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Metropolitan: Penguins in complete control

Monday, 02.24.2014 / 3:00 AM / NHL Insider

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

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Metropolitan: Penguins in complete control
After sitting atop the standings all season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are looking to wrap up the Metropolitan Division in the home stretch.

There's no question which team will win the Metropolitan Division. After that, however, things are wide open.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have dominated the division almost since opening night, and despite injuries that forced them to raid their farm system, they return from the Olympic break with a 16-point lead over the second-place New York Rangers. Sidney Crosby is poised to win another NHL scoring title, but the Penguins have enough offensive depth, defense and goaltending to pace them through the final six weeks of the regular season before what they expect will be a long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The other two automatic playoff berths in the division are very much in play, as are the Eastern Conference's two wild-card berths.

The Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers survived bad starts and return from the break second and third in the division, respectively. They're trying to fend off the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils, all of whom have been inconsistent but are no more than a short winning streak away from jumping into the top three. Only the New York Islanders appear to have too much of a hill to climb to make the postseason.

Here's a look at the eight Metropolitan teams as they prepare for the stretch run:

PIT Pittsburgh Penguins (40-15-3)

Position: 1st in division, 1st in conference

Games remaining: 24 (13 home, 11 away)

What went right: Crosby has stayed healthy and is leading the NHL in scoring. His left wing, Chris Kunitz, is having a career year. Forward Evgeni Malkin survived some early injury problems and was red hot entering the Olympic break. Forward Jussi Jokinen leads an impressive group of secondary scorers. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has rebounded from last spring's playoff problems and leads the NHL with 31 victories; rookie backup Jeff Zatkoff is 8-0-1 in his past nine starts and gives coach Dan Bylsma a viable alternative so he doesn't have to wear out his starter. The power play ranks first and the penalty kill ranks second in the League.

Where they've struggled: Aside from injuries that would have decimated a lot of other teams, there's not a lot to complain about. Even the injuries generated a positive outcome; the minor-league call-ups showed they can play at the NHL level.

What they're looking for: General manager Ray Shero would probably like to find a replacement for Pascal Dupuis, Crosby's regular right wing, who's gone for the season after knee surgery. With defenseman Kris Letang out after suffering a stroke, Shero might try to add help on the blue line as well. He has the resources to do both.

Scheduling: The Penguins open March with a five-game trip that includes their Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game against the Chicago Blackhawks at Soldier Field on March 1 and back-to-back games against the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks. Pittsburgh has a four-game homestand in late March and plays its final three games at Consol Energy Center

Outlook: The Penguins should cruise to the division title and have the inside track on finishing first in the East.

NYR New York Rangers (32-24-3)

Position: 2nd in division, 6th in conference

Games remaining: 23 (10 home, 13 away)

What went right: It took a little time, but the Rangers have grown accustomed to coach Alain Vigneault's system, which is more offense-minded than that of his predecessor, John Tortorella. Goalie Cam Talbot has been terrific as a backup for Henrik Lundqvist, allowing Vigneault to avoid wearing out his most important player. Forward Mats Zuccarello has blossomed into the team's top scorer, and a balanced attack has nine players who've reached double figures in goals and 10 with 23 or more points. Zuccarello returned from the Sochi Olympics with a broken hand.

Where they've struggled: Lundqvist got off to the worst start of his career, and his numbers (22-18-3, 2.44 goals-against average, .918 save percentage) aren't up to his usual standards. Forward Rick Nash rebounded from an early-season concussion and has 18 goals in 42 games, but he and linemates Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider went cold in the two weeks before the break. The Rangers won't go anywhere in the playoffs unless Nash gets hot again.

What they're looking for: GM Glen Sather has to decide whether to trade or sign his two pending unrestricted free agents, defenseman Dan Girardi and forward/captain Ryan Callahan. There's not a lot of salary-cap room to bring in a big scorer.

Scheduling: Beginning March 11, the Rangers play 10 of 13 games away from Madison Square Garden, including a four-game swing through Western Canada and Colorado. New York leads the Eastern Conference with 18 road wins.

Outlook: The Rangers have overcome a terrible start to move into second in the division. They won't catch the Penguins but should be good enough to grab one of the two remaining automatic playoff berths.

