This will be the third standings system or alignment the NHL has used in the past decade. But no matter how they shake out the teams or decide how they get into the playoffs, it’s a safe bet that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will be at the top. Part of that is the NHL basically went to the divisional format in 2014, to engineer more Capitals-Penguins playoff series, and they got three of them in a row.
But here we are in the pandemic/emergency look, and wouldn’t you know it, the colors at the top of the East remain black, gold, red, and blue.
Over the weekend, the Pens ascended to the top spot with back-to-back wins over the Devils and Bruins, which made them 8-1-1 in their last 10. Sidney Crosby is over a point-per-game again, Jake Guentzel is scoring at a 35-goal pace, and Bryan Rust is continuing the unconscious pace he was on last year with 20 goals in 49 games this year.
So do we need to get ready for more shots of the Penguins cruising down the Boulevard of Allies come July? Well, maybe not. Pittsburgh has gotten to spend most of April playing the Devils (five times), the Sabres (twice), and the Rangers (twice). They’re 7-2-0 in those games, allowing them to float up through the East standings while the Islanders, Caps, and Bruins have gone a bit cold.
There’s nothing in the underlying numbers over the season to suggest that the Penguins are a ticking time bomb waiting to cause mayhem in the playoffs. But the Penguins usually aren’t, being just above water in both Corsi and expected-goals percentage, as they are this year. Where they make it count is that they generally finish more chances than they should, thanks to having two Hall of Fame centers, and they create goaltending out of thin air.
Perhaps that’s why the Penguins’ rivals are a tad nervous. Evgeni Malkin hasn’t played in over a month, just started skating again, and can emerge out of the same shadows that the Lightning have been keeping Nikita Kucherov in all season. Malkin was kinda butt, by his standards, before he went on the shelf, with just 24 points in 29 games and the first below-50 xG rating of his career. But there probably isn’t a player in the league who can just turn it on instantly quite like Malkin can.
It’s in net where the Pens have questions, specifically while on the penalty kill. The Pens have the fourth-best team save-percentage at even-strength, but the fifth-worst when shorthanded. Which shouldn’t be, because the Pens are top-10 in the league in expected goals against while shorthanded. The structure is good, it just keeps being undone by the goalies springing leaks when someone is in the box. And they’re one of the least penalized teams in the league. The Pens have turned the mail over to Tristan Jarry, and he has especially struggled on the kill.
With that, the Penguins are as likely as anyone to emerge from the East, if Malkin comes back healthy and particularly interested and Jarry can keep the roof from caving in whenever the Pens take a penalty, i.e. Kris Letang has his yearly playoff trip to the bonkers zoo.
The Caps did their work last month, when they also got to spend three weeks fattening up on the boiled carcasses of the Flyers, Devils, and Rangers, going 10-2-0 in that stretch. Alex Ovechkin piled up 11 goals in 14 March games, and is once again top-five in goal-scoring for the season. John Carlson continues to erupt points from the blue line, with 23 in his last 27 games.
But the Caps’ underlying numbers might be a little more worrying than the Pens’. They’re just about as middling, and the Caps have the best shooting-percentage in the league. While they certainly are rich with talented snipers like Ovechkin, TJ Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and others, bordering on 11 percent for a season teases a whoopie cushion sound approaching. They would be only the fourth team in the past decade to finish a season with a shooting percentage over 10 percent, and that includes this year’s Minnesota Wild. The previous two face-planted in the first round, including the 2019 Caps (and the 2013 Maple Leafs, which now appears in the Webster’s definition of “faceplant”).
The Caps also have far bigger questions in goal. Ilya Samsonov has been all sorts of iffy, and Vitek Vanecek failed to grab the job while Samsonov was hurt. Neither of these two have ever taken the net in a playoff series, and that can be a rough intro.
While the NHL is probably crossing all their fingers and toes hoping for another Caps-Pens series as NHL buildings continue to welcome more fans, it won’t be that simple. If things hold, both would have to navigate through either the Islanders or Bruins. Playing the Isles in the playoffs is somewhere around “root canal with a hung-over dentist” on the pleasant scale, and the Bruins have what is still the best line in hockey and now Taylor Hall playing for yet another contract.
But we always seem to find ourselves here, and the Caps and Penguins always seem to find each other. This is the way.