The last time we got together for this little exercise, I wrote about just how close each team was in the Metropolitan Division. With just three points separating first place from seventh, it was a reasonable opinion at the time.
Now, two weeks later, we're starting to see some differentiation between the teams.
The key word: some.
Through Sunday's games, just five points separate first from sixth in the Metro, and seventh-place Carolina sits three points beyond that. So, things are starting to stretch out a bit, which is only natural during a season.
But it's really just a bit of separation. As you can see, there's exactly one point separating first place from second, second from third, all the way down to the sixth-place spot. And with teams having played anywhere from 25 to 28 games thus far, things are still rather tight.
And here's another point to watch: The division, believed to be the best in the league last year, is started to show signs of that strength again this year. I've always said that one must add up losses and shootout losses to determine teams over .500 (i.e., 13-11-4 isn't above .500 because that team really has 15 losses against 13 wins, but a team that's 15-11-3 is), and by that metric, six of the division's eight teams are now on the right side of the break-even mark.
In other words, the Metro, after a helter-skelter start, is now looking like the league many thought it would be. And that will require strong play from all of its teams in order to grab playoff spots.
So how do they rank this week?
1. Columbus Blue Jackets (17-9-1, 35 points): I think you have to keep the division leader at the top this week, and not just because it's the division leader. In addition to having the most points at the moment, the Blue Jackets also boast the league's best goal differential at plus-13, and the analytics still love what this team is doing 5-on-5.
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) December 3, 2017
But let's not say it's all sunshine and rainbows, either. The team has fallen to just 20th in the NHL in goal scoring at 2.81 goals per game, in large part because of a power play that, well, we all know it's not good. It's almost unsustainably bad, one might think, except we're nearing a whole year's worth of empirical data that the Jackets just have a bad power play. There's a lot of comfort to be found in the 5-on-5 numbers, but you can't just pretend special teams don't matter, and one has to wonder if the stress of covering up such a massive deficiency will ever come back to bite this team. But, for the time being, there are plenty of reasons to put the Jackets at the top of the heap, including the consistently fantastic play of Sergei Bobrovsky and the chemistry put together by the Panarin-Dubois-Anderson line.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (15-10-3, 33 points): Ugh, I'm just... what do you do with this team? It still feels like in so many ways the Pens aren't playing at the same level as past years, but you also still know this isn't a team you'd never want to play in a seven-game series. There are signs, though, the Penguins are starting to play a tighter game, and it's not just because of the team's four-game winning streak that has come even with starting goaltender Matt Murray out with a lower-body injury. At 5-on-5, the team is starting to create more shows while allowing fewer attempts, and the data tends to put the Pens firmly in the camp as one of the unluckiest in the league when it comes to the underlying numbers vs. the actual results. Pittsburgh is also scoring right now (what a surprise), with 19 goals in its four-game winning jaunt and Sidney Crosby in a five-game goal-scoring streak.
3. New York Islanders (15-8-2, 32 points): The Isles keep impressing, moving to five games over .500 and boasting the division's second best goal differential at plus-12. The team's November was simply scorching, with New York currently riding a streak of seven wins in the last nine games. A full five players topped the point-per-game mark in November, led by a 3-14-17 line by 2015 first-round pick and certified rookie of the year candidate Mathew Barzal. As a result, the Islanders' 3.72 goals per game is tops in the NHL. Who saw that coming in early October? Not me, but credit where credit is due. There are concerns, including the sixth-worst defense overall and sixth-worst PK in the NHL, but for now, New York is in a nice run of form.
4. New Jersey Devils (15-7-4, 34 points): Just one point behind Columbus with a game in hand, the Devils could very well be in first place in the division. And we're putting them fourth? It's a fair complaint, but we just like the teams above them a little better. Plus the team's goal differential is even at 80 for and against, and possession metrics tend to paint this team as exactly that – about average. At the same time, this is a squad that hasn't really hit a rough patch, with New Jersey rebounding from a Western Canada trip-inspired four-game losing streak in early November with a 6-3-2 mark since then. The biggest concern has to be scoring, as after Taylor Hall (13 points in 14 November games) and first overall pick Nico Hischier (11 points last month), the offense has to be a concern. Brian Gibbons, on pace for a 30-goal season, has to crash to earth at some point, and if he does so there's just not much scoring after that top duo.
5. Washington Capitals (15-11-1, 27 points): Don't look now but here come the Caps, and I'm not just saying that because they got the upper hand of the division leader on Saturday night. Since a 5-6-1 start, the Caps are 10-5-0, and the defense appears to have solidified nicely with Braden Holtby coming off a November in which he posted a 2.51 goals-against average. The possession numbers do not like this team and we've written about 10 times so far this year that its depth ain't what it used to be, but the top-end skill here continues to be solid. In November, the top five scorers were Kuznetsov, Oshie, Carlson, Ovechkin and Backstrom. So yes, this is still a team you can't write off.
6. New York Rangers (14-10-2, 30 points): In a division of hot teams, the Rangers are doing some pretty big things. After a 3-7-2 start, New York has won 11 of 14, and like the Caps, the Rangers are starting to do it with defense. In the month of November, King Henrik started to look like himself again, posting a 9-2-0 record with a 2.34 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. The analytics show this is a team that should be giving up more goals at 5-on-5 than it is scoring, and the late-November slate wasn't the most inspiring. But you have to give the Blueshirts credit for saving a season that seemed to be on the brink just 12 games in, and the Rangers have to be in the discussion among the teams who will be making a potential playoff run here.
7. Carolina Hurricanes (11-9-5, 27 points): The Hurricanes continue to be one of the NHL's most confounding teams, with the squad peppering opposing goalies and keeping shots going toward their own net a minimum. Yet the results aren't really coming for Carolina, which is in a 2-3-1 rut that includes a shootout loss to division foe Columbus and two spankings at the hands of the Rangers (which is another reason New York gets the nod ahead of Carolina here). One has to wonder what might happen if this squad gets rolling; Carolina hasn't won more than two games in a row all season. The special teams have also been largely disappointing, with Carolina 26th int he league in power play and 22nd in penalty killing. The signs are there that this could be a pretty dangerous team if it can just turn around one or two things, but you have to wonder if a) there's enough true talent on hand, and b) if the goaltending is good enough.
8. Philadelphia Flyers (8-11-7, 23 points): Well this has really gotten ugly rather quickly. The Flyers haven't won since Nov. 9, posting an 0-5-5 record in that span. Sure, things wouldn't look nearly as bad if the team hadn't lost all five of those overtime/shootout games (and seven in a row going back even earlier in the year), but even if you turn put the Flyers at .500 in such games, you'd still have a team entrenched in last place. Shot attempt numbers put the team much closer to average than the results would indicate, so this team isn't a pushover, but the sad fact might be it's too far gone to really make a run when you consider the team has won just eight of its first 26 games. Special teams have stunk – the combined power play and PK percentages are 93.2, not good – and the team is somehow 26th in the league in scoring despite three point-per-game players in Jake Voracek, Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. Problem is, there's just not much scoring beyond that, and it looks like a lost season is building on Broad Street.