When NHL realignment placed the Washington Capitals in an eight-team division with their old Patrick Division rivals, it seemed to create a juggernaut stacked with some of the Eastern Conference’s most consistent postseason squads.
Roughly a quarter into the season, though, that couldn’t be further from reality as the new Metropolitan Division is firmly ensconced in mediocrity, with the Capitals one point from the top.
Five of the Metropolitan’s teams reside among the bottom nine in the NHL, with a combined goal differential of minus-32. The division’s collective record of 72-73-18 equates to a .497 point winning percentage, which over a full season amounts to about 82 points. Back in 2011-12 — the NHL’s last complete 82-game season — it took at least 92 points to reach the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and no team in the East had fewer than 78 points.
“It’s a little odd,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, one of many who expected more from this particular group of teams. “We didn’t see this happening, but it’s fine with us. We’ll take it. We’ve just got to worry about ourselves, and when it comes down to the final push, then we’ll start looking around.”
With their win Sunday over the St. Louis Blues, the Capitals briefly moved into first place in the Metropolitan. After Monday’s games, their 25 points would place them no higher than fifth in the other three divisions based on tiebreakers; they are 14th in the league overall.
But the Capitals don’t need to lead the NHL to reach the playoffs. They are guaranteed a playoff berth with a top-three finish in the Metropolitan, and they aren’t about to be picky about what they can’t control.
The Rangers’ struggles at the beginning of Alain Vigneault’s tenure as coach weren’t expected, nor was the Flyers’ 1-7 record to open the year and the firing of Peter Laviolette just three games into the season, nor the inability of the Islanders or Blue Jackets to build off their strong 2012-13 campaigns. But those teams have allowed Washington to overcome its own struggles and ascend the standings.
After starting 1-4-0, the Capitals have found their footing and gone 11-4-1 in their last 16 games heading into Wednesday’s battle for first place in the Metropolitan against the archrival Penguins. Pittsburgh was the only team in the division to start the year well but had lost four of five before beating Anaheim on Monday night to reclaim the division lead.
Rising through the ranks of a less-than-outstanding division is a familiar situation for Washington, which spent the previous 14 seasons in the often-abysmal Southeast Division. The Capitals captured seven division titles, including five of the last six, during their stay in the now-defunct division.
“We know that we could have done a lot better, but we’re happy with our game as of late, and we happen to be in a good spot,” defenseman John Carlson said. “There’s still a lot to work on, but we’re trending upwards, and for a team that starts out bad early in the season, that’s a good positive. Hopefully we can keep moving forward.”
Even though the Capitals have reached the postseason six consecutive times, their inability to advance past the second round has invited questions about whether they would benefit from being more battle-tested against tougher teams in the regular season. Last year, Washington went 15-2-1 to close out the regular season and capture the Southeast crown, but only six of those wins — and only three in regulation — came against opponents who went on to reach the playoffs. The Capitals were eliminated by the Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
As their play levels off this year, though, the Capitals are curious to see whether the rest of the division does the same. Even if the Metropolitan isn’t a daunting division in its inaugural season, things are too close for Washington to feel comfortable.
“The Rangers play a good style of hockey. The Islanders are fast and good. Pittsburgh is really good. We’ve been playing good lately, too,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “But I looked at the standings the other day, and we’re only six points out of sixth in our division as well. You play so many games against each other, it’s going to be a little bit mix and match going forward. Who knows if at the end of the season things will still be the same.”