How did the Metropolitan Division become a hotly contested race?

The Washington Capitals recently edged back to the top of the Metropolitan Division, a position they hadn’t held for much of the season, thanks to two big factors.

First and most importantly, the Caps ended their six-game losing streak at the All-Star break and are 11-4-1 since then. While most of their regulation losses have been embarrassing — Columbus, Anaheim, and Buffalo? Yikes — you can’t say they haven’t beaten some good teams in there as well. This run includes wins over San Jose, Calgary, Toronto, and yes, the Islanders.

Look, in a league with the loser point, you can only make up ground if the team in front of you isn’t winning. And suddenly, the Isles are not. They’re 5-5-1 in the last 11, their most recent W being in the shootout, against Ottawa, after blowing a third-period lead. It pushed them back into a tie for first after a few days in second.

They’re getting outshot almost every night, and bleeding scoring chances in a way that is uncharacteristic of their previous approach. Add in players getting injured throughout the lineup, and it seems much of the luck they’ve experienced this season (mostly in the form of elite goaltending from non-elite goaltenders) is drying up. In this 11-game stretch, they’ve actually outscored the opponents, but they’ve only gotten a .918 save percentage, which is a bit down from their season total but it’s also sliding. It’s “just” .909 —above the league average but by no means where it was — in the last eight.

And suddenly, the Islanders’ cushy second-place spot in the Metro isn’t safe either, because just four points back are the ascendant Carolina Hurricanes, who haven’t lost consecutive games since mid-January are 14-3-2 since just before the All-Star break. They’ve been the shot-share darlings of the league this year with Rod Brind’Amour behind the bench and now that they’re getting reasonably good goaltending from Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek (.913 since New Year’s Eve), hey look at that, a team that outshoots its opponents by almost seven a night for the season is winning a lot more than it’s losing.

Add in the fact that the Pens are skulking around a point back of Carolina, five behind the Islanders and Caps the division lead, and wow, things are getting interesting.

Of course, New York is the team worth talking about the most in all this. When questions arose as to the legitimacy of their staying power, all their most ardent defenders said they succeeded because they put a premium on shot quality over shot quantity. Quality has dried up of late, with 5-on-5 trends over the last 15 games or so pushing down into the low-40-percent range even as goalscoring remains elevated. They’re 9-6-3 in the last 18, which is a more ordinary 95-point pace, but three of those wins weren’t in regulation.

Not since before Christmas have the Isles been outscored at full strength over a 10-game stretch, but if you ignore the emotional beatdown they put on the Leafs last week, they suddenly look extremely ordinary. Turns out you can’t bottle that vitriol. Apart from Toronto, the Islanders haven’t beaten a currently playoff team since edging the Wild on Feb. 10, and that’s the only other positive result against top competition since the break. And a number of non-playoff teams (Ottawa, Edmonton, Colorado, New Jersey, and Chicago) have all forced OT.

The special teams have dried up too: Only 12.5 percent on the power play since the game before the All-Star break, and only a slightly above-average 82 percent on the PK.

Washington is on the luck train a bit in its run: the Caps getting out-possessed, outshot, outchanced, but they’re scoring the majority of the goals. You can do that to some extent if you have a ton of talent, which the Caps obviously do, at every position. Unlike the Islanders, whose depth thins out fast no matter how much coaches think Val Filppula is a difference-maker in 2019.

As for the Hurricanes, as mentioned the goaltending thing has been sorted out by Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek of all people. Neither is a high-end goalie by any stretch of the imagination, but Mrazek is .929 since the start of February and McElhinney is .928 since the week before U.S. Thanksgiving.

But the biggest difference, it seems, is the addition of Nino Niederreiter: He’s played just 20 games since being traded in a steal of a deal for Victor Rask, but he has 9-10-19 in them with underlyings closer to 60 than 55. Since he came aboard, Carolina has wins in 14 of 20, and has scored 74 times on 648 shots (11.4 percent).

Maybe you say that’s unsustainably high for a whole team, which it definitely is, but one must also acknowledge that the 7.6 percent in the first 46 games of the season was unsustainably low. That they were a handful of games above .500 in that half-season stretch despite that low conversion rate is a testament to how good McElhinney has quietly been, quietly. Maybe start a Vezina or MVP campaign for him, I don’t know. I’ll sign the petition.

Point is: As much as this felt like a runaway for the Islanders even a few weeks ago, reality has caught up to results in a number of ways, and it’s likely to continue. The argument around the Islanders was never that they were bad, but rather that they weren’t THIS good.

And that’s what makes these final 16 games or so fascinating: Can Washington continue outperforming underwhelming underlyings? Can the Hurricanes keep all this up? Will the Islanders figure it out again? Can Pittsburgh — maybe a little too far back to make real noise for the division title — make real noise for the division title if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin go off? Can Columbus not-blow this?

The answer to all those questions could be yes, and boy, that’ll turn this into a dog fight.


Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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