When the season began, many people felt the Metropolitan Division would be capable of sending five teams to the playoffs. The top three spots would be hotly contested, then the next two challengers would scoop up both the wild card spots that the Eastern Conference had to offer. At least that was the plan.
Then again, many of those people thought the Columbus Blue Jackets would be one of those wild card teams. As it turns out, they’re actually the only Metro club that doesn’t still have a shot at the postseason. And they’ve been out of it for about three months.
With roughly 60 games in the books, it looks likely that one of those wild card spots is going to a team from the Atlantic. That leaves a number of Metro clubs scrambling just to make the playoffs. We can go ahead and assume the Washington Capitals are in, since they’re doing that whole challenge-for-the-best-record-in-hockey-history thing. And let’s put the New York Rangers in too, seeing as how they always seem to be there in May.
For the sake of argument, let’s even set aside the New York Islanders for now. That’s not to say they can’t be caught by any of the clubs we’re about to discuss but, for the time being, they’re at least slightly ahead of the pack.
Instead, let’s focus on the race between four teams for what may very well end up being just one wild card spot. Entering play on Friday, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Carolina and Philadelphia were separated by a grand total of three points. That deserves a closer look, using some of the main factors that tend to decide games late in a season.
Goaltending – New Jersey
This one shouldn’t be all that hard to figure out. Yes, Marc-Andre Fleury won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh — but he’s had his fair share of playoff letdowns since then. And yes, Cam Ward once won a Cup (and the Conn Smythe) with Carolina. But it’s safe to say a lot has changed since then. Even Philadelphia’s Steve Mason took home the Calder Trophy back in 2009, but he’s dealt with considerable ups and downs in the last six years.
On the other hand, Cory Schneider has been on an absolute tear ever since he left Vancouver and joined New Jersey. He owns one of the top save percentages (0.926) and best goals against averages (2.11) in all of hockey, he’s a legitimate Vezina candidate and, quite frankly, he’s the reason the Devils are even in the middle of this race.
To be fair, Fleury has been solid for the Pens this season, and finally looked good again in the playoffs last April. But Schneider is almost New Jersey’s entire foundation for winning right now.
Big Game Experience – Pittsburgh
The Penguins’ inability to win multiple Stanley Cups with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the roster has been well documented. For awhile there, they were at least winning a playoff series or two every year…only to seemingly find new ways to lose before they got too deep. And last season, injuries finally caught up with them, to the tune of a first round exit.
That said, that core of Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Kris Letang has won a Cup before, they’re all still among the best at their respective positions and they have a wealth of playoff experience on their resumes. Whether they go anywhere in the playoffs (or even make the playoffs, for that matter) remains to be seen. But pressure shouldn’t be an issue. In fact, they’ll be playing the unfamiliar role of underdogs against most opponents this postseason.
Special Teams – New Jersey
Slight edge to the Devils here, over the Penguins. New Jersey has the best power play of the group, coming in at No. 9 overall by converting 20.7 percent of the time. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are tied for 16th in the league, at 18.4 percent, and the Pens have improved since Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench. Meanwhile, Carolina has had issues with the man advantage, connecting just 16.8 percent of the time (26th in the NHL).
The Penguins lead the way when playing shorthanded, killing off penalties at a rate of 83.9 percent. Not only is that the best of this group, it’s No. 5 in the league. The Devils (No. 10) and Hurricanes (No. 11) are both near the top as well, while the Flyers (No. 24) have struggled in that department all year.
Success In One-Goal Games – Pittsburgh
The Pens’ 0.533 winning percentage in one-goal games is the best of this group, and good for 11th in the NHL. Fleury’s impressive play in the crease — as well as that decent penalty kill in front of him — have been major catalysts for their success in close games.
Not surprisingly, the Devils are second here, using their ability to grind out low-scoring victories to amass a 0.514 winning percentage in games decided by one goal.
Possession – Carolina
Looking at percentage of shot attempts lends some insight into how the Hurricanes have been able to defy expectations and hang around in the midst of a rebuild. They’re not a high-scoring team (2.45 goals per game, good for 23rd), but they possess the puck more than most (52.59, fifth in the NHL). The Penguins aren’t far behind at 51.98 (eighth) and the Flyers are putting up a respectable 50.16 (17th), but the Devils are among the very worst in hockey at 46.57 (29th).
Coaching Resume – Push
There just isn’t a whole lot of head coaching experience here — at least not at the NHL level. Mike Sullivan put in two years with Boston around the 2004-05 work stoppage, but he’s only been with the Penguins for a grand total of 27 games. He’s still got a head start on Dave Hakstol and John Hynes though, who are in their first seasons. Compared to them, Bill Peters is practically a vet, because he started his NHL coaching career a whole year and a half ago.