With the calendar turning to March, the race in the Metropolitan Division has heated right up. While both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have struggled recently, the Philadelphia Flyers have rattled off six straight victories, wedging themselves into second place with only four points separating the first-place Capitals and the third-ranked Penguins.
The battle for the top spot in the Metro will likely remain unsettled until the book is closed on the 2019-20 regular season as each team carries one common and crucial flaw: Goaltending.
For each of the division’s elite, major questions loom between the pipes. There’s still a month before the playoffs—when goaltending becomes the storyline—begin, but which squad is best equipped to figure it out heading into Round 1?
For a little while, it seemed like Ilya Samsonov was the answer to the Capitals’ ongoing struggles in net this season. However, after a solid month of January, the rookie netminder turned in a poor February, finishing with a .877 save percentage and an 0-4 record.
Washington’s crease has since been returned to Braden Holtby. Despite winning each of his past three starts, Holtby has allowed three goals or more in five straight appearances. His .898 SV% on the year doesn’t instill a whole lot of confidence, either.
The defense received a much-needed boost with the addition of Brenden Dillon before the NHL trade deadline, but given the choice of any defensive unit from the top-three teams in the Metro, Washington’s would be my last. John Carlson may be the favourite for the Norris Trophy, but outside of him and Dmitri Orlov, there’s not a whole lot to love about the group.
The pressure will be on the Capitals’ offense down the stretch and in the postseason to make up for an average defense and below-average play in net. I know Holtby stumbled his way into the 2018 postseason before guiding Washington to a Stanley Cup championship, and that could theoretically happen again—but I’m not expecting it to based on what we’ve regularly seen from Holtby over the past five-plus months.
If the Flyers only played games at the Wells Fargo Center, I’d have them billed as the Stanley Cup favourites.
At home, Carter Hart has backstopped his way to a record of 18-2-2 with a 1.67 goals-against-average and a .941 save percentage, while the team itself owns a 23-5-4 record. Absolutely absurd.
The unfortunate news is, that like everyone else, the club will have to play on the road, where the results have been quite the opposite.
Away from Philadelphia, the Flyers are allowing 3.81 goals per game with Hart between the pipes, with the young netminder’s SV% slipping to a putrid .857 on the road.
Consequently, his record falls to a meager 4-10-1. Additionally, he’s allowed three goals or more in five of his last seven road starts. The Flyers themselves are a mediocre 15-15-3 on the road.
What’s really helped Philly have success recently is the strong play of its defense. Since the beginning of February, the team has allowed the second-lowest total of shots on goal and the second-fewest amount of shot attempts.
Climbing to the top of the Metro Division, or at the very least finishing with home-ice advantage in Round 1, will be more important to the Flyers’ success than it will for the Capitals or the Penguins. Even then, it’ll be hard to trust a goalie in the playoffs that’s been as Jekyll and Hyde as Hart has this season.
The Penguins have flip-flopped for most of the campaign between Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray, but sooner rather than later, the team is going to have to commit to one.
I think the obvious answer is Jarry.
The NHL All-Star, outside of a poor month of January, has been stellar for the club this season, outperforming his expected save percentage by 10 points as his .924 mark currently ranks top-five in the league in all-situations save percentage.
While not an outstanding performance, Jarry rebounded from a poor January by allowing two goals or less in four of his six starts during February.
Even though the Penguins as a team feature an equally alarming home-road split as the Flyers (a 23-6-4 record at home vs. a 15-15-2 away record), Jarry hasn’t been bad away from PPG Paints Arena—posting a .915 SV% in 14 outings.
After a solid 2018-19 campaign, Murray has taken a clear step back this season. He owns a SV% of .899, sitting below his xSV% of .907. In his last six outings, the 25-year-old has limited opponents to two goals or less just twice.
Pittsburgh’s defense, while not playing as well as Philadelphia’s, has been good. Since the start of February, the club has allowed the eighth-fewest shot attempts and the seventh-lowest total of shots on goal. The emergence of John Marino and Marcus Pettersson has given the unit a solid second pairing.
Although they’ve dropped six of their past seven, I trust the Penguins and their situation in net the most of the three. Sure, the sudden emergence of Jarry and his mixed results lately may give some people pause, but there’s no doubting he’s been the best of a flawed bunch of netminders.
With that said, any of these goalies can catch lightning in a bottle at the right time, or maybe none of them will. The sheer unpredictability of the goaltending performances this season is what will make the Metropolitan Division the most intriguing from now through the first couple rounds of the NHL playoffs.
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