Rather than suffering through a big Stanley Cup hangover, it was looking like the Washington Capitals would once again cruise to a Metropolitan Division title.
The defending champions will end Friday in first place, yet the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins are nipping at their heels. The Blue Jackets and idle Islanders make it a fascinating four-team race for three divisional playoff spots, with the odd team out slated to face tough competition for a wild card berth.
Friday was an eventful night in making the races tighter:
The Capitals managed a standings point, but lost to the surging Stars in overtime.
Somewhere, Stars CEO Jim Lites might be taking a lot of credit for “lighting a fire under the Stars.” Tyler Seguin‘s driving the bus lately, though, as he scored two goals (including the OT-winner) while fellow scapegoat Jamie Benn sat out that tight 2-1 OT win with an injury.
As a reminder of how steady Washington really has been, note that this is the Capitals’ first three-game losing streak of 2018-19.
Penguins win their eighth game in a row.
The Pens pasted the Jets 4-0 on Friday, extending their red-hot run. They also continued an odd trend, as the Jets’ losing streak in visits to Pittsburgh stretches back to their Atlanta Thrashers days.
The @penguins’ 18-game run is the longest such stretch against one opponent since the Ducks posted an NHL-best 25 consecutive wins against the Flames from April 4, 2004 – April 4, 2017. #NHLStats #WPGvsPIT pic.twitter.com/PKvDLWXAWo
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 5, 2019
The Blue Jackets fell 4-2 to the Islanders, pushing them to third place in the Metro.
If the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began today, Washington would retain the top seed, while Pittsburgh would hold home-ice advantage over Columbus. With the Islanders idle on Friday, you can see that there’s very little room to breathe in the top four:
1. Capitals: 24-12-4 for 52 points, 40 GP, 21 ROW
2. Penguins: 23-12-6 for 52 points, 41 GP, 22 ROW
3. Blue Jackets: 23-13-3 for 49 points, 40 GP, 23 ROW
4. Islanders: 22-13-4 for 48 points, 39 GP, 20 ROW
As part of a remarkable first season under Barry Trotz, the Isles are currently on a five-game winning streak of their own, and are even closer behind the top three teams in the Metro when you consider their game in hand on Washington and Columbus, and two games in hand over Pittsburgh.
The Islanders have also played only 18 home games versus 21 on the road, while the other three teams have either played an even number of home/away games or have played slightly more at home than on the road. That doesn’t amount to an enormous disparity, yet it could be relevant if things remain so claustrophobically close.
While stranger things have happened, it looks like nine teams will realistically joust for the East’s eight playoff positions, so the bubble races might be less interesting in 2018-19 than they have in wilder years.
(The trade deadline could also be more fun if a greater number of teams realize that they’re essentially out of the mix.)
The drama, then, could come from teams battling for the division title, home-ice advantage, or even the right to avoid the Lightning. It could end up being a lot of fun, even if the Capitals would probably prefer a more familiar leisurely stroll to another division title.