PHI Philadelphia Flyers (30-23-6)

Position: 3rd in division, 7th in conference

Games remaining: 23 (14 home, 9 away)

What went right: The Flyers have responded to coach Craig Berube, who got the job when Peter Laviolette was fired after an 0-3-0 start. Goalie Steve Mason has, for the most part, plugged the longstanding hole in the net. After an awful start, captain Claude Giroux reached the break with 57 points, 11th in the League scoring race. The Flyers have no 20-goal scorers, but six players have at least 15. The power play and penalty kill are in the top 10.

Where they've struggled: The defense generates points but has difficulty in its zone; the Flyers allow 30.4 shots per game. Free-agent signee Vincent Lecavalier has 12 goals and is a team-worst minus-15. The power play is effective (19.6 percent) but sloppy. Only the Edmonton Oilers have allowed more than Philadelphia's nine shorthanded goals.

What they're looking for: A mobile defenseman would help, though salary cap room is tight.

Scheduling: The Flyers have one road trip longer than one game but might face the toughest schedule in the NHL in terms of caliber of opponent. Philadelphia's final 23 games include three against Pittsburgh and two against the Boston Bruins, the top two teams in the East. They also play twice against the St. Louis Blues, the top team in the Central Division.

Outlook: The Flyers have overcome an awful start to reach the break in possession of a playoff berth. But with 10 games against the top eight teams in the overall standings, keeping that berth won't be easy.

CBJ Columbus Blue Jackets (29-24-5)

Position: 4th in division, 9th in conference

Games remaining: 24 (12 home, 12 away)

What went right: Forward Ryan Johansen showed why the Blue Jackets made him the fourth player taken in the 2010 NHL Draft by blossoming into their scoring leader with 24 goals and 46 points. After a slow start, Sergei Bobrovsky has been playing like the goaltender who won the Vezina Trophy last season. Free-agent signee Nathan Horton has provided an offensive and leadership boost since his arrival after rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

Where they've struggled: Forward Marian Gaborik didn't do a lot offensively before going down with a broken collarbone; his return could be a big boost. The defense is allowing 30.8 shots per game, making life tough for Bobrovsky and backup Curtis McElhinney.

What they're looking for: The big question is when will Gaborik be ready to play and should the Blue Jackets keep him or trade him. He's at the end of his contract, so the return in a potential trade might not be much more than a second-round draft pick. On the other hand, if he's healthy he could provide a shot in the arm offensively.

Scheduling: There are no more long road trips, and the Blue Jackets have a chance to pile up points at home during a stretch in late March and early April when they play six of eight games at Nationwide Arena.

Outlook: The Blue Jackets need to show consistency if they hope to make the playoffs for the second time. Bobrovsky has to play up to his Vezina form.

WSH Washington Capitals (27-23-9)

Position: 5th in division, 11th in conference

Games remaining: 23 (10 home, 13 away)

What went right: Forward Alex Ovechkin has eliminated any doubts that he's still among the NHL's elite. His 40 goals are nine more than anyone else in the League. Center Nicklas Backstrom (45 assists) remains among the League's best playmakers. Forward Joel Ward (17 goals) is having a career year. The power play is fifth in the NHL at 21.7 percent.

Where they've struggled: Washington allows 33.3 shots per game, more than all but three teams. None of the three goaltenders used by coach Adam Oates has grabbed the No. 1 job, and Braden Holtby has regressed. The Capitals depend too much on Ovechkin and Backstrom to generate offense. Ovechkin's 40 goals are balanced by his team-worse minus-17 rating.

What they're looking for: The Capitals need secondary scoring and someone to take charge in the crease. They could offer one of their three young goaltenders if they decide to make a push for Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres.

Scheduling: The Capitals have 13 of 21 games after the break on the road before playing their final two at home. They make two trips to Boston in the first week after play resumes and have a three-game swing through California in mid-March, plus a home-and-home with Pittsburgh, a trip to St. Louis and home games against Boston and Chicago.

Outlook: Washington has the talent to overcome the three-point deficit that separates them from a playoff berth. But the goaltending and play away from the puck will have to improve for that to happen, and the schedule doesn't help.

CAR Carolina Hurricanes (26-22-9)

Position: 6th in division, 12th in conference

Games remaining: 25 (9 home, 16 away)

What went right: Forward Jeff Skinner rebounded from an early injury and has 23 goals in 46 games. Defenseman Andrej Sekera is having a career year (nine goals, 32 points). Goalie Anton Khudobin, signed as a free agent last summer to back up Cam Ward, has been so good he's taken over the No. 1 job after returning from injury.

