stretch. The Penguins' top two lines are the bread winners on this team, and as long as they are scoring, there's nothing to worry about here.

    Biggest Problem: For a team that is so far ahead of the pack, the Penguins have their share of issues. 

    The biggest one is there is next to zero scoring coming from the bottom-six forwards. It won't be an issue in terms of staving off teams in the Metro, but if they want to win the East, secondary scoring is a must. Depth scoring probably won't affect the Penguins in the regular season, but if they fancy themselves Stanley Cup contenders, they'll need offense from outside the top two lines.

    The other issue facing the Penguins is complacency. The division is theirs and so is home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The problem with taking your foot off the gas is that sometimes you can't get the engine revved when it matters once the playoffs starts.

2. New York Rangers (32-24-3, 67 Points)

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    Current Status: The Rangers went 11-4-0 in their final 15 games before the break, losing three of those games to teams that had a hot goaltender on that particular night. They have sat in second place since Jan. 19, but there are five teams within five points or fewer in the division.

    The Rangers are in the driver's seat for second place in the Metro, but the car has a lot of teams pushing to get behind that steering wheel over the next month.

    Greatest Strength: It wasn't the case early, but Henrik Lundqvist is back to playing like one of the best goaltenders in the world. In his past 16 starts, he is 12-3-1 with a .937 save percentage. Whether it was playing in a new system or because of an injury or because he was worried about signing a contract extension, it's all in the past for Lundqvist.

    Biggest Problem: There aren't really any glaring holes on the Rangers right now, but they could use a little bit of help both offensively and defensively.

    They rank 18th in goals per game and 10th in goals allowed per game, the latter number steadily improving along with Lundqvist. The offense has also gotten better as the season has progressed, but they could use another scorer of any type, be it a big name or a depth player, to help in that area.

    The Rangers could also use a depth defenseman for the stretch. The six they have now are very capable, but they're an injury away from being in trouble on the back end.

3. Philadelphia Flyers (30-23-6, 66 Points)

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    Current Status: The Flyers went into the break as winners of four straight and five of their past six. Before this four-game winning streak, they had lost four of five. Every time it looks as though the Flyers are reeling, they gather themselves and push their way back into a playoff spot.

    Greatest Strength: This is a team that doesn't have one outstanding facet, as it is more of a team that has been built around the sum of its parts. The offense is middle of the road, the goaltending is spotty and the defense is about as mobile as a car with frozen turkeys for tires. 

    When two of those three things are going the right way for the Flyers, they are very formidable. What makes them tough is their perseverance, as there have been numerous occasions this season where they could have thrown in the towel but chose not to. That should serve them well in what will be an intense race for a playoff spot in the East.

    Biggest Problem: It's a tale as old as time in Philadelphia, but the goaltending remains as unreliable as a  watch with no hands. Steve Mason got off to a great start and earned himself a three-year contract extension but has been a mess over the past couple months.

    In his past 25 appearances, Mason has a save percentage of .904. He has the ability to be brilliant at times, but so does every goaltender in the NHL. The Flyers will need more consistency out of him as they hit the homestretch if they want to be a playoff team.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (29-24-5, 63 Points)

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    Current Status: The Blue Jackets head into the break with two straight losses but a 3-1-1 mark in their past five. They have played one fewer game than the Flyers and Rangers, the two teams directly ahead of them in the division. 

    The good news is they are probably going to be as healthy as they've been all season once the Olympic break concludes. Marian Gaborik should be completely over his broken collarbone when NHL play resumes, giving the Jackets another scoring threat for the stretch run.

    Greatest Strength: Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and he has been playing like one since January. He is 10-3-1 with a .931 save percentage since returning from a groin injury that sidelined him for almost all of December.

    When Bobrovsky is playing well, the Blue Jackets are a tough team to beat.

    Biggest Problem: It's a weird thing to say about a franchise that has consistently flopped, but the Blue Jackets don't have many problems right now. They're getting strong goaltending and defense, and with Gaborik set to return, their top-10 offense will likely be even better. 

    They will play nine Western Conference teams over their final 24 games, including Chicago twice. If anything could give the Jackets a problem in March or April, it could be their schedule.

