Scanlan: Metro Division no longer a running joke

It used to be so easy to poke fun at the ‘Metropolitan’ Division.

Scanlan: Metro Division no longer a running joke
The Philadelphia Flyers scuffle with the New York Rangers during the first period of the NHL hockey game Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

It used to be so easy to poke fun at the NHL’s Metropolitan Division.

The name itself was hilarious. Metropolitan. Have you been to Raleigh, N.C., home of the Metro’s Carolina Hurricanes?

Raleigh was a metropolis only to denizens of Mayberry, RFD, the utopian southern town for the Andy Griffith Show.

Raleigh and Columbus belong in the Metro Division about as much as Ottawa should be in the Atlantic, given the Senators’ digs in the Nation’s Capital are roughly 500 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean.

Name aside, the Metro Division was tread upon early by hockey people because of horrific starts to the season by so many of its entries.

Owing in part to one of the world’s longest season-opening road trips, the New York Rangers languished out of the gate. Ditto for the nearby New Jersey Devils, 3-7-4 one month into the season. The Philadelphia Flyers were worse, with nine points off their first 14 games. The Columbus Blue Jackets were just one point better than Philly after the same number of games.

As far as the 2014 playoff picture was concerned, the widely held assumption was that the two wild card positions would both come from the Atlantic, where every team but Ottawa, Florida and Buffalo got out of the gate smartly.

By now you’ve heard that the top three clubs in each division qualify for the post season. After that, it’s the two best in the Eastern Conference, regardless of origin. Eight in total. Same deal out west.

A quick glance at your friendly neighbourhood agate page will tell you things have changed dramatically now that the NHL season is three-plus months old.

No one is laughing at the Metropolitan Division anymore, not when even the eighth-place Islanders had won four straight and were 8-2-0 heading into Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers. Suddenly, the Metro’s worst team, NYI, is 12 points superior to the Atlantic basement dwellers, the Buffalo Sabres.

No one is assuming — or shouldn’t be — that both wild card teams will come out of the Atlantic.

A combination of factors within both divisions has led the wild card races to become, well, wild. Unpredictable.

On both sides of the “Atlantic,” the cluster through the middle of the pack looks a bit like rush hour traffic: clogged, with no sign of clearing anytime soon.

How clogged? As the pucks dropped on Tuesday’s games, seven teams were separated by a total of three points in the standings, between 47 and 50 points.

The group included the Detroit Red Wings (50), Philadelphia Flyers (50) Toronto Maple Leafs (49), Ottawa Senators (48), Columbus Blue Jackets (48), New Jersey Devils (48) and Carolina Hurricanes (47).

Many of these them were in action Tuesday, so check them again Wednesday morning for the latest pattern.

Now, to the factors that have caused the logjam.

ATLANTIC

As usual, the Maple Leafs misled everyone with a 10-5-0 start to the season that had them in first place in the division after 15 games. Since, the Leafs have had a record of 12-15-5 — twelve wins in 32 games. Now that the playoff hunt begins in earnest, the Leafs are in turmoil, at odds with head coach Randy Carlyle’s grinding style of play. Some wonder if they wouldn’t be better off missing the playoffs to regroup in the off-season.

The Red Wings have also come back to the pack, with 20 victories in 46 games (with 10 loser points), a pale imitation of the Detroit clubs that racked up 22 straight playoff appearances in the tough Western Conference.

Weakness above has allowed a simmering Senators team to close the gap, but with Florida and Buffalo out of the picture at the moment, only Detroit, Toronto and Ottawa are in the mix behind the three division leaders — Boston, Tampa Bay and Montreal.

METROPOLITAN

It’s a different story in the Metro, thanks to a power surge by most of the teams that started the season badly. Lucky for them, the 48-game season was last year. In a regular 82-game schedule, teams like the Rangers, Flyers, Devils and Blue Jackets are rebounding after stumbling and bumbling through the month of October.

The Rangers were 3-7-0 after 10 games. Today they’re in a playoff position. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and power forward Rick Nash look more like their old selves again. Lundqvist, who struggled after signing a massive new contract, has given up a total of five goals in his past three starts. Nash, warming up to his Olympic selection, has four goals in his past four games.

The division itself is hot, for the most part. Over the past 10 games, the runaway Pittsburgh Penguins are 7-2-1, the Rangers 7-2-1, while the Flyers and Jackets are both 7-3.

With little more than 30 games remaining, make fun of the Metro Division at your peril.

Suddenly, it is the little division that could; could cause some trouble for teams like the Senators, Maple Leafs and Red Wings.

wscanlan@ottawacitizen.com
Twitter.com/HockeyScanner

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

What do you think? Leave a comment