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  • Let’s Take a Look Around the League: Eastern Conference


    Last week I took you on a tour of the Western Conference teams. This week I continue this delightful trip around the NHL with the Eastern Conference. This write

    Metropolitan Division

    Jim Dowd’s Pants took a long, hard look at three of the biggest surprises in the Metropolitan Division. Really, the surprise is just how good the Metropolitan is overall. Five of the top seven teams in the entire league are from the Metro Division. The only non-Metropolitan teams among that group are the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks, both of whom lead their respective divisions. Looking at goal differentials, the Philadelphia Flyers fall down to tenth and the Minnesota Wild jump into the top-seven, but otherwise the Metropolitan maintains its strong position in the league. Where the Metropolitan Division doesn’t look as dominant is in puck possession. Looking at Corsi %, only the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins are in the top 10.

    The New York Rangers may lead the division, but their puck possession is not so strong. All situations Corsi % is 47.26. Their Corsi % Close is better at 49.57% meaning they are nearly 50-50 when the game is close in score. Rangers have been enjoying one of the most impressive goalie duels in recent times. Henrik Lundqvist has been very solid at .920 but has recently lost the starting gig (if only temporarily) to Antti Raanta, who has been lights out at .941.

    The Penguins have three of the top 10 skaters in points thus far in the season (the Wild have one player in the top 50). I could write more here, but frankly what more do you need to explain the Penguins’ success than the dominant play of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel?

    The Columbus Blue Jackets weren’t in the playoffs last year but they look like a lock this year. They are tied with the Rangers for the league lead in goal differential. Sergei Bobrovsky is playing well, they are getting solid goal scoring across all of their lines. They are on a nine game winning streak. John Tortarella may have caught a lot of flak for the performance of Team USA, but his decision to forgo morning skates is making him look very smart.

    The Flyers just had their recent ten game winning streak snapped in Dallas and followed it up with a shootout loss to the Nashville Predators. That streak reversed their fortunes, which at the end of October were bleak with a record of 4-5-1. Netminder Steve Mason started playing quite well and the Flyers have managed to find ways to win whether it has been a comeback, a clutch string of saves, or timely depth scoring.

    The Washington Capitals have been playing pretty well this season, yet find themselves only in a wildcard spot after torching the league last season. Braden Holtby has been playing well and getting excellent relief from backup Philipp Grubauer (.925 and .934 respectively). Nicklas Backstrom, possibly the most underrated player in the entire league, has a team-leading 27 points and is scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace and is winning faceoffs at a rate of better than 53%. Not much to complain about in Washington, except that their division has become a meat grinder.

    Carolina Hurricanes are missing Staal, specifically Jordan Staal (although with how Eric Staal has been playing this year it probably applies to him too). He was injured on 27 November during the game against the Florida Panthers. Staal was tied for second last season on the team in points. Even though his scoring pace this season was down a bit from last season before his injury, his missing production is hurting Carolina. Overall, the Canes aren’t scoring well despite being sixth in the league in team shot differential per game.

    The New Jersey Devils have a new toy this season named Taylor Hall. Although he was out with a torn meniscus for awhile, he’s bounced back and is second on the team 20 points in 23 games. He will be crucial to the team’s success as the team went 2-4-2 in his absence. He might not be enough though, as the Canes have the worst goal differential in the Eastern Conference.

    The New York Islanders are dead in the water. John Tavares isn’t lighting up the league as he’s done in seasons past, and the team seems to be missing the production of Kyle Okposo. The Islanders also have a terrible power play and the fifth-worst penalty kill. Special teams might not be enough to guarantee success, but it seems they can absolutely sink your season.

    Atlantic Division

    The Atlantic Division is looking like it will come down to what two teams can manage to capture the division’s second and third playoff spots because the Canadiens aren’t likely to give up their division lead and the Metropolitan Division isn’t going to give up either of the wildcard playoff spots. Currently, the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins are holding down the two remaining playoff spots, but the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Florida Panthers, and the Buffalo Sabres have managed to stay within striking distance of the last spot. All of those teams have at least one game in hand on Boston and if they won all of them would overtake the Bruins. Somebody makes the bold prediction that this season will be the season that the Detroit Red Wings fail to reach the playoffs... and this year they are right. The addition of Thomas Vanek and resurgence of Jimmy Howard won’t be enough to overcome the combination of a dominant rival division taking the extra playoff spots off the table and the upward trajectory of former punching bags like the Panthers, Senators, and Sabres. Remaining in the basement are the Toronto Maple Leafs. The young stars of the team are fun to watch, but this team is overall still a mess. Mike Babcock might be able to make something happen with these boys, but it won’t be this year.