5. Washington Capitals (27-23-9, 63 Points)

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    Current Status: They picked up a much-needed 3-0 win against the New Jersey Devils before the break to keep themselves close to the pack. They went 4-2-1 in their seven games before the Olympics and are trending in the right direction after months of struggles and mediocrity.

    Greatest Strength: It continues to be Alex Ovechkin and the power play. He leads the NHL with 40 goals (the next closest competitor is Phil Kessel with 31 goals), 15 of which have come on the power play.

    The Capitals have the fifth-ranked power play in the NHL, and it's been keeping them afloat this season. They are in the bottom-third of the league in five-on-five goals, but if they can turn that around after the break, they could find themselves in the playoffs.

    Biggest Problem: Besides even-strength scoring, the Capitals have been a poor defensive team all season. They're giving up 2.85 goals per game, 22nd in the league, and allowing 33.3 shots per game, 28th in the league.

    Goaltender Braden Holtby was playing well before the break, but he'll need more help keeping pucks out of the net going forward.

6. Carolina Hurricanes (26-22-9, 61 Points)

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    Current Status: The Hurricanes are plodding along right now, essentially playing .500 hockey for about a month. The one thing they have going for them at the moment is games in hand; they have played two fewer games than the Capitals and Flyers and one fewer game than the Blue Jackets.

    Goaltender Cam Ward missed 14 games with a lower-body injury but recently returned to the lineup. He could be a trade chip, as Anton Khudobin and Justin Peters have been the far better options in net for the Hurricanes this season. 

    Greatest Strength: Their home uniforms? The barbecue available on Raleigh? There's not much in the way of strength with this team, but the uniforms and pulled pork are outstanding.

    The play of Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner is what make the Hurricanes successful. But they can only take the Hurricanes so far. 

    Biggest Problem: The Hurricanes are in a tough spot with their goaltending. Ward is the incumbent starter who has been downright bad this season while Khudobin has been really good. Will coach Kirk Muller lean on his underwhelming veteran or the youngster who is playing much better?

    If Carolina continues to go with Ward, it will have a hard time making the playoffs. But if the 'Canes can deal Ward to get help elsewhere, they can lean on Khudobin and Peters and make a playoff push.

7. New Jersey Devils (24-22-13, 61 Points)

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    Current Status: The Devils are slowly fading. They haven't won in regulation in their past seven games and are 2-3-2 over that time. Luckily for them, they still remain close enough to the third spot in the Metro to believe there is time to turn things around.

    Greatest Strength: Devils coach Peter DeBoer seems to have realized what many knew from the start of the season—Cory Schneider is the team's best goaltender and deserves the lion's share of the starts over Martin Brodeur.

    Since Brodeur allowed six goals on 21 shots to the Rangers at Yankee Stadium on Jan. 26, he hasn't touched the ice. Schneider has made a season-high six straight starts and has been his usual solid self. If the Devils continue to give the reins to Schneider, they still have hope of making the playoffs.

    Biggest Problem: The Devils are an abysmal offensive club, scoring just 2.29 goals per game. Only three teams have more inept offenses—the Panthers, Kings and Sabres. The Devils have been shut out a league-worst seven times with six of those shutouts occurring with Schneider in net.

    For all the talk of Schneider vs. Brodeur, the Devils' lack of offense has been the real issue this season. If they don't give Schneider more support, they'll be sitting at home come playoff time for a second straight season.

8. New York Islanders (22-30-8, 52 Points)

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    Current Status: The Islanders are the only team in the Metro that is truly dead and buried. They are 14 points out of a playoff spot with 22 games remaining and lost seven of eight heading into the Olympic break.

    Greatest Strength: It continues to be John Tavares and anyone playing on his line. The unit of Thomas Vanek, Tavares and Kyle Okposo is perhaps the best in the league, but it has little support behind it. That strength will likely take a hit before the March 5 trade deadline, when the Islanders are sure to move Vanek to a contender.

    Biggest Problem: The Islanders need help in net. Evgeni Nabokov is on his last legs while the 23-year-old Kevin Poulin has 48 starts in his career. Vanek is a valuable chip and could fetch a young goaltender in the right deal.

    If the Islanders don't feel Poulin is the goaltender of the future, they need to go out and get someone either in the trade market after the break or this summer via free agency.