Don’t look now hockey fans, but the Atlantic Division title race just got that much tighter. Heading into March, the high flying New York Rangers held a ten point lead over second place Pittsburgh and seemed a lock for the division title.
However, a mediocre performance by New York over the last two and a half weeks, coupled with an 11 game winning streak from Pittsburgh has thrown the question of the Atlantic Division champion up in the air. The Rangers (97 points) now have a three point lead on Pittsburgh, with the Penguins holding a game in hand.
Making things even more interesting, third place Philadelphia (92 points) has gone on a tear this month as well, putting themselves back into position to contend for the division title.
To put the proverbial cherry on top of this red hot race, the winner of the Atlantic Division will also secure the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, as the second place, Northeast Division leading Boston Bruins have 89 points.
It is no secret that the New York Rangers have been struggling this month. Injuries have been pestering some of their top players. Captain Ryan Callahan, along with top scoring defenseman Michael Del Zotto were both sidelined for several games each in the last couple of weeks. Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the best goalie in the league this year, missed two starts due to a bout with the flu.
A win against the New Jersey Devils at home on Monday night improved the Rangers record to 5-5-1 this month, and officially knocked the fourth place Devils out of contention for the division title. The win gave New York some breathing room and made them the first team in the East to clinch a playoff spot, but the battle for the division is far from over. The Rangers have a game each remaining against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, both coming in the last week of the season.
Beginning with a 2-0 victory over the Rangers on February 21st, Pittsburgh erupted with an 11 game win streak that was snapped with .9 seconds left in overtime against Philadelphia this Sunday. The Penguins have been the best team in the league over the last month, and have shown no signs of slowing down.
In fact, the team can only be fueled by the fact that Captain Sidney Crosby, arguably the best player in the world, returned from a concussion towards the tail end of their win streak in a 5-2 victory over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on March 15th.
The concussion was sustained by Crosby last year, and had kept him sidelined for all but ten games this season prior to his return against the Rangers. The fact that the Penguins put themselves in position to win the Eastern Conference without the help of the world’s best player only makes his return that much scarier for the rest of the teams in the East.
It seems as though for the last couple of months, everyone had written off the Philadelphia Flyers as legitimate contenders. The team had been coasting at a .500 pace since losing to the Rangers in the Winter Classic. Team captain and top defenseman Chris Pronger revealed that he would not play again this season after sustaining a concussion earlier in the year.
To top it all off for the Flyers, their decades long goaltending crisis was not solved by the nine year, $51 million contract given to goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov in the offseason. The enigmatic Russian goaltender was having an absolutely abysmal first year in a Flyers uniform, and backup Sergei Bobrovsky did not seem a viable alternative in net. Bryzgalov and the Broad Street Bullies (but mostly Bryzgalov) have turned their game around this month.
The Flyers are 8-1-1 in their last ten games, largely due to the heroics of Bryzgalov. He is 8-0-1 this month with a .960 save percentage, four shutouts, and a 1.20 GAA. His recent stretch of 249 minutes and 3 seconds without allowing a goal is the longest in Flyers history.
The emergence of Bryzgalov is equivalent to the return of Crosby for Pittsburgh. All season long, Philly has had an offense that can win a championship, but inconsistent goaltending has kept them from being serious contenders. If Bryzgalov continues his stellar play, the Flyers are instant cup contenders and have a very realistic shot of grabbing that top spot in the Atlantic Division.
When healthy, all three of these teams are among the most feared in the league. Pittsburgh and Philly are powered by two of the best offenses in the league, and Pittsburgh boasts two of the best players in the world in Sidney Crosby and likely MVP Evgeni Malkin.
The Rangers take pride in their defense and goaltending. Their defense is best in the East, and whatever gets past them will most likely not get past the top candidate for the Vezina Trophy, Henrik Lundqvist, in net.
Simply put, we hockey fans will love the brutal, hard fought battle for the Atlantic Division title that will take place between the three best teams in the East in the coming two weeks.