    Only two teams in the Atlantic Division have a positive goal differential: the Lightning are just above .500 with a +3 and the Canadiens are sitting on a +31 which has them tied for fourth in the league with the Wild by that measure. Much like the Wild, this high goal differential owes much to the lights out play of their starting goaltender. Carey Price is having another fantastic season, posting third overall numbers in both save percentage (.936) and GAA (1.87). Add in strong play from players like newly acquired Shea Weber and Alexander Radulov and the Habs look like they are bound to enjoy home ice advantage for at least a couple of series in the playoffs.

    I really can’t figure out how the Senators have gotten themselves into second place in their division. It’s not that they are playing poorly. They are getting about league average goaltending and are shooting with .087 accuracy, which is also fairly average. They have allowed 87 goals while scoring 83, so on the whole they are being outscored but remove one blow out game, like their 5-1 losses to Anaheim, Nashville, or Detroit, and they’re breaking even in goal differential. Looking over their schedule, the best explanation seems to be that often when the Senators lose, they lose badly. They have eight games where they lost by at least three goals. For comparison, Minnesota has one game that they lost by three goals. As a result, many of the overall numbers look average at best, weighed down by those big losses, but their overall record is a very respectable 19-11-3.

    Boston is a team of puck possession let down by a league-worst shooting percentage. Three of the top five players in the league in 5v5 Corsi % are on the Bruins. If you adjust the stats to only include players with a minimum of 10 games played, they have the top three players and seven of the top 50 by that metric. Even when the other team manages to get the puck, they have a tough obstacle in Tukkaa Rask to overcome. He’s playing extremely well and will likely join Price and Devan Dubnyk on the shortlist for the Vezina. If and when the Bruins’ shooting percentage regresses towards the mean, the Bruins will be a dangerous team and might be able to challenge their longtime rivals for primacy in the Atlantic.

    The Lightning are playing without Steven Stamkos... again. But unlike last season, they aren’t getting the scoring, defensive effort, and goaltending to make up for it. As a result, they’ve gone 3-7-2 in their last 12 games. That puts them 11 points off the division leader. That’s a big drop for a team that made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final last season. Goalie Ben Bishop has gone from playing like one of the top netminders in the league to putting up a fairly pedestrian .907 so far this season. His upcoming status as a free agent after this season seems to be weighing heavily on him, especially as the Lightning have extended wunderkind Andrei Vasilevskiy which indicates they’ve decided on him as their goalie-of-the-future.

    The Florida Panthers need to score some goals. They’re tied for 24th in the league for goals scored. They’re a -9 in goal differential. A low team shooting percentage of .075 looks to be the main culprit in their goal scoring woes. A below average power play isn’t helping things either. Upheaval caused by the recent firing of head coach Gerard Gallant, the swirling cloud of rumors concerning Dave Tallon’s role in the organization, and the three big acquisitions of Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, and James Reimer all playing well under expectations are also weighing down the hopes and dreams of hockey fans that like soccer jerseys. At least Jaromir Jagr was able to tie Messier’s career points record.

    The Sabres’ penalty kill is somehow worse than Chicago’s. As a (fun for Wild fans) reminder, Chicago’s penalty kill rate at one point this season was worse than 50%, and not because the stat was taken from a small sample of two or three games. It was historically bad. The Sabres were clearly uncomfortable with that state of affairs and have now managed to take the bottom spot in the NHL with a PK sputtering along at 73.7%. The injury to Jack Eichel early on in the season certainly didn’t help the team either.

    Wild fans have to be pleased with the strides made by the team’s penalty kill this season as compared to last. Last season’s frustration with the ineffectual penalty kill was made even more palpable was that the preceding season saw the Wild finish as the best in the league. Take a moment to empathize with Red Wings fans. Those octopus-tossing, mitten-pointing gearheads have watched their once dominant power play drop to dead last in the NHL. No one is surprised that the departure of Pavel Datsyuk hurt the team’s production with the man advantage, but this team has lost the magic it once had on the power play.

    The Toronto Maple Leafs have embraced the rebuild after many years of denial. It hasn’t paid off yet, but it wasn’t supposed to. That being said, the outstanding play of rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner might just speed up the timetable. Both are projected to surpass 60 points this season. While the Wild found a way to hold the duo to a lone goal scored by Matthews in their two games against Toronto, many teams are finding it difficult to keep these young stars contained. Unfortunately, there are just too many holes on this team, particularly on defense, for the Leafs to contend with the teams ahead of them.

    This has been far from a complete take on what has happened so far this season in the Eastern Conference, but should you find yourself stuck at the holiday dinner table with a cousin from out east, at least you’ll have something to talk about.



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