For a time, it appeared as though the Metropolitan Division was going to be the punching bag of the 2013-14 season. With the exception of the Pittsburgh Penguins -- who were doing well in a relative sense to the rest of the grouping -- the Metropolitan was a collection of some terrible hockey. Forecasting the playoff picture was an interesting exercise given that non-playoff teams in other divisions would challenge for the top spots in the Met.
But times have changed and the runt of the litter has changed with them. The formerly hapless clubs of the newly minted grouping have found their strides and have even broken into the wild card race. Here's a look at the Metropolitan Division's top four teams.
Considered the popular pick to take home the first Metropolitan Division championship, Pittsburgh stumbled out of the gate before jettisoning to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The road has been arduous, as the injury bug has been a factor and took Pascal Dupuis out of the equation just before Christmas.
But the most important component of the injury dynamic has been the health of captain Sidney Crosby, who appears to be on pace to add to his trophy case by season's end. Crosby enters competition on Monday with the league lead in points with 68, trails Joe Thornton by three assists for the lead in the helper category (43) and is third in goals with 25 (10 off the lead, currently held by Alex Ovechkin).
The biggest question mark for Pittsburgh is whether goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is going to be a factor during the playoffs. Fleury's struggles have been well documented and are going to be an issue until he proves they no longer are. With Tomas Vokoun's future an unknown variable -- but seemingly in doubt -- Fleury might enter this postseason without a safety net (backup Jeff Zatkoff has only appeared in 10 games this season). For now, the Penguins' plus-41 goal differential is a viable support system.
The Rangers closed the chapter on the John Tortorella era, which was consumed by tumult. However, the removal of Tortorella didn't make sailing any smoother, as the club limped out of the gate with an extended road trip to begin the season. To make matters worse, injuries piled up, goals were hard to come by and Henrik Lundqvist wasn't playing well.
Fast-forward to Monday and the Rangers have ridden a 7-2-1 span to the second spot in the Metropolitan Division. Brad Richards has amassed nine points in his last eight games, while Rick Nash has scored seven goals over the same time frame. Lundqvist has held opponents to two goals or fewer in six consecutive games and has allowed one even strength goal over his last four starts.
New York has a two-point lead over the Philadelphia Flyers for second place and has played two extra games.
The Flyers are a decisive organization and this was clearly on display when head coach Peter Laviolette was fired almost immediately after the season started. The club was a complete mess, with captain Claude Giroux receiving a considerable amount of criticism for a slow start in an Olympic year. The saving grace was the play of goaltender Steve Mason, who was the lone bright spot in the early goings of the year.
The Flyers have adjusted since then and revived an anemic offense with increased scoring throughout the lineup. The most recent addition to that effort has come from defenseman Andrej Meszaros, who began the year as a weight on the club's salary cap and trade bait for bags of pucks. Meszaros has battled a slew of injuries over the years and declined from his position as an offensively capable defenseman. However, Meszaros has accumulated three goals in his last two games, including a highlight reel tally.
Whether Philadelphia still views the pending unrestricted free agent as a piece to leverage via trade remains unclear, but his nine points over the last six games is certainly bringing in praise for Meszaros.
Coming off an impressive year, Columbus tied up goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and was active in free agency by acquiring forward Nathan Horton. However, the desired results were not immediately met and the Blue Jackets appeared to be back to their old ways.
Ah, the joys of sports!
The Blue Jackets have creeped back into the playoff picture aided by a 7-3-0 record in their last 10 games, which includes a six-game winning streak. Bobrovsky has been the goaltender in five of those six games and hasn't allowed more than three goals in a game since Nov. 27 (of course, he missed virtually all of December due to injury), which spans seven games.
Horton has been productive since his debut on Jan. 2, accumulating five points (two goals and three assists) in eight games. In addition, Cam Atkinson (six points) and James Wisniewski (five points) have been consistent contributors over the club's last five games.
Columbus enters competition on Monday as the second wild card team in the East, trailing the Toronto Maple Leafs by three points (Toronto has played two extra games) as well as Philadelphia in the Metropolitan (the Flyers have played one extra game).
More on the way?
The new playoff system allows for a maximum of five teams to earn playoff berths. It appeared as though the Atlantic Division was the only grouping in the East capable of accomplishing such a feat, but things have evened out and the Metropolitan Division has at least remained in the hunt.
The Washington Capitals are on the outside looking in, but have the same amount of points as Columbus, albeit with one extra game played. So, while the newest -- and lamest -- division name in hockey appeared to be as good as its namesake, the Metropolitan Division has turned things around. At least, for now.