Where they've struggled: Ward wasn't having a good season when he was healthy; he's now a backup. Captain Eric Staal leads the team in scoring with 45 points but had a slow start and is minus-7. Forward Alexander Semin has 14 goals, with eight in the past 11 games after he scored six in his first 34. Forward Jiri Tlusty, a 23-goal scorer in 48 games last season, has nine goals in 49 games.

What they're looking for: Carolina added some mobility on the blue line last month by getting John-Michael Liles from the Toronto Maple Leafs. GM Jim Rutherford has to decide whether to be a buyer or seller; he can do either.

Scheduling: Carolina resumes play with a five-game trip that includes three in California. The Hurricanes have plenty of games against the teams they're chasing in the playoff race, including three against the Rangers, two against the Blue Jackets and one each against the Flyers, Capitals, Red Wings and Senators.

Outlook: The Hurricanes are hovering near a playoff spot as they try to end a postseason drought that dates to 2008-09. They have games in hand on everyone they're battling, though most are on the road.

NJD New Jersey Devils (24-22-13)

Position: 7th in division, 13th in conference

Games remaining: 23 (14 home, 9 away)

What went right: Goaltender Cory Schneider justified the draft-day deal that brought him from the Vancouver Canucks and has moved past Martin Brodeur as the starter in goal. Forward Jaromir Jagr leads the team with 17 goals, 49 points and a plus-21 rating. Coach Peter DeBoer's system has helped the Devils lead the NHL in fewest shots allowed (25.4 per game) and penalty-killing (87.4 percent).

Where they've struggled: New Jersey is among the NHL's lowest-scoring teams with 135 non-shootout goals). The Devils are last in shots on goal per game (26.1) and next-to-last in power-play opportunities (174). The shootout, a franchise strength in the past, has become a nightmare: New Jersey is 0-8 and has scored once in 25 attempts. Forward Ryane Clowe, the team's biggest free-agent signing, missed time with a concussion and has three goals and 13 points in 27 games.

What they're looking for: For the Devils to make a run at a playoff berth, general manager Lou Lamoriello will have to find some more offense. DeBoer will have to make Brodeur comfortable in a backup role after two decades as the starter.

Scheduling: Of the 23 games left, 12 come in six sets of back-to-backs.

Outlook: The wasted points from the shootout losses could wind up costing the Devils a playoff berth unless they can find a way to score a few more goals.

NYI New York Islanders (22-30-8)

Position: 8th in division, 14th in conference

Games remaining: 22 (11 home, 11 away)

What went right: Forward Kyle Okposo is having a breakout season and ranks eighth in the NHL with 59 points. Thomas Vanek was an excellent fit on the top line with Okposo and John Tavares after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres. Forward Frans Nielsen has a career-high 18 goals and remains a shootout star, though he sustained a broken hand in the final game before the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The Islanders lead the NHL with eight wins in games they trailed by two goals.

Where they've struggled: The worst news came from the Olympics, where Tavares, the Islanders' captain and leading scorer, sustained a season-ending knee injury. The defense and goaltending have allowed a League-worst 200 goals. Starting goaltender Evgeni Nabokov (2.74 goals-against average, .908 save percentage) has been below League-average; rookies Kevin Poulin (3.29 GAA, .891 save percentage) and Anders Nilsson (3.48 GAA, .877 save percentage) haven't picked up the slack during Nabokov's absences from injury. The Islanders are last in the NHL with eight home wins and have lost a League-high nine times when leading by two or more goals.

What they're looking for: Pending unrestricted free agents Vanek and defenseman Andrew MacDonald have turned down contract extensions and are likely to be traded. The Islanders will want a package of picks and young players for Vanek, the top available scorer. MacDonald, a minutes-eater and shot-blocker, will likely bring draft picks.

Scheduling: The Islanders play their first three games after the break at home, followed by a four-game Canadian road trip. They end the season with three games on the road.

Outlook: No team in the shootout era has overcome a 12-point deficit this late in the season and made the playoffs, and any hopes the Islanders might have had of becoming the first vanished when Tavares was hurt. Prospects, including 2011 first-round pick Ryan Strome, figure to get a chance to show what they can do.

Quote of the Day

I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.

— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic