3. The Race for First Place in the East Division
At the end of Thursday night’s action, there are now three teams with 50 points sitting atop the MassMutual NHL East Division. They are the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, and Pittsburgh Penguins, and they’ve done a pretty good job of separating themselves from the field over the last two months.
Of course, there can only be one division winner at season’s end, and that has serious implications for home-ice advantage in the playoffs. The Capitals, with a 10-5-2 away record, probably won’t be as negatively impacted by playing more often on the road than the Islanders or Penguins.
The Isles and Pens are 9-9-2 and 8-8-1 on the road this season, which are pretty sub-optimal away records for two teams fighting for the top of a division. They would both obviously like to secure home ice for at least one round of the playoffs, if not both.
The East is a tight race at the top, and in that sense, it isn’t unlike the other NHL divisions. The Central also features three teams with at least 50 points, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Flordia Panthers, and Carolina Hurricanes. But none of those Central teams have such polar opposite home and away records as the Islanders and Penguins do.
New York and Pittsburgh won’t meet again this regular season, and so will have to battle for points and hope for some help from other intradivision rivals to secure the top seed. However, they do both have games remaining against Washington.
Here the remaining schedules by opponent for each of the three East Division leaders:
WSH – 2 vs NJD (0H, 2A) // 4 vs NYI (1H, 3A) // 4 vs BOS (2H, 2A) // 2 vs BUF (1H, 1A) // 4 vs PHI (3H, 1A) // 2 vs PIT (2H, 0A) // 2 vs NYR (0H, 2A)
NYI – 3 vs PHI (2H, 1A) // 4 vs WSH (3H, 1A) // 5 vs NYR (4H, 1A) // 3 vs BOS (0H, 3A) // 2 vs BUF (0H, 2A) // 2 vs NJD (2H, 0A)
PIT – 3 vs BOS (2H, 1A) // 2 vs NYR (0H, 2A) // 5 vs NJD (3H, 2A) // 3 vs PHI (1H, 2A) // 4 vs BUF (2H,2A) // 2 vs WSH (0H, 2A)
Now, with four games vs Washington three games vs Boston, (on the road no less), and five games vs the Rangers remaining, the Islanders don’t have an incredibly easy schedule down the stretch. The benefit to their schedule is that the majority of the games will be played at old Fort Neverlose, where they have only lost once in regulation during 2020-21.
Obviously, without games remaining vs Pittsburgh, the Isles will need to hope for some help from the likes of New Jersey and Buffalo to swindle some points away from the Penguins. The Rangers and Philadelphia could also benefit the Islanders by beating Pittsburgh at their home rinks since, as we’ve discussed, the Penguins are also not a good road team.
With Washington, the Islanders gameplan is much simpler. They have four games remaining vs the Caps, and three of those are on home ice. Of course, it would also be nice if Boston and Philadelphia would help out, considering they each have four games left on the slate vs the Capitals.
The race for the East Division crown is only just beginning to heat up. The Islanders should be gunning for first and home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of this year’s unique playoff setup, but the Capitals and Penguins will be doing the same. With head-to-head matchups remaining on the schedule, it should be a very interesting month-plus of East Division hockey.