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Metropolitan teams are streaking

Top five in division went 17-1-0 last week

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Coaches often say they want to win every game, so it's no surprise that was Barry Trotz's reaction when asked about the best way to approach the logjam of streaking teams at the top of the Metropolitan Division.

Following a week when the top five teams in the division went a combined 17-1-0, four points separate first place from fifth. Each of the five has won at least three consecutive games.

Trotz's Washington Capitals have won four in a row, including a 3-0 victory against the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday, but are in fifth place in the division and hold the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference at 17-7-3 (37 points).

The New York Rangers, who have won three straight after a 5-0 victory against the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, are 20-9-1, sit atop the division, and are tied with the Montreal Canadiens for first place in the League standings (41 points).

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Although the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have won five in a row, they're two points behind the Rangers at 18-7-3 (39 points).

The Philadelphia Flyers are 18-10-3 and also have 39 points after extending their winning streak to nine, the longest in the NHL this season, with a 1-0 overtime victory at the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.

Despite winning six in a row and going 7-0-1 in their past eight, the Columbus Blue Jackets are one point back of the Penguins and Flyers in fourth place at 17-5-4.

The number of games the teams have played has to even out, but it's understandable that Trotz said the best option at this point is to, "Win them all if you can."

Video: VAN@WSH: Ovechkin buries PPG from the circle

"I'd rather be collecting points now and getting yourself into position than trying to catch from behind," Trotz said.

Metropolitan Division teams hold five of the top seven spots in the League standings. So the Capitals, who ran away with the Presidents' Trophy last season when they had 56 wins and 120 points, know they have to keep pace.

They had a players-only meeting after their 4-3 overtime victory against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday. As Trotz noted, "Usually a meeting happens when you lose."

But that's the urgency the Capitals felt to clean up some parts of their game that had been inconsistent.

"You definitely can't have an extended losing streak. It's going to be really hard to get back into the picture," Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "If you have a bad 10 days when you only get a couple points, it's going to be tougher to catch all of them. … Those teams are really playing well too."

The other Metropolitan teams are feeling it too.

With the Rangers in a 4-5-1 funk following a 4-2 loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday, coach Alain Vigneault decided not to wait for No. 1 goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to play his way out of his early-season struggles and turned to red-hot backup Antti Raanta, citing a "need to win hockey games." In winning the past three, Raanta has allowed one goal total.

Video: NJD@NYR: Raanta stones Lappin's shot on the rush

"I love Hank, but I love the team more, and right now Antti is on top of his game," Vigneault said.

If the teams at the top of the division feel pressure to win every game, imagine how the bottom three feel. The best the Devils (30 points), Carolina Hurricanes (28 points) and Islanders (27 points) can hope for at this point is that they're within striking distance when some of the teams ahead of them eventually cool off.

Prior to a 6-2 loss to the Blue Jackets on Saturday, the Islanders were on a 5-0-1 surge but are one point farther from a playoff spot -- 10 points -- than they were before they began that run.

Video: NYI@CBJ: Johnson rips home slap shot for PPG

After their loss to the Rangers on Sunday, the Devils are seven points behind the Capitals for the second wild card. The Hurricanes are nine points back of the Capitals.

Another week like this past one, and the Devils, Hurricanes and Islanders might soon be thinking about next season, even with games in hand on the Rangers and Flyers.

"You don't want to fall too far behind," New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider said. "You see what happens when you're playing catch-up at the end of the year. It's really tough. Our division, some guys started slow, but I think we probably have the best division in hockey right now. Look at all the offense and all the goals being scored. It's impressive.

"We know there are great teams in our division, so we need to make sure that we keep pace with them and keep them in our sights, so this way when they do stumble, we can catch up and make some ground."

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The power at the top of the Metropolitan Division also impacts teams in the Atlantic Division. The top three teams in each division automatically qualify for the playoffs, but the two wild cards in each conference go to the top two teams in points after that regardless of division.

It appears right now that the Metropolitan Division might get both wild cards, with the slumping Tampa Bay Lightning (30 points), who entered the season as one of the Stanley Cup favorites, outside the top three in the Atlantic.

"It's just amazing the quality of the teams and the pace and how good our division is," Vigneault said. "Not taking anything away from the other divisions and the other conference, but the quality of the teams makes it great for the fans and makes it great for the teams, and you've got to be ready."

NHL.com staff writer Mike Morreale contributed to this story